Buyer's Guide: Enterprise Wireless Routers

Wi-fi for an enterprise takes a high grade of equipment. Compare these vendors' offerings.

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Wireless networks are ubiquitous, but an enterprise environment demands much more than the simple wireless routers used on home networks. An enterprise-class router needs better security, better performance, and more features than lesser routers. Most importantly, however, an enterprise wireless router needs to be able to manage the keys used to access it.

Watch Your Standards
Wireless standards have stabilized substantially in recent years. The older 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g standards are well accepted. While you still need to make sure that the hardware in your router and the hardware you're going to use to connect wirelessly support the same standards, the odds are good that if you're OK with the speeds these standards provide, you're not going to have to worry about what will and won't work on your network.

The 802.11n standard, however, raises more questions. 802.11n equipment provides much faster data transfer than the older standards, but often with a higher price. The standard—which technically hasn't been approved yet—is becoming very common, however, and if you plan on having your router in place for years, 802.11n should probably be a priority.

802.11n is, in theory, capable of speeds over 10 times as fast as the slower standards. You're highly unlikely to see such huge speed boosts in the real world, but the speed increase is still substantial. Your users might be expecting the higher speeds 802.11n offers, because even consumer-level equipment is increasingly supporting 802.11n.

Note that in some cases, using different standards at the same time can hurt your network's performance. If blazing-fast performance is your number one priority for your wireless network, only allow 802.11n connections.

A wireless network creates security problems that wired networks don't have to face. Potential attackers can sit outside of your building, point an antenna, and potentially access everything you've got. It's well known in security circles that some attempts at wireless security are virtually pointless—it's said that the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard has been completely cracked and a determined attacker can get through WEP protection in under a minute.

An enterprise environment should definitely support the Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) encryption standard. You might have older wireless equipment that isn't compatible with WPA2, but the risk of leaving your network exposed isn't worth taking for old equipment. Keep the older, pre-WPA2 equipment in mind, however—if you have older laptops or expect onsite guests with them, you'll need to provide an alternative, like a wired network.

Encryption isn't the only defense for your wireless network. Most enterprise-class wireless routers support VPN tunnels, and other features such as integration with a security suite are common. Remember that you have to protect your network, but also remember that advanced security features often carry a performance cost, so carefully balance your networks.

Modern wireless routers can handle many simultaneous connections and lots of bandwidth, a major difference from less expensive home routers. Plan ahead and know how much bandwidth and how many connections you'll need, though, because high-bandwidth applications and reliable connections are more vital as laptops and netbooks become more popular than desktops, even in enterprise settings.

An important consideration for wireless performance is range, but unfortunately your building, not your router, is probably going to be the biggest factor in range. It's probably not feasible to change your building's layout and construction materials for the sake of a wireless network, so plan to install repeaters for your wireless signal.

Know Your Needs
Wireless technology has advanced quickly in the last few years, so if you need a wireless network to perform certain task, chances are the equipment you need is available. The prices for wireless equipment vary by huge amounts, however, so take a thorough inventory of what you want to connect to your wireless network now and what you'll want to connect in the future.

Remember that you'll probably be connecting much more than laptops to your wireless network. Wi-Fi enabled smart phones are the norm now, and even devices such as media players and video game consoles have wireless access. There's no telling how people will want to use your wireless network in the next few years.

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