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Wireless Propagator: When Wi-Fi Clients Meet Infrastructure

If you follow this column regularly you know that I don't cover the software aspect of wireless and mobility very often, but recently when user posted a question about managing client Wi-Fi profiles in a listserv I follow I thought that perhaps some enterprise wireless IT managers and admins might benefit from some of the responses that were posted in regards to that question and in previous threads.
Operating a network with a large user base is no small feat, and adding in the wireless component has not made it any easier. This time around I'm not talking about the WLAN infrastructure from vendors such as Aruba, Cisco, and Trapeze, but about all the wireless laptops used by your executives, sales team, and support staff. For some organizations, such as Nokia deployments are even more pervasive: laptops for everyone. Hopefully these devices were properly procured and provisioned such that they're set up the way they need to be. But if a laptop is half way in its three-year lifecycle you may need to push out a configuration to that machine that wasn't part of the initial build. If you have a centralized networking group or can synchronize configuration policies with line-of-business or departmental computing groups there's the chance that you may be able to push out a setting out system wide. But if desktop support is de-centralized you might be out of luck. There's also that unique animal, the community college or state university, which needs to support the diverse computing hardware brought in by students each semester or quarter.

Some organizations have standardized on a wireless supplicant such as those by Juniper (which purchased Funk Software) and Cisco (which purchased Meetinghouse). These have an enterprise management component, but many times replicates what the wireless card's utility/driver already does or what Windows supports natively, making the extra cost hard to swallow.

Even though Microsoft's Wireless Zero Configuration has made it easier than ever for a user to sign on to a wireless network, your wireless network's unique security settings might require check marking a few extra boxes, something that might too easily stymie your users and throw your help desk into a tizzy. The obvious answer is configuration automation and fortunately there are a few tools to help.

If you're a Microsoft shop, which many are, group policies are the key. Microsoft provides excellent group policy support in Windows 2003, which is very well described in this document. Settings include network authentication type (Shared, WPA, or WPA-PSK), encryption (Disabled, WEP, TKIP, or AES), and details about 802.1X configuration. Not running any Windows 2003 Server? Sorry, can't use group policies to apply wireless settings.

So for those that don't have Windows 2003 Server, have a Linux or Novell shop, or perhaps no NOS at all, there are a few options. A Novell partner, Expert Networking Group Limited (ENGL), based in the UK, has a freeware utility called "Zwlancfg". Introduced back in August of 2005, this command-line based program can be run from the logon script or distributed in a batch file. It works on only Windows XP SP2 computers, and can set all the values that Microsoft's group policy does including WEP keys, although that 'security' standard can't be recommended to the enterprise. More information on the program can be found here.

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