November 21, 2002, 3:28 PM — What began as a fun gizmo for U.S. computer buffs has become the world's fastest growing wireless data technology. WiFi, or Wireless Fidelity, is a wireless LAN standard that IT managers can no longer afford to ignore.
Islands of wireless broadband connectivity, called hotspots, are sprouting up in airport lounges, conference centers, hotels and other public areas around the world, delivering Internet access at speeds corporate road warriors would kill for.
Problem is, the technology is not without its risks, especially for businesses like banks and insurance companies with stringent network security requirements.
The solution could already be on many enterprises' front step: VPN (virtual private networking). But implementing the technology over a network of mobile users will require some effort and commitment.
While much work has been done to improve WiFi security in recent months, the most advanced security technology in the world is worthless if users aren't forced to use it. That means IT managers -- whether they want to or not -- need to get a handle on WiFi technology and craft a strategy that prevents security breaches before they happen.
"It's a bit of a Catch 22 situation," said Andy Rolfe, an analyst at the London office of Gartner Inc. "Even if many businesses don't feel ready for wireless LAN technology just yet and prefer to ignore it, they run the risk of their department managers or employees at home buying and installing rogue WLAN equipment and creating security problems because they're not taking control."
While some companies are rushing to embrace WiFi, others are showing greater reserve. The speed at which they're moving, it appears, depends in part on how comfortable they feel about their present level of network security.
Enterprises that have acquired expertise with VPN (virtual private network) technology appear to be less worried about remote access security than those without, according to Rolfe. Using VPN, companies can build "tunnels" over the public Internet to give remote workers secure access to their intranets.
"Security isn't an issue for companies that have gone through the pain of mastering VPN dial-up service," Rolfe said. "It is an issue, however, for companies without VPN experience that aim to rely on WiFi encryption technology."
Not that WiFi equipment is totally insecure. On the contrary, major manufacturers of wireless networking products have taken huge steps to shore up security gaps in WiFi technology. Most recently, as members of the Wi-Fi Alliance, they have thrown their support behind a new standard, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), which will replace the flawed WEP (wired equivalent privacy) protocol.