Harmonizing Wireless and Wired Access Networks


A key trend in enterprise networks is the creation of two separate LANs: data center and access. Data center networks feature high-speed, low-latency, high-bandwidth fabrics designed to move large amounts of data between servers and storage platforms, while access networks are typically designed to provide ubiquitous access to a variety of devices while securing against unauthorized use and prioritizing latency-sensitive applications such as voice and video.

One of the key characteristics of access networks is that they increasingly combine both wired and wireless technology. Many IT professionals mistakenly think that means making wireless technology “as good as” the wired kind.

That mindset is outdated. The tables have now turned: It’s no longer about making wireless networks as good as wireless ones—it’s about bringing wired networks up to speed with wireless ones.

In our 2010/11 benchmark we noted that approximately 11% of companies had some users who were always unwired, typically laptop users relying on the WLAN as their primary means of accessing the enterprise network. Now, thanks to the growth of tablets and improved wireless speeds as a result of 802.11n, we expect the entirely unwired workplace to rapidly increase.

We see a change in thinking about WLANs. Initially, WLANS were perceived as (and were) far less reliable and secure than their wired counterparts. In fact, the first wireless encryption protocol, Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), was explicitly designed to make wireless LANs as secure as wired ones.

Most WLAN solutions are now equipped out of the box with features and capabilities like built-in encryption to the distribution layer, zero-configuration deployment, centralized control and policy management, network access control, traffic shaping, and QoS to the distribution layer. Wired LANs can of course be configured to support these capabilities—typically with “overlay” products and technologies--but they’re not inherent in the architecture.

WLANs incorporate these characteristics either as part of the standards, or as nonstandard but widespread implementations. Wired LANs support these characteristics via overlay technology. Specifically, WLANs provide encryption to the distribution layer via the 802.iii specification (part of WPA2, required for WiFi certification). Zero-configuration deployment and centralized policy management are implemented by most major wireless vendors. Network access control results from conformance with 802.1x, which is also part of WPA2). Centralized control results from the access-point/controller-based architecture of wireless networks, and traffic shaping, prioritization, and QoS are defined by the wireless multimedia (WMM) specification 802.11e, which is a required part of 802.11n.

The bottom line – wireless networks have now surpassed wireless with respect to integrated security, optimization, and configuration management. Enterprise network architects need to harmonize wireless and wired management to ensure a consistent set of capabilities across both networks.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.