Wi-Fi Speaks Out
Convergence has largely been associated with communications networking technology, but now physical security networks are accelerating
- By Mance Harmon
- Jun 01, 2006
THE rate of convergence of information technology and physical security continues to accelerate. One point of this convergence has largely been communications networking technology. Many physical security networks have moved from proprietary protocols to open standard Ethernet and TCP/IP. This convergence has not yet happened in the realm of wireless networking. However, convergence to the wireless open standard -- WiFi -- already adopted worldwide by the IT industry, is inevitable.
As the role of the security professional changes, technology products and solutions also are evolving to meet changing user requirements. For users from all sectors of the industry, the future of physical security is wireless.
Wireless deployments do not require long wire runs. As a result, they can cost as little as one-third the price of comparable wired solutions. With significant labor and installation savings, most wireless networks can cover more geographic area and therefore more doors for the same cost of wired networks. Access control and video monitoring products, traditionally managed from a back office, can now be mobile and put in the hands of professionals in the field. It isn't difficult to convince security professionals that wireless products deliver mobility and cost advantages. However, for professionals who have looked into wireless solutions, the technology that is currently available is fraught with deployment and technical support challenges.
As budgets shrink and operations directors are tasked with more responsibility and smaller staffs, wireless security deployments offer a solid alternative. Wireless products have been available to the security market for some time, but results have been mixed at best. Conversations at ISC West were filled with stories of unreliable networks, technical support woes and false product promises.
However, it is important to note that until recently, the frustration, concern and skepticism has been justified. Voice and multimedia products, including IP-addressable CCTV systems, have been ahead of their time, as bandwidth and infrastructure technology has only recently caught up to the high-end requirements of wireless security products.
As more and more security directors, integrators and manufacturers educate themselves about the role of wireless in the security industry, they will discover two things: There is a big difference between proprietary wireless and open standard wireless; and the global business and IT communities have fully adopted and deployed a single open standard for enterprise wireless networking communications. This standard is called Wi-Fi.
The Future of Wireless Physical Security
Proprietary wireless networks and security products rely on individual companies to provide the research, development, software tools and technical support that guarantee a successful deployment. The manufacturer who builds the wireless security solution is also responsible for ensuring it is encrypted, technically supported and integrated with current access control and video monitoring solutions. Stories of failure have focused on problems related to the proprietary nature of the wireless networks. Until recently, one problem in the industry was that security professionals were not aware that there is a viable, proven alternative to proprietary wireless, and manufacturers have not provided security products that are compatible with WiFi.
IT technology professionals realized more than a decade ago that adopting an open standard for wireless communication would increase the number and quality of products available in the marketplace, would allow customers to mix and match these products as needed, and would drive down prices by encouraging vendor competition for their business. The 802.11 (Wi-Fi) standard was developed by the International Electrical and Electronics Engineers standards body to define the protocols that are now known as WiFi. Today, manufacturers build products based on the same blueprint. Consumers are not restricted to the use of technologies from a single vendor. Each manufacturer is still able to add his or her own features and benefits to address specific needs within the wireless supply chain, and an open standard, shared and adopted by all, guarantees hardware and software products are compatible and interoperable.
In most security-related deployments, WLANs provide network connectivity over an area of 100 meters between an access point and a network station such as a computer or hub. The various 802.11 standards, including 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g, are considered open standards because the protocols they are based upon are publicly available to manufacturers, integrators and technology professionals.
Since the standard was implemented globally, wireless technology products and services have grown spectacularly within the business and IT communities. Instead of high-cost and high-stress proprietary deployments, WiFi-based network deployments use off-the-shelf products, and technical support and software tools are available from dozens of vendors. Now, a Dell laptop or PDA works seamlessly with a Cisco router and Linksys access points to blanket acres of a university campus and accommodate thousands of users. And if for some reason the network goes down, network administrators can receive immediate on-site or remote technical support from their choice of hundreds of vendors.
