Wi-Fi's biggest fan

Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, has turned his love of wireless into the pursuit of safe, interoperable enterprise gear.

Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, once dreamed of being a veterinarian. But his dream withered during a few days of college fieldwork with a vet.

"I decided I needed a nice, clean desk job," says Eaton, who turned his undergraduate attention from animals to the arcane art of radio frequency engineering. Radio frequency must be his true calling after all - nearly 18 years later, he's still fiddling around with those radio waves.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Michigan State University in 1984, Eaton began working on radio frequency projects - mostly for classified government projects - at Harris Semiconductor. Most recently, he's worked on 802.11b radio chipsets at fabless semiconductor maker Globespan Virata.

"RF engineering is pretty complex stuff," Eaton says. "The tools today let you get in the ballpark [of solving a problem]. But beyond that, it's a lot of intuition and experience."

That blend of science and art, of technology and intuition, has served this 41-year-old well during his tenure with the Wi-Fi Alliance. The Alliance, founded in 1999, exists to test and certify interoperability of IEEE 802.11-based wireless LAN (WLAN), or Wi-Fi, products. Today it comprises more than 205 member companies.

A hands-on visionary

Eaton's involvement with the Wi-Fi Alliance started in May 2000, but it had nothing to do with either engineering or management. It was clerical: helping his boss, Alliance Co-Founder Jim Zyren, wade through the slew of Alliance invoices piling up on his desk. Both men at the time worked for Intersil, in the fabless semiconductor maker's group designing 802.11b radio chipsets. (Globespan Virata has since acquired that Intersil unit.) After sorting the invoices, Eaton offered to relieve Zyren of managing the Alliance's Web site.

When Zyren gave up his Alliance board seat in early 2001, Eaton seemed a logical choice to finish out his term. Eaton became the board's vice chair and technology committee chair in June 2001. Two months later, leading cryptographic experts threw the Wi-Fi industry into a tizzy when they published a paper detailing the weaknesses in the 802.11 encryption scheme, Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). By showing how WEP was weak, the paper clarified how it could be attacked, and a spate of attacks and attack tools began to appear. Eaton realized the Wi-Fi Alliance faced the possibility of certifying products that corporations would never buy.

"Prior to that, everything was at a theoretical level. That paper brought [the problems] to a practical level. It was pretty scary," he says.

Eaton, who took on the chair position in late 2001, played a critical role in finding a way to clean up the Wi-Fi security mess.

He built consensus among fellow board members, other Alliance members and engineers on the IEEE 802.11 committee regarding a technical solution to the problem - to take a subset of the WLAN security changes already being crafted in the IEEE 802.11i Task Group, and write and distribute software for these changes. This interim fix, dubbed Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), could be loaded into new and existing WLAN products, introducing features to rotate and change encryption keys frequently, and other changes to make WLANs more secure. A hands-on guy, Eaton "personally evaluated the security schemes in hand [for correcting the WEP weaknesses]," says Amer Hassan, a fellow board member.

Eaton also describes much of his work during this period as "a lot of hallway conversations." He says he enjoys informal talks; formal presentations are a bit more nerve-wracking, he admits.

Fellow W-Fi Alliance board members credit his technical expertise, a knack for neatly summarizing the pros and cons of an issue, an obvious commitment to put industry interests ahead of individual company interests and unflagging hard work for his ability to coalesce support under WPA.

"Dennis tends to integrate input with no bias from across different organizations and companies. And he is fair in making a judgment," says Hassan, a wireless architect at Microsoft and Wi-Fi Alliance marketing committee chair.

Bill Carney, Alliance vice chairman and director of marketing at Texas Instruments, paints a similar picture of Eaton as an industry visionary. "Dennis knows how to prioritize the issues facing the industry and makes sure the board understands them and addresses them in a timely and thorough manner," he says. "On issues where there are several possibilities, he often comes up with the pro/con for each scenario, which rounds out the board's discussion."

Getting out the word on Wi-Fi

Eaton, who in 1994 received his master's degree in business administration from University of Central Florida, also understands the value of good public relations. He's put an enormous amount of effort in "selling" users on WPA and convincing the public that Wi-Fi is safe, Hassan says.

Qualifications: 18 years in radio frequency engineering, plus an MBA.
Career goal: Stay involved with technology while moving into areas of wider business management responsibility.
Previous employment: WLAN marketing at Intersil; radio frequency engineering at Harris Semiconductor.

That amount of sustained effort takes a toll. "It's tough because Wi-Fi is a very dynamic industry and can consume the majority of my 'available bandwidth' at [some] points in time," Eaton says. Fortunately, Globespan Virata grants Eaton the time he needs as Alliance chairman, as Intersil did before it. "They understand that, ultimately, what I contribute to Wi-Fi is good for the industry, and that's important to them," he says.

It's probably not as important to his wife of 18 years, and their two children, a girl and a boy, ages 6 and 8. He lives and works in Melbourne, Fla. The former veterinarian student has a family dog (a boxer) and two lizards.

But really, the Eatons could be a poster family for "The Digital Home." The house has a half dozen computers, a wireless and wired network, wireless Tivo, and lots of video games where father and son do battle. In his spare time, Eaton jokes, he's a "sysadmin." Somehow, he finds time - "lots of it" - to go cycling.

And it's all so much cleaner than large-animal veterinarian work.

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