Few Things one needs to know about Wireless Networking

What is wireless networking?   

The term wireless networking refers to technology that enables two or more computers to communicate using standard network protocols, but without network cabling. Strictly speaking, any technology that does this could be called wireless networking. The current buzzword however generally refers to wireless LANs. This technology, fuelled by the emergence of cross-vendor industry standards such as IEEE 802.11, has produced a number of affordable wireless solutions that are growing in popularity with business and schools as well as sophisticated applications where network wiring is impossible.

What is a wireless network made up of?

There are two kinds of wireless networks:  An ad-hoc, or peer-to-peer wireless network consists of a number of computers each equipped with a wireless networking interface card.  Each computer can communicate directly with all of the other wireless enabled computers. They can share files and printers this way, but may not be able to access wired LAN resources, unless one of the computers acts as a bridge to the wired LAN using special software. (This is called "bridging")

Figure 1: Ad-Hoc or Peer-to Peer Networking.
Each computer with a wireless interface can communicate directly with all of the others.

Ad-Hoc diagram

A wireless network can also use an access point, or base station. In this type of network the access point acts like a hub, providing connectivity for the wireless computers. It can connect (or "bridge") the wireless LAN to a wired LAN, allowing wireless computer access to LAN resources, such as file servers or existing Internet Connectivity.

There are two types of access points:

Dedicated hardware access points (HAP) normally termed as Wireless Routers. Hardware access points offer comprehensive support of most wireless features, but check your requirements carefully.

Software Access Points which run on a computer equipped with a wireless network interface card as used in an ad-hoc or peer-to-peer wireless network. (See Figure 3)  With appropriate networking software support, users on the wireless LAN can share files and printers located on the wired LAN and vice versa.

Figure 2: Hardware Access Point.
Wireless connected computers using a Hardware Access Point.

Hardware access point diagram

Figure 3: Software Access Point.
Wireless connected computers using a Software Access Point.

Software access point diagram

What is IEEE 802.11?

Wireless networking hardware requires the use of underlying technology that deals with radio frequencies as well as data transmission. The most widely used standard is 802.11 produced by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). This is a standard defining all aspects of Radio Frequency Wireless networking.

If my computer is connected to a wireless LAN, can it communicate with computers on a wired LAN as well?

To do this you will need some sort of bridge between the wireless and wired network. This can be accomplished either with a hardware access point or a software access point. Hardware access points are available with various types of network interfaces, such as Ethernet or Token Ring, but typically require extra hardware to be purchased if your networking requirements change.

If networking requirements go beyond just interconnecting a wired network network to a small wireless network, a software access point may be the best solution.

A software access point does not limit the type or number of network interfaces you use. It may also allow considerable flexibility in providing access to different network types, such as different types of Ethernet, Wireless and Token Ring networks. Such connections are only limited by the number of slots or interfaces in the computer used for this task.

What is the range of a wireless network?

Each access point has a finite range within which a wireless connection can be maintained between the client computer and the access point. The actual distance varies depending upon the environment; manufacturers typically state both indoor and outdoor ranges to give a reasonable indication of reliable performance. Also it should be noted that when operating at the limits of range the performance may drop, as the quality of connection deteriorates and the system compensates.

Typical indoor ranges are 150-300 feet, but can be shorter if the building construction interferes with radio transmissions. Longer ranges are possible, but performance will degrade with distance.

Outdoor ranges are quoted up to 1000 feet, but again this depends upon the environment.

How many wireless networked computers can use a single access point?

This depends upon the manufacturer. Some hardware access points have a recommended limit of 10, with other more expensive access points supporting up to 100 wireless connections. Using more computers than recommended will cause performance and reliability to suffer.

Can I have more than one access point?

Yes, multiple access points can be connected to a wired LAN, or sometimes even to a second wireless LAN if the access point supports this.

In most cases, separate access points are interconnected via a wired LAN, providing wireless connectivity in specific areas such as offices or classrooms, but connected to a main wired LAN for access to network resources, such as file servers. (See Figure 4)

Figure 4: Multiple Access Points.
Wireless connected computers using Multiple Access Points.

Multiple access points diagram

If a single area is too large to be covered by a single access point, then multiple access points or extension points can be used. -- Note that an "extension point" is not defined in the wireless standard, but have been developed by some manufacturers. When using multiple access points, each access point wireless area should overlap its neighbors. This provides a seamless area for users to move around in using a feature called "roaming. "

Some manufacturers produce extension points, which act as wireless relays, extending the range of a single access point. Multiple extension points can be strung together to provide wireless access to far away locations from the central access point. (See Figure 5)

Figure 5: Extension Point.
Wireless connected computers using an Access Point with an Extension Point.

Extension point diagram

What is Roaming?

A wireless computer can "roam" from one access point to another, with the software and hardware maintaining a steady network connection by monitoring the signal strength from in-range access points and locking on to the one with the best quality. Usually this is completely transparent to the user; they are not aware that a different access point is being used from area to area. Some access point configurations require security authentication when swapping access points, usually in the form of a password dialog box.

Access points are required to have overlapping wireless areas to achieve this as can be seen in the following diagram:

Figure 6: Roaming.
A user can move from Area 1 to Area 2 transparently. The Wireless networking hardware automatically swaps to the Access Point with the best signal.

Roaming diagram

Not all access points are capable of being configured to support roaming. Also of note is that any access points for a single vendor should be used when implementing roaming, as there is no official standard for this feature.

Can I use a wireless network to interconnect two LANs?

Yes. Wireless networking offers a cost-effective solution to users with difficult physical installations such as campuses, hospitals or businesses with more than one location in immediate proximity but separated by public thoroughfare. This type of installation requires two access points. Each access point acts as a bridge or router connecting its own LAN to the wireless connection. The wireless connection allows the two access points to communicate with each other, and therefore interconnect the two LAN's.

Figure 7: LAN to LAN Wireless Communications
A Hardware Access Point providing wireless connectivity to local computers and a software access point. The software access point provides Wired Ethernet network 2 computers access to Wired Network 1.

LAN to LAN Wireless Communications

Note that not all hardware access points have the ability to directly interconnect to another hardware access point, and that the subject of interconnecting LAN's over wireless connections is a large and complex one, and is beyond the scope of this introduction.

Is it true that wireless networking is only good for laptop computers?

Although wireless networking offers obvious benefits to users of laptops who move from location to location throughout the day, there are benefits for users of fixed position computers as well:

Many schools and businesses have unsuitable building layouts or walls that cannot be wired for various reasons making it difficult or impossible to build a wired network. Wireless networking in these environments is a very cost effective alternative also providing future flexibility.

In cases where a small number of computers are separated from a main network a wireless link may be more cost effective than network cabling although the latter is perfectly feasible.

Temporary wireless LANs can easily be created for exhibitions, school or business projects, all without any trailing cabling.

What about security?

Wireless communications obviously provide potential security issues, as an intruder does not need physical access to the traditional wired network in order to gain access to data communications. However, 802.11 wireless communications cannot be received --much less decoded-- by simple scanners, short wave receivers etc. This has led to the common misconception that wireless communications cannot be eavesdropped at all. However, eavesdropping is possible using specialist equipment.   Securing your router is explained in detail here.



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