Buying The Best Wireless Equipment

After planning your wireless LAN, you are now ready to shop for the equipment that you will use to build a secure wireless LAN. When building a LAN, it is extremely important to make sure to buy the best equipment within your budget that satisfies all the needs and results in a high−performance and extensible wireless LAN.

Today, shopping for wired LAN is much easier as the wired LAN technologies are very well defined. However, wireless LAN technologies and standards are still evolving, and with new standards coming out every day and new features being added, it is a good idea to be careful when investing in wireless LAN equipment.

This point is so significant that we have dedicated this entire chapter to helping you understand your needs to be able to make the best decisions when purchasing wireless LAN equipment.

We define shopping for wireless LAN equipment as a step−wise process:

  1. First you make your shopping list from the information that you gathered in the planning phase
  2. Then, using your knowledge of wireless LAN technologies, you compare the available products in the market with your needs to figure out the best possible match for your deployment scenario
  3. In the third step, you seek out the lowest price for the items that you need to buy
  4. In the fourth and final step, you actually purchase the merchandise.

In here, we first talk about how to shop for the components that you need to set up a wireless LAN that is based on an IEEE 802.11 standard. We also talk about some of the major vendors and their products to give you a concrete example.

Finally, we talk about the places on the Internet where you can buy the wireless LAN equipment for cheap without compromising the performance of your wireless LAN.

Making Your Wireless LAN Equipment Shopping List

If you planned your wireless LAN deployment, you should have a good understanding of the items that you need to build your LAN. To make your shopping list, you should list all items as identified in the planning step on a piece of paper with your minimum requirements along with the quantities desired.

For our Bonafide Corporation example, which we discussed earlier, list below illustrates the combined needs of the two LANs that Leah will be deploying.

  • Wireless LAN Adapters - Network interface cards for providing wireless connectivity to the LAN devices. At least 11 Mbps. Must be PC Card compliant
  • Access Points - Wireless LAN access points facilitate LAN connectivity among the devices operating in the wireless LAN. At least 11 Mbps with at least 300 meters' range in open space.
  • Wired LAN Adapters - For providing LAN access to stationary workstation and devices. PCI Ethernet cards with minimum 100 Mbps of speed.
  • Router - To isolate each LAN from the Internet. At least 6 ports.
  • Hubs - To extend the physical wired LANs. At least 10 ports.
  • DSL Modem - To provide Internet access to each LAN. DSL provider specific. Best speed within the budget.

Explore the LAN Technologies Available in the Market

After making the shopping list, the next step is to explore the technologies available in the market that satisfy your needs. You should evaluate both the wireless LAN technologies that you need and the wired LAN technologies that you will be deploying in your LAN.

Wireless LAN Technologies

In here we focuses on wireless LAN based on the IEEE 802.11 technologies. In this section, we only talk about the currently available wireless LAN technologies that use the 802.11 standard.

Today, two major wireless LAN technology−based equipments are available, each based on an IEEE standard. These standards are the IEEE 802.11b and IEEE 802.11a. The IEEE 802.11b standard operates at speeds up to 11 Mbps.

Following are the highlights of 802.11b. 802.11a standard devices operate at up to 54 Mbps. It is important to remember that the two IEEE standards, 802.11b and 802.11a, are incompatible with each other.

A good idea is to always build a comparison matrix to visualize the differences in the equipment properties that concern you the most. List below shows a sample matrix that compares the basic properties of the 802.11b standard with the 802.11a.

  • 802.11b - Maximum Speed = 11 Mbps. Frequency Band = 2.4 GHz. Geographic Range = 300 meters.
  • 802.11a - Maximum Speed = 54 Mbps. Frequency Band = 5.4 GHz. Geographic Range = 200 meters.

The devices based on 802.11b arrived on the market earlier than 802.11a and are less expensive than 802.11a−based devices. However, 802.11a devices provide higher speeds, which might be critical in certain deployment scenarios.

Wired LAN Ethernet Equipment Technologies

Since we focused on wireless LANs that are built on the 802.11 standard, also known as wireless Ethernet, we limit our discussion on wired LANs to Ethernet−based technologies.

