Wireless Networking Gets Simplified

At a hefty 250MB or more, Microsoft’s Windows XP Service Pack 2, scheduled for August, will feature a host of upgrades, security fixes and new technologies. One of the promising new technologies to be implemented into this operating system enhancement is what Microsoft calls “Windows Smart Network Key” (WSNK).

As the prices of wireless devices continue to fall and the number of devices in use steadily increases, wireless technology has become a mainstay of home and office networking. Manufacturers such as HP, Linksys, D-Link, Intel, Netgear and many others continue to offer new wireless-enabled devices such as printers, notebooks, PDAs, mice and keyboards, making many networks a hodge-podge of disparate devices.

A by-product of this proliferation of new and innovative products for is increased complexity for some users. As described in this Digital Trends guide, setting up a wireless network properly and securely can be a relatively difficult task. Besides having to figure out the correct settings for wireless networks and devices, users are also tasked with securing communications. With potentially confusing acronyms such as SSID, WEP, WPA, TKIP, and MAC, many people either don’t know how to properly secure their wireless network, or simply choose not to. Microsoft hopes to simplify wireless network setup and security with Windows Smart Network Key.

WSNK, a joint venture between Microsoft and HP, was developed as a way to enable users to quickly and securely configure all of their wireless devices on their network. Armed with a USB flash drive and Windows XP Service Pack 2, users can use the WSNK Wizard to seamlessly create a new secure network or add a WSNK-enabled device – such as a printer, laptop or storage drive – to an existing network.

In our first example, a user already has a wireless network set up and would like to add a new Windows Smart Network Key device such as a printer. This will be the most likely scenario to begin with. Since WSNK-enabled routers and access points are few months off, peripherals such as printers may be the first devices to use the technology.

After installing Windows XP Service Pack 2, click the Start Menu and under the System Tools program group choose Wireless Tools. This starts the WSNK wizard. The user is then prompted with a window and asked to enter the current SSID of their wireless network and decide if they want to automatically or manually generate the network (WEP) key. The next step is to insert a USB flash drive. The WSNK wizard writes an XML file on to the USB flash drive. The XML file contains all the current wireless network configuration and security settings. Then the user walks to the new WSNK-enabled printer and inserts the USB flash drive. The printer will automatically pick up the settings off the drive and configure itself to work on the network. The printer will flash three times to show the user that it has successfully been configured. In the last step of the wizard, the user returns to the computer running the Windows Smart Network Key wizard and reinserts the drive. Finally, the XML file is erased from the drive and thus securing the network.

In another example, let’s say your friend wants to come over and connect their laptop to your secure wireless network. If they have Windows XP Service Pack 2 installed, they can quickly and easily join the network. As with the first example, you being the gracious host would launch the WSNK wizard on your computer. Knowing that the wizard has already been run, the wizard will pick all the current network settings. All you have to do is reinsert the USB flash drive and settings are then written to it. Then, walk over to your friend’s computer and plug in the drive. Windows then picks up the settings off the flash drive and automatically configures the wireless card.

HP and Microsoft, as well as security experts, hope that WSNK will take off and make many more wireless networks secure and easy to use. There are a few limitations of the WSNK system, however. WSNK is strictly for home or small business network use. Most corporations will employ other security measures, such as MAC (Media Access Control) address filtering, EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol) or other authentication and encryption schemes. Although the structure to support these access methods is there, they are not going to be supported in the first release of this new technology. 

Another hurdle to the adaptation of WSNK is that currently there are only a few wireless devices set to be released this fall that will have support built in. Users who just spent a good chunk of change on a new 802.11g setup may not be willing to upgrade to yet another technology. There have been no specific product or price announcements, but WSNK devices will be competing with old-stock of 802.11b/g products that will soon become “old technology”.

If you envision a secure network of devices without wires in your home, WSNK may be well worth the wait. With WSNK devices to be available soon, this will be one feature to look for when shopping for your next wireless device.

Examples of the WSNK wizard in action:

The wizard prompts you to set up the network manually or with a USB flash drive.

After you plug the USB flash drive in, the wizard will save network settings to it.

Once the network settings are saved, they can be transferred to other devices.

Once complete, the wizard can delete the settings from the USB drive for security reasons.