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Agent Provocateurs?

Software agents could give WLAN users more control than ever before, but they need standards first

May 21, 2004

3 Min Read
Agent Provocateurs?

Software agents -- little pieces of code that offer users more insight into, and control over, what's happening on wireless LAN networks and devices -- are an emerging trend in the enterprise 802.11 market.

Intelligent software agents -- to give them their full title -- are smarter than your average applet. They work independently of other applications on a wireless LAN network or device, collecting data and performing pre-determined tasks, all while "learning" more about their environment.

Over the last week or so, both Perfigo Inc. and Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) have introduced updated systems that use software agents that just happen to nicely illustrate some of the key applications for which those things can be used.

Perfigo's SmartEnforcer update to its CleanMachine product uses an agent on wireless LAN clients to scan them for viruses and lock them out if they are tagged as "infected." Once on the machine, the software will keep the machine's security status up to snuff by downloading virus scanner updates and operating system patches.

Analysts think security applications will be one of the key areas where wireless LAN software agents are deployed. Another major application is helping to manage and track all the resources in an enterprise wireless LAN deployment.

That's what Symbol is doing with its new Mobility Services Suite, which has agents out the wazoo to track resources on its wireless LAN infrastructure gear and clients (see Symbol Crashes In).

All-in-all, these little bits of clever code sound like the next step in managing wireless LAN networks. So why don't all the companies in this space have some? After all, agents aren't a new idea in the wider world of enterprise software; the concept has been around since the late seventies.

One big problem, according to analysts, is the lack of standard methods to allow these wireless LAN agents to support the different types of enterprise and security applications and operating systems that could potentially be connected to wireless LAN networks.

"It's really going to require the software industry to get together and work out some standards and open up their APIs," says Meta Group Inc. analyst, Chris Kozup. (APIs are application protocol interfