The no-AP AP

Farpoint Group –

Today's wireless LAN (WLAN) network infrastructure is constructed from access points (APs), each implemented as a distinct appliance. These are the bridges between the wireless side (primarily mobile computers equipped with Wi-Fi adapters) and the wired side (the rest of the network and IT infrastructure). In the past two years, we've seen an increasing emphasis on moving much (if not all) of the intelligence embodied in APs into elements closer to the core of the network. The best example here is the so-called switched (I prefer the term centralized) wireless LANs. In this model, APs are thin and may in fact be little more than a pure bridge: wireless on one side and wired on the other, all they do is allow mobile users to move data to and from the switch, which functions very much like an Ethernet switch in relation to the rest of the network. Note that WLAN switches also act as controllers, implementing security and other management functions centrally via a box that can also be physically secured.

We can, of course, argue back and forth as to whether more or less intelligence is a good thing in APs. Cisco is the most prominent proponent of fat APs, but is also moving significant functionality into the switch (quite literally into a Catalyst 6500 switch, in fact) and a related management appliance, the Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE). Cisco makes an excellent case for running components of their Internetwork Operating System (IOS) in the AP. I personally think, however, that future APs are likely to be very thin indeed, because we'll need to quite literally deploy millions of them over the next decade or so. These will be installed in both public-access and enterprise networks, and they'll need to be cheap in order to provide some assurance that their buyer's business plans will work.

This brings us to what might be called the ultimate thin AP - one where almost no new hardware is required. Such a creature is available today, in the form of a Soft AP that's little more than an application running on a PC. One still needs the wireless card, of course, but no additional hardware other than the PC is needed. The PC runs software that emulates an AP - hence the term Soft AP. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense, especially for residential users and ad-hoc, quick-and-dirty, on-the-road APs. Why use a separate AP for light-duty residential access? Many people are already using the Internet-connection-sharing and firewall features in Windows XP, so, indeed, why not? And who wants to carry yet another piece of equipment while on the road?

The cautionary note here is, of course, that even though Win XP is the best Windows yet, it's still Windows. It's already complex enough, and adding more complexity may not (read: usually doesn't) result in reliability. I cringe every time I install a new application on a production PC here at Farpoint Group, because I don't know if anything else will break as a result. We still recommend separate APs, routers, firewalls, and so on for enterprises because their functionality is relatively safe and secure when embodied in distinct appliances. More software on XP? It may not be the best choice.

On the other hand, commercial Soft APs are becoming available. Both Microsoft and Intel are believed to be working on products. PCTEL's Seque (pronounced segway) Soft AP will shortly be available to end users via the company's Web site; it's currently an OEM-only product. I've not yet tried it out, but the specs are impressive and the price is rumored to be around $30. I expect you'll find other Soft APs shortly, including some that are open source.

Which brings me to the potential threat that is represented by Soft APs. They'll make dandy hacker tools, suitable for spoofing known APs and capturing user traffic, along with all manner of other mischief. You can still protect yourself by using virtual private networks and mutual authentication with both APs and networks in general. Soft APs really represent no more of a threat than anything else in wireless, but they do remind us once again that eternal vigilance is indeed the price of mobility.

One other sort of Soft AP I might bring to your attention is a product I just saw at Networld+Interop in Las Vegas. It's a 4 in 1 client adapter from Quetec, an Asian manufacturer. It's available as a PC Card, PCI card, or Mini-PCI card that includes router, AP, and bridge functionality. I'm assuming all of this is done in software, but I've not used this product yet either. It's likely that Microsoft and Intel will eventually supply enough of the Soft AP and related functionality that no additional software will be required - all you'll need is essentially any wireless LAN client device, and you're off.

It's possible we'll even see Soft AP meshes, since this is a very natural and indeed obvious application for Soft APs. In this case, no WLAN infrastructure will be required at all - just set up the clients, and you're done. The clients are the infrastructure! So, while Soft APs are a novelty at present, they may very well represent the future of wireless LANs in a big way.

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