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Deploying WLANs

WLAN security is one of the more important features of WLANs, and for good reason. The same security exposures exist on WLANs as for Ethernet LANs, plus WLANs are exposed to many more vulnerabilities than wired Ethernet LANs. For example, someone could park outside a building and pick up the WLAN signals from inside the building, reading the data. Therefore, all production WLAN deployments should include the currently best security options for that WLAN.

Although security is vitally important, the installation of a new WLAN should begin with just getting the WLAN working. As soon as a single wireless device is talking to an AP, security configuration can be added and tested. Following that same progression, this section examines the process of planning and implementing a WLAN, with no security enabled. The final major section of this chapter, "Wireless LAN Security," examines the concepts behind WLAN security.

Wireless LAN Implementation Checklist

The following basic checklist can help guide the installation of a new BSS WLAN:

  • Step 1 Verify that the existing wired network works, including DHCP services, VLANs, and Internet connectivity.
  • Step 2 Install the AP and configure/verify its connectivity to the wired network, including the AP's IP address, mask, and default gateway.
  • Step 3 Configure and verify the AP's wireless settings, including Service Set Identifier (SSID), but no security.
  • Step 4 Install and configure one wireless client (for example, a laptop), again with no security.
  • Step 5 Verify that the WLAN works from the laptop.
  • Step 6 Configure wireless security on the AP and client.
  • Step 7 Verify that the WLAN works again, in the presence of the security features.

This section examines the first five tasks. The last major section of this chapter discusses the concepts behind WLAN security but does not explain the large number of detailed options for configuring WLAN security.

Step 1: Verify the Existing Wired Network

Most of the other chapters in this book explain the details of how to understand, plan, design, and implement the switches and routers that create the rest of the network, so there is no need to repeat those details here. However, it can be helpful to consider a couple of items related to testing an existing wired network before connecting a new WLAN.

First, the Ethernet switch port to which the AP's Ethernet port connects typically is a switch access port, meaning that it is assigned to a particular VLAN. Also, in an ESS design with multiple APs, all the Ethernet switch ports to which the APs attach should be in the same VLAN. Figure 11-8 shows a typical ESS design for a WLAN, with the VLAN IDs listed.

Figure 11-8

Figure 11-8 ESS WLAN with All APs in Ethernet VLAN 2

To test the existing network, you could simply connect a laptop Ethernet NIC to the same Ethernet cable that will be used for the AP. If the laptop can acquire an IP address, mask, and other information using DHCP, and communicate with other hosts, the existing wired network is ready to accept the AP.

Step 2: Install and Configure the AP's Wired and IP Details

Just like an Ethernet switch, wireless APs operate at Layer 2 and do not need an IP address to perform their main functions. However, just as an Ethernet switch in an Enterprise network should have an IP address so that it can be easily managed, APs deployed in an Enterprise network should also have an IP address.

The IP configuration details on an AP are the same items needed on an Ethernet switch, as covered in the section "Configuring the Switch IP Address" in Chapter 9, "Ethernet Switch Configuration." In particular, the AP needs an IP address, subnet mask, default gateway IP address, and possibly the IP address of a DNS server.

The AP uses a straight-through Ethernet cable to connect to the LAN switch. Although any speed Ethernet interface works, when using the faster WLAN speeds, using a Fast Ethernet interface on a switch helps improve overall performance.

Step 3: Configure the AP's WLAN Details

Most of the time, WLAN APs can be installed with no configuration, and they work. For example, many homes have consumer-grade wireless APs installed, connected to a high-speed Internet connection. Often, the AP, router, and cable connection terminate in the same device, such as the Linksys Dual-Band Wireless A+G Broadband Router. (Linksys is a division of Cisco Systems that manufactures and distributes consumer networking devices.) Many people just buy these devices, plug in the power and the appropriate cables for the wired part of the connection, and leave the default WLAN settings, and the AP works.

Both consumer-grade and Enterprise-grade APs can be configured with a variety of parameters. The following list highlights some of the features mentioned earlier in this chapter that may need to be configured:

  • IEEE standard (a, b, g, or multiple)
  • Wireless channel
  • Service Set Identifier (SSID, a 32-character text identifier for the WLAN)
  • Transmit power

This chapter has already explained most of the concepts behind these four items, but the SSID is new. Each WLAN needs a unique name to identify the WLAN. Because a simple WLAN with a single AP is called a Basic Service Set (BSS), and a WLAN with multiple APs is called an Extended Service Set (ESS), the term for the identifier of a WLAN is the Service Set Identifier (SSID). The SSID is a 32-character ASCII text value. When you configure an ESS WLAN, each of the APs should be configured with the same SSID, which allows for roaming between APs, but inside the same WLAN.