  • Ethernet - Maximum Speed = 10 Mbps
  • Fast Ethernet - Maximum Speed = 100 Mbps
  • Gigabit Ethernet - Maximum Speed = 1 to 2 Gbps

As is the case for wireless LAN technologies, the higher the speed of a network, the more expensive the equipment to build a network using that technology. Today, Fast Ethernet LANs are very common, and Gigabit Ethernet LANs are slowly being adopted.

Under most circumstances, Gigabit Ethernet LANs are operable with Fast Ethernet. We suggest that you use Gigabit Ethernet adapters with devices that require high speed, and Fast Ethernet in computers that do not have high−speed LAN requirements.

For example, file servers should be installed with Gigabit Ethernet adapters, and desktop computers should be supplied with the Fast Ethernet adapters.

Virtual Private Network (VPN) Gateways and Clients

Virtual private networks are becoming extremely popular. Most enterprise LANs deploy VPN gateways to allow remote workers secure access to the enterprise LAN.

VPNs consist of two basic components: a VPN gateway, which is normally a hardware device and resides at the physical site, and the VPN client, which is normally a software application program and is installed on the user computers.

When exploring VPNs, you must ensure that the security algorithms supported by the VPN provide adequate security for your needs.

Remote Authentication Dial−in User Service (RADIUS) Server

The Remote Authentication Dial−in User Service (RADIUS) server is used to authenticate remote clients. The 802.1X authentication protocol provides support for RADIUS servers. 802.1X will be available in 802.11−based devices that will be released in the near future.

RADIUS servers are available from many different vendors. There are also many open−source RADIUS implementations that provide comparable services and can be obtained without any cost. Some well−known RADIUS implementations are:

  • Nortel Networks, Inc. Product = Nortel Networks RADIUS Server.
  • A Free Implementation of RADIUS server distributed under the GNU GPL license. Product = Cistron RADIUS Server

If you are interested in using the 802.11−compliant devices that provide security through the use of the 802.1X standard, you should plan on purchasing or acquiring a RADIUS server.

Wireless LAN Supporting Operating Systems

Wireless LAN adapters require software drivers for the operating system (OS) that they need to be operating under. For example, if you have a laptop with Windows XP and a wireless LAN adapter from Cisco Systems, you will need software drivers for Windows XP from Cisco Systems.

When choosing a wireless LAN adapter, you must always ensure that the vendor supports the OS you intend to use the adapter with. Most 802.11−compliant device manufacturers support the following operating systems:

  • Microsoft Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows 98, Windows ME and Vista.
    Microsoft Windows NT (version 4.0 and above), Windows 2000 Advanced Servers, and Windows XP Servers.
  • Linux operating system
  • Palm operating system
  • Microsoft PocketPC operating system

If your LAN has computing devices that utilize operating systems not listed here, you should certify from the wireless LAN adapter manufacturer that your operating system is supported by the device you are interested in buying.

Otherwise you should plan on buying an operating system that is supported by the vendor or choose a different wireless LAN adapter.

Major 802.11 Equipment Vendors

Today, over 25 big vendors are providing 802.11−based wireless LAN equipment. These companies range from some of the biggest names in the networking industry to small hardware manufacturers.

In this section, we list some of the well−known companies and their products to give you a baseline understanding of the products available today. Following are some of the basic parameters that we list for each product to help you choose the right vendor and product:

  • Data rates. Data rates are the speeds at which certain LAN equipment operate. Different models have different speeds. For example, 802.11b has a maximum speed of 11 Mbps.
  • Operating range. The operating range is normally expressed as maximum number of feet LAN equipment can operate with or without degradation of performance.

Different models of the same product, standard, or vendor may offer different ranges at different prices. You should carefully select a LAN device to ensure that it will fit your needs.