Wi-Fi was coined by an industry trade group as part of its efforts to promote wireless interoperability. It became so popular that the trade group is now called the WiFi Alliance. Wireless interoperability is what makes your laptop work on any public WiFi "hotspot" rather than only on networks provided by the maker of your laptop. To ensure technology hardware and software applications conform to the WiFi protocol, the WiFi Alliance was created more than six years ago as a not-for-profit industry trade association with the mission of testing and certifying products as compatible with the 802.11 global wireless standard.
With more than 250 manufacturing members and 2,500 products certified worldwide, the WiFi Alliance has proven its value to Fortune 2000, government, transportation, healthcare and military institutions. The certification process for prospective WiFi products is carried out at 10 ISO-credited labs around the world. Last year, more than 120 million WiFi-certified products were shipped globally. According to Frank Hanzlik, the managing director for the WiFi Alliance, the number of WiFi products is expected to grow considerably to more than 400 million in the coming years.
In the world of IT network architecture, the 802.11 WiFi standard is a secure, reliable protocol that integrates a variety of applications, including data and physical security solutions. IT experts know that proprietary networks only use vendor-specific software and hardware, which increases the cost and decreases the flexibility and security of the network.
Building a Secure Wireless Network
Increasingly, IT departments set the standards and policies for all data communications within the enterprise. From the perspective of an IT professional, a proprietary system represents a security risk to the data network. "Security through obscurity" is a phrase referring to the belief that the best way to protect a system is to hide the details of how the security of the system works. The world of IT security takes the opposite approach. The security protocols in WiFi are not hidden, but rather they are purposely published so that the entire scientific community can evaluate the security of the protocols. The protocols are only considered secure if after careful, lengthy observation and analysis, they cannot be compromised. After years of review, today's WiFi encryption standards have not been broken and have proven themselves very reliable.
One of the most important features of the WiFi security protocol is encryption, or the ability to secure voice, data and video information traveling over the WiFi network. The protocol is known as WiFi protected access, or WPA, and more recently WPA2. Since WiFi is an open standard, manufacturers' products can be tested by WiFi certification laboratories to ensure compliance with WiFi security protocols. This process provides an objective measure of the security of the product. Since certification for proprietary networks is not possible, there is no objective measure of the security of these networks.
Additionally, the WiFi Alliance recommends that security directors use the WPA encryption standards because they are compliant with the Sarbanes-Oxley (SEC) and FIPS 140-2 (DOD) standards for data security and network integrity.
According to Anthony Bartolo, vice president and general manager of Symbol Technologies' Wireless Infrastructure Division, a worldwide leader in WiFi infrastructure sales, Sarbanes-Oxley compliance is one of the biggest advantages of WiFi. In the last few years, thousands of publicly-traded companies have migrated over to the WiFi standard to guarantee their data is fully encrypted and their networks are fully supported if they ever go down, which are the two main requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley.
A standard customer requirement in the security industry is network intrusion detection. Wireless network intrusion detection is a technology only available today for WiFi networks. Where encryption protects data being transmitted over the airwaves, a wireless intrusion detection system protects the network from attack. For example, IT professionals know the easiest way to disable a wireless network is to jam it. However, a wireless intrusion detection system not only detects the attack, it quickly directs security personnel to the physical location of the attackers.
Thousands of scientists and hundreds of companies around the world have solved the initial problems of wireless security with the WiFi standard. An entire industry of vendors now exists to provide the next generation of security for WiFi. No single vendor will ever be able to provide the same level of security for a proprietary network.
Security manufacturers wanting to sell into the wireless security space must be able to ensure both security directors and IT administrators that their product can be audited, supported and securely integrated into the existing network architecture. The simplest, most direct solution is to use the same networking technologies already adopted by IT.
Market adoption of WiFi is 100 percent among Fortune 2000 companies, and there are millions of WiFi users worldwide. To ensure long-term success, manufacturers must exploit this huge installed base of WiFi infrastructure. With an open wireless protocol from which to build, manufacturers can enter the wireless market by developing products and features that address their customers' specific needs without having to reinvent the wireless wheel. This shortens the development cycle and lowers the price point for prospective buyers.