REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 22, 2001 — John Smyrnos has one minute to get to his next meeting. The vice president for education at New Hampshire-based Enterasys Networks, Smyrnos has been putting the final touches on course materials for an afternoon workshop. Only months ago, he would have had to decide whether to take the time to close his files and applications and shut down his computer, only to arrive late to the conference room with computer in hand, locate a network connection and reboot. Today, with Microsoft Windows XP and his company’s wireless network, Smyrnos doesn’t need to make that choice.
“Like most people, I tend to get ready to go to my 10 a.m. meeting at 9:59,” Smyrnos says, “so I can’t afford to take five minutes to shut down and disconnect my system. In many cases, I wouldn’t take my laptop to the meeting at all, and to me, that’s lost productivity. Now I don’t have to shut the machine off and restart it. I just undock, slap the wireless card in and walk to the meeting room. Meanwhile, my system is connecting to the wireless network. What’s more, I can leave open a dozen Outlook messages that relate to the various projects I’m working on — because I don’t have to power down, I don’t have to look for that information again.
“To me, that’s one of the biggest benefits of Windows XP.”
Such gains in productivity are increasingly driving organizations to deploy mobile solutions, even as the technology continues to improve and evolve. Businesses achieve higher employee productivity without substantially greater administration, and users benefit from the convenience and ability to access, create and share information in more and more locations.
The Windows XP operating system, which officially launches Thursday, represents a leap forward for mobile users — incorporating a host of features and functionality for wireless computing, network transience, security and overall ease of use. Ubiquitous wireless access is on the horizon, and Windows XP is pushing toward that eventuality with a greatly enhanced experience for mobile users as well as network administrators.
Mobile Computing Is Easier, Workers Are More Productive
The driving force behind the surge in mobile solutions is user productivity. Windows XP strengthens the value proposition by giving people an enhanced, more intuitive user interface, and automated device configuration and network discovery, allowing users to focus on using their data, not getting to it, as they move and collaborate in a variety of locations.
“On campus here at Microsoft, we have about 30,000 wireless clients and 3,000 access points,” says Norm Dupuis, product manager for Windows XP Wireless Technologies at Microsoft. “So I can literally walk with my notebook from my office to the next building without losing my connection. The system transfers me to another access point. Things like this are changing workplace culture.”
With its autoconfiguration capabilities, Windows XP is designed to allow users to roam freely among wireless access points, different wireless networks and wired connections with minimal interaction. If a user plugs in a network interface card (NIC), Windows XP automatically identifies the wireless network. The user doesn’t have to remember a service set identifier (SSID) password to get on the network — it automatically brings it up. Once connected, Windows XP visually indicates the strength of the connection and the bandwidth. As users move among networks, the system obtains alternative IP addresses automatically. Furthermore, Windows XP identifies compatible nearby systems with which users can create ad-hoc networks to share information.
“I was at an off-site meeting with two other people, and we were considering how to transfer a very large training file that could not fit on a floppy disk,” Smyrnos says. “All of a sudden, my computer says it’s located another machine it can interface with — my colleague’s computer just across the table. Of course, we could have transferred files manually before, using the infrared ports, but now Windows XP discovers which hardware devices are compatible with your laptop, and connects you with the other people in the immediate vicinity. The reality is that if you have a wireless card and your colleague has a card, but you don’t have an access point, we can still communicate in a peer-to-peer environment. The key benefit is the seamless, no-intervention process — the intelligence built into the operating system.”
Windows XP Offers Best Wireless Security With Native IEEE 802.1x Support
While productivity gains are fairly easy to grasp from the user perspective, enterprise customers have a very real need for security and manageability — particularly security. Seventy-two percent of IT decision makers who consider implementing a wireless solution list security as their primary concern.
Early this year, it was discovered that the wired-equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption protocol is subject to being cracked. Not that it would be easy — a hacker would have to monitor between 1 million and 4 million packets of information before the encryption could be cracked. However, the vulnerability drove the IEEE to adopt a new wireless security specification in July, called 802.1x. Windows XP is the first operating system to include native 802.1x support.
“802.1x has a different process for transmitting the encryption, so it’s a combination of using an authentication back end on the server, and key management and distribution,” Dupuis says. “The network administrator has the ability to update the encryption key on any time increment. So although someone could be ‘sniffing’ the data as it is transmitted over the airwaves, the key wouldn’t be the same long enough for that person to get the information required to break the encryption. That’s a significant improvement.”
The security protocol is part of the Windows operating system and part of the wireless operating system, but it also requires authentication — a Radius server — on the back end. So MobileStar and other providers of access points and solutions will have to deploy 802.1x to ensure the highest level of protection.
An administrative advantage of 802.1x is that users can set up different credentials for different networks, setting different parameters for home, work and public connections. This flexibility makes it easier for administrators to deploy 802.1x across the board. The protocol also is Ethernet-compatible, so enterprises that haven’t deployed a wireless LAN can still take advantage of the security feature.
Dow Corning Corp. installed its first wireless network in April 2000, with five wireless access points and just over 200 wireless clients running on Windows 2000. According to Jim Marshall, team leader for Global Telecom Engineering and Support at Dow Corning, he was immediately sold on wireless networks to save people time. Dow Corning employees responded enthusiastically.
“Our people embraced this technology so quickly,” says Jim Marshall, team leader for Global Telecom Engineering and Support at Dow Corning. “Now you see people stop wherever they happen to meet — in hallways and some of the strangest places — and collaborate, because they’re always connected to the network no matter where they are in the building. If I tried to take out our wireless capability now, they’d kill me, because the mobility and time savings it provides is incredible.”
Marshall is struck by how well the operating system handles the transition from one network to another. When a user suspends his system in one network environment and brings it up in another, Windows XP understands that it needs a new IP address and is dealing with new default gateways and network parameters — all transparent to the end user.
“The stability of Windows XP in the face of a changing network environment is what really stands out,” Marshall says. “When you move from a wired network to a wireless network to an infrared network, it’s pretty much a seamless operation now. If you want to add hardware or drivers to a device, you can do it while the device is in use. You can update the firmware on the network card while it’s in the machine, and it doesn’t appear to ever lose the network connection. These improvements are worth their weight in gold.”