The long wait for 802.11i

Jen Hubley, Associate Editor
For the past year, at least, we've been hearing that 802.11i will be available in a few months. Like mañana, however, a few months from now never seems to come.

This isn't much of a surprise for those of us who follow emerging standards. The IEEE is better known for thoroughness than for speed, and in truth most wireless networking professionals would rather wait a bit longer and get a standard that addresses the weaknesses of WEP and improves on WPA. Our mobile security expert Kevin Beaver is

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currently predicting that 802.11i will arrive in mid-2004.

The question, of course, is what that will mean to companies currently running wireless LANs (or considering future implementations). Kevin cites several benefits to upgrading to 802.11i from WPA or WEP, including support for AES encryption, mandatory 128-bit encryption keys, and strong authentication via EAP, PEAP, and LEAP. On the downside, 802.11i will require some hardware upgrades.

Lisa Phifer, SearchMobileComputing.com's wireless expert, offers further caveats: "Even when 802.11i is completed, it will only address link-layer security -- that is, controlling access to the WLAN itself and preventing eavesdropping and modification of frames over the air. True network security requires much more -- you'll still need firewalls to separate the WLAN from wired networks, authentication servers to verify wireless client identity, intrusion detection systems to spot potential attacks, etc."

In other words, 802.11i may be a big improvement over existing standards, but it won't solve all our WLAN security woes, no matter when it arrives.

This was first published in March 2004

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