  • Models. Different models normally come with different features. Remember to write down the model number of each product that you like, as the external packaging of two very different devices might appear identical.
  • Encryption key length. Encryption keys provide security to wireless LANs. Devices that use longer encryption keys are supposed to provide higher security.
  • Security protocols. Security protocols provide the security mechanism that is used to secure a LAN. WEP and 802.1X are examples of security protocols that are used in wireless LANs.
  • Remote configuration. Remote configuration normally refers to a feature that many LAN devices provide that enables a LAN manager to configure and manage a LAN device from a remote location or from his or her desk.

This feature allows the expensive equipment to reside in a physically secured location, and the administrator does not have to enter into the secure location to configure or manage the hardware.

This feature also enables administrators and network managers to manage a LAN device from a geographically separated site.

Cisco Systems

Cisco was founded in 1984 by a group of computer scientists from Stanford University. Since the company's inception, Cisco engineers have been prominent in advancing the development of wired and wireless network technologies.

The company's tradition of innovation continues today with Cisco creating leading products and key technologies that will make the Internet more useful and dynamic in the years ahead.

These technologies include advanced routing and switching, voice and video over IP, optical networking, wireless, storage networking, security, broadband, and content networking. More information on Cisco Systems can be obtained from their Web site at

Agere Systems/ORiNOCO

ORiNOCO is one of the first manufacturers of wireless LAN devices based on 802.11. ORiNOCO is also known to provide support for more operating systems than any other hardware vendor. More information on ORiNOCO can be obtained from


Linksys was founded in 1988 and has become the fastest growing networking vendor in the distribution channel, which caters to small/medium businesses, corporate workgroups, and enterprise environments through value added resellers (VARs) and catalogs.


NetGear was founded in January 1996 by Patrick Lo and Mark Merrill, and operated as a wholly owned subsidiary of Bay Networks, which was purchased by Nortel Networks in August 1998.

The company continued to operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of Nortel until it was spun off as a separate company in March 2000. Today, NetGear produces network connectivity products that include wireless, Ethernet network interfaces, hubs, and switches.

Xircom/Intel Corporation

Intel Corporation acquired Xircom in March 2001. Xircom, now Intel, was always known for quality remote−connectivity products. Currently, Intel is shipping the Xircom products as well as new Intel branded wireless LAN products based on the IEEE 802.11 standards.

Decide Your Shopping Parameters

Shopping for wireless LAN equipment could become a nightmare if you do not know your shopping parameters. Unless you are supplied with unlimited amounts of money, you should always set up a budget and a set of requirements that will constrain your shopping.

You should pay special attention to the following:

  • Ensure that the features important to your deployment are present in the wireless LAN equipment you are about to purchase. These features must include the speed, the security features, and interoperability with other LAN equipment that you might already have.

For example, if your desired speed is 54 Mbps, you should look into buying 802.11a−compliant equipment. If you require high security in your wireless equipment, you should seek wireless LAN equipment that complies with the 802.1X security standards.

Likewise, if you already have a wireless LAN infrastructure, you should purchase equipment that will interoperate with your existing infrastructure.

  • Do you need equipment from a well−known vendor? Many organizations have IT policies where all IT equipment must be purchased from well−known vendors. If you choose not to follow this policy, you might be able to get the same quality from a relatively unknown vendor.
  • Do you need warranty? One reason to buy equipment from a well−known vendor is the warranty that comes with the products. If warranty is a preferred criterion for you, you should stick with your policy, otherwise you could compromise your warranty protection with cheaper equipment that provides almost the same service.

Shopping for LAN Equipment

The competition ignited by the Internet in the marketplace is no secret. You can often find out about the features and pricing of a new product before it is released. While this helps you get lower prices, it may also get very confusing.

When shopping, you should choose the means you are most comfortable with. Let's talk about the most prevalent options of buying LAN equipment.

Shopping on the Internet

When shopping for LAN equipment over the Internet, you can often buy items directly from the vendor or manufacturer's Web site, from online stores that sell computers and LAN equipment, from an online−auction Web site, or by using online shopping tools that include price comparisons on the Internet that list the prices from various vendors.

