Microsoft's recent addition of enhanced wireless security capabilities for Windows XP Service Pack 2 is being described by industry experts as a necessary move for the software maker.
The update to XP SP2, available as free download on Microsoft's Web site, adds support for the Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) wireless security standard.
WPA2, the second generation of WPA, was certified in September 2004. It is backward-compatible with WPA, and confirms that a computer's wireless software is compatible with the 802.11i wireless standard created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
Taranjeet Athwal, a wireless technologies program manager for Microsoft, said the incorporation of the standard into XP SP2 brings the wireless security capabilities of the operating system up to government standards. Government agencies require WPA2 security for wireless communications. Health care agencies have also given the green light on Wi-Fi with this security update, he said, because the industry tries to meet government technology standards.
"Wireless security has been a concern over the past few years," Athwal said. "I think this goes a long way to allaying those fears. As we work our way down to smaller organizations, wireless is here and folks can deploy it securely now."
Playing catch-up to Wi-Fi hardware
Some say software has lagged hardware in securing wireless networks.
"It's probably something that should have come out before now, but things do take time to develop," said C. Michael Disabato, senior analyst with the Burton Group, in Midvale, Utah. "The hardware has been available since the beginning of the year, and WPA2 is a key component of wireless LAN security. By not having the driver or supplicant ready, it has forced people to look elsewhere."
The move integrates the wireless software with Windows XP, offering tighter integration into the internals of the operating system and how it relates with Active Directory and other services, Disabato said. "It's a change into the log-on process for XP. It now will support the use of the radius servers to drive the key generation for WPA2."
Microsoft still has general security challenges, Disabato said, but the company has done what it can for wireless security. "They can't take it any place else," he said. "It's about as good as it's going to go. IEEE needs to take it [from here]."
On the Windows platform, only XP SP2 supports WPA2. Microsoft is considering whether to integrate WPA2 into its Windows CE and Windows Mobile 5.0 operating systems, but nothing has been decided, Athwal said.