Also note that many APs today support multiple WLAN standards. In some cases, they can support multiple standards on the same AP at the same time. However, these mixed-mode implementations, particularly with 802.11b/g in this same AP, tend to slow down the WLAN. In practice, deploying some 802.11g-only APs and some mixed-mode b/g APs in the same coverage area may provide better performance than using only APs configured in b/g mixed mode.

Step 4: Install and Configure One Wireless Client

A wireless client is any wireless device that associates with an AP to use a WLAN. To be a WLAN client, the device simply needs a WLAN NIC that supports the same WLAN standard as the AP. The NIC includes a radio, which can tune to the frequencies used by the supported WLAN standard(s), and an antenna. For example, laptop computer manufacturers typically integrate a WLAN NIC into every laptop, and you can then use a laptop to associate with an AP and send frames.

The AP has several required configuration settings, but the client may not need anything configured. Typically, clients by default do not have any security enabled. When the client starts working, it tries to discover all APs by listening on all frequency channels for the WLAN standards it supports by default. For example, if a client were using the WLAN shown in Figure 11-6, with three APs, each using a different channel, the client might actually discover all three APs. The client would then use the AP from which the client receives the strongest signal. Also, the client learns the SSID from the AP, again removing the need for any client configuration.

WLAN clients may use wireless NICs from a large number of vendors. To help ensure that the clients can work with Cisco APs, Cisco started the Cisco Compatible Extensions Program (CCX). This Cisco-sponsored program allows any WLAN manufacturer to send its products to a third-party testing lab, with the lab performing tests to see if the WLAN NIC works well with Cisco APs. Cisco estimates that 95 percent of the wireless NICs on the market have been certified through this program.

With Microsoft operating systems, the wireless NIC may not need to be configured because of the Microsoft Zero Configuration Utility (ZCF). This utility, part of the OS, allows the PC to automatically discover the SSIDs of all WLANs whose APs are within range on the NIC. The user can choose the SSID to connect to. Or the ZCF utility can automatically pick the AP with the strongest signal, thereby automatically connecting to a wireless LAN without the user's needing to configure anything.

Note that most NIC manufacturers also provide software that can control the NIC instead of the operating system's built-in tools such as Microsoft ZCF.

Step 5: Verify That the WLAN Works from the Client

The first step to verify proper operation of the first WLAN client is to check whether the client can access the same hosts used for testing in Step 1 of this installation process. (The laptop's wired Ethernet connection should be disconnected so that the laptop uses only its WLAN connection.) At this point, if the laptop can get a response from another host, such as by pinging or browsing a web page on a web server, the WLAN at least works.

If this test does not work, a wide variety of tasks could be performed. Some of the tasks relate to work that is often done in the planning stages, generally called a site survey. During a wireless site survey, engineers tour the site for a new WLAN, looking for good AP locations, transmitting and testing signal strength throughout the site. In that same line of thinking, if the new client cannot communicate, you might check the following:

  • Is the AP at the center of the area in which the clients reside?
  • Is the AP or client right next to a lot of metal?
  • Is the AP or client near a source of interference, such as a microwave oven or gaming system?
  • Is the AP's coverage area wide enough to reach the client?

In particular, you could take a laptop with a wireless card and, using the NIC's tools, walk around while looking at signal quality measurement. Most WLAN NIC software shows signal strength and quality, so by walking around the site with the laptop, you can gauge whether any dead spots exist and where clients should have no problems hearing from the AP.

Besides the site survey types of work, the following list notes a few other common problems with a new installation:

  • Check to make sure that the NIC and AP's radios are enabled. In particular, most laptops have a physical switch with which to enable or disable the radio, as well as a software setting to enable or disable the radio. This allows the laptop to save power (and extend the time before it must be plugged into a power outlet again). It also can cause users to fail to connect to an AP, just because the radio is turned off.
  • Check the AP to ensure that it has the latest firmware. AP firmware is the OS that runs in the AP.
  • Check the AP configuration—in particular, the channel configuration—to ensure that it does not use a channel that overlaps with other APs in the same location.

This completes the explanations of the first five steps of installing a simple wireless LAN. The final major section of this chapter examines WLAN security, which also completes the basic installation steps.

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