Wireless Networks: Letting Data Off the Leash

Go ahead, cut the cord—wireless network systems have some new tricks up their sleeves that make deploying and managing them simpler than before. But be very sure you’re secure.

For Greg McGovern, chief technology officer of Adventist Health, deploying a wireless network opened up a Pandora’s box. The problem? It’s been a victim of its own success.

The Roseville, Calif.-based health-care company, which operates 20 hospitals in four states, started installing wireless network access points in 2002 in some of its facilities. The original purpose was to let doctors and nurses access Cerner’s Millennium patient-care system from computers on carts that they can wheel into rooms. “We realized it wouldn’t work to have everyone running back to their PCs to enter patient data,” McGovern says.

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Soon, however, other uses for the wireless nets emerged. Doctors wanted to get e-mail on handheld Windows devices. Nurses asked for mobile phone sets that work over the wireless data network, so they could communicate with each other from anywhere in the building. Hospital CEOs wanted to give patients and their families wireless Internet access. And radiologists wanted to send X-ray images—which could be composed of up to 40 billion pieces of data—over the wireless network to doctors’ computer screens.

McGovern’s team put in separate security measures for each application, isolating them on virtual network segments so, for example, a visitor surfing the Internet can’t see the network used to access patients’ charts. But all the additional activity has started to strain the 11-megabit-per-second wireless network infrastructure, which is in place at nine of Adventist Health’s hospitals. “As soon as you put it up there,” says McGovern, “people test it to the limit.”

His team is looking at how to move to a newer wireless networking technology that’s five times faster. He’s even toying with the idea of outsourcing operation of publicly accessible wireless networks to a service provider like T-Mobile USA, which manages more than 5,600 hot spots at Starbucks coffee shops and other locations across the U.S.

“All of a sudden, we could use eight wireless networks,” he says. “We weren’t expecting everybody to hop onboard.”

What’s made life a little easier for McGovern and his staff is that Adventist Health is using a newer kind of wireless system from Symbol Technologies. In this setup, multiple “dumb” radios placed at regular intervals send and receive data, and a central switch coordinates and monitors their activities, like a queen bee surrounded by subservient drones. The system can automatically adjust signal strength, too, so if one radio goes down, the other units will compensate to provide uninterrupted coverage.

Other vendors, including Cisco Systems and 3Com, now offer such wireless switches, though it was a segment led by startups like Airespace (which Cisco bought earlier this year), Aruba Wireless Networks, Meru Networks and Trapeze Networks. Older wireless systems, by contrast, use standalone access points that don’t work together and must be configured individually.

In any event, the underlying radio-frequency transmission technology for wireless local area networks has been well standardized for several years. The lingua franca is a set of specifications from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers known as 802.11, which can send a data signal 75 to 100 feet indoors (and up to 1,000 feet in open areas) at varying speeds; marketing punsters have dubbed the technology “Wi-Fi.” Today, laptop computers with embedded Wi-Fi chips have become as commonplace as, well, wireless hot spots at the local Starbucks.

In many white-collar industries, wireless networks have been a “nice-to-have” productivity booster—letting employees scan e-mail while sitting in meetings, for example—but not an urgent business need. Beyond corporate offices, though, the bottom-line benefits of wireless data are sometimes much clearer.

Two years ago Greenball, a tire manufacturer and distributor based in Long Beach, Calif., didn’t have a formal process for tracking products at its six warehouses. About 3% of all orders were filled incorrectly, says Rene Schlegel, accounting manager and controller. “It’s expensive to ship 300 of the wrong tires to a customer,” he says. Worse, such screw-ups irritated customers.

The company installed a wireless inventory-tracking system, using bar-code scanners from Symbol, which tells shipping agents exactly where the tire they’re looking for is located in the warehouse. That’s cut misshipments to virtually nil, according to Schlegel.

But with Wi-Fi technology as ubiquitous as iPods, having the strongest possible security is critical to the success of a wireless deployment, says Mark Berkheimer, manager of information technology for Harrisburg International Airport. “The biggest issue we had on this project was convincing everyone, including the airlines, that our whole network was going to be secure,” he says.

The worry is well advised. One of the most common threats, which isn’t always easily detected, is the “rogue” access point, according to Kevin Harvey, practice manager of security technology for Forsythe Technology, a consulting firm in Skokie, Ill. “Someone can spend 50 bucks on a wireless access point, plug it into the network and essentially bypass all your security,” he says.

Here, again, new wireless switches can help. The systems can monitor the airspace around an established wireless network, and automatically set off alarms if they see an unauthorized access attempt—some guy in the parking lot with a high-gain antenna, for example.

The wireless switch from 3Com can draw a map and display the location of an uninvited guest within 10 feet, says Michael Baker, director of information systems at Underwood-Memorial Hospital in Woodbury, N.J. Since he’s in the middle of a residential neighborhood, the central point of control is reassuring. As Baker puts it: “I don’t want to have to say to a patient, ‘Oops, Johnny across the street got into our network.'”


What It Is: Systems that transmit data between laptop computers (or other portable devices) and wired local area networks, using high- frequency radio waves.

Key Players*: Cisco Systems, D-Link, Enterasys Networks, Extreme Networks, Foundry Networks, Nortel Networks, Proxim, Symbol Technologies, 3Com

Market Size: $2.8 billion worldwide, 2004 (Infonetics Research)

What’s Happening: Wireless switches, which control and coordinate multiple “dumb” access points, are beginning to supplant standalone access points. Sending voice over wireless local area networks is also becoming more common.

Expertise Online: Wi-Fi Planet.com provides wireless networking news, reviews, tutorials and discussion forums.

* Companies italicized are featured in dossiers this month.