Online Stores

The following are some of the best−known online stores, comparison tools, and auction sites:

  • PC Connection. PC Connection, Inc. is a leading direct marketer of business computing solutions. We had the best experience with PC Connection and are inclined to list it as a top Web site.
  • Gateway. Gateway Computers provides great service and amazing prices.
  • PC Mall. Another famous online retailer. PC Mall has a good selection of wireless equipment.

Comparison Tools

We recommend that all readers try the shopping comparison tools before buying any equipment from any vendor. The comparison tools provide you with prices from vendors, their current inventory, and reviews on products.

  • CNET − Shopper. This provides the best online comparison services on the Internet. Besides price comparison, you can also find reviews by users that can help you decide whether equipment suits your needs.
  • StoreRunner - is also a comparison Web site that can help you compare prices, but also helps you locate a local store that has the prices you are interested in.

Online Auction Sites

Auction sites often provide you with the ability to obtain equipment at much cheaper prices than you can find at regular stores. However, purchases through auction may have the following disadvantages:

  • Warranty. Purchases from auction might not be covered by warranty.
  • Return. Often you cannot return merchandise when you purchase from an auction.
  • Available quantity. Items on sale at auctions are normally available in very limited quantities. If you need a substantial quantity of the same kind of equipment, you might want to avoid purchasing items through auctions.
  • Frauds. Online auctions may also result in frauds in which you might not receive what you expected.

We suggest that you use auctions to purchase LAN equipment if your requirements are small and you can mix and match a variety of products in your LAN. The following are some of the most popular auction sites:

  • EBay. This Web site is considered one of the best auction−related sites on the Internet. EBay provides secure transactions through a service called Billpoint.
  • Ubid. Ubid is a reseller of a variety of electronic items including wireless LAN products. Since Ubid is a direct reseller, you might be more confident when bidding for items in an auction.

Shopping Using Mail−Order Catalogs

Mail−order catalogs were really big for computer hardware sales during the late 1980s through the mid−1990s. Today, mail−order catalog companies conduct most of their business through their Web sites; still they continue to maintain their mail catalogs.

Mail catalogs often list items that are moving relatively slowly and can be bought for cheaper prices. The following are some of the commonly known mail−order catalogs:

  • MicrowareHouse - This is one of the oldest mail−order catalog vendors in the United States.
  • Gates/Arrow. Formerly known as Gates/FA is one of the biggest mailorder computer hardware and supplies company. Gates caters to high−end, high−volume customers.

Shopping at a Local Computer Hardware or Office Supply Store

Most office supply stores today sell both the wired and the wireless LAN equipment. However, the selection might be limited based on the store. Still, buying equipment directly from a store saves time and shipping charges that you might end up paying when buying equipment over the Internet.

Shopping Tips

Following are some suggested shopping tips. Above all, be sure to purchase equipment from the vendor with whom you are most comfortable.

  • Try buying equipment from a minimum number of vendors.

This is important because sometimes vendors add extra functionality to their product, which provides extra features, but results in a device that is incompatible with the industry standard and the other devices that you might have.

Interoperability problems are often hard to detect and can result in major network failures during deployment and operation. Since most vendors test interoperability among their own products, buying wireless LAN equipment from one vendor typically works the best.

  • Do not buy equipment that is based on obsolete or near−obsolete technologies.

While shopping for the equipment, you may come across equipment that seems cheaper and from a better−known vendor than you could afford.

In a situation like this, you should carefully examine the equipment and make sure that you are not buying something that will become obsolete in the near future, would be slower in speed, or is not supported by computer operating systems you plan to use.

  • Use the Internet comparison shopping tools before making shopping decisions.

Comparison shopping tools are a blessing to Internet shoppers. Most sites show you the current prices at various vendors, user reviews, and you can often ask questions that you might have about a certain product.

  • Be careful when you purchase items online.

Do not give out your credit card information to a Web site that you may suspect is a rogue site. When making a purchase online, you should make sure that the company you are about to buy the equipment from physically exists within the jurisdiction of your country or state.

You should look for their credibility over the Internet to ensure that you are buying products from a real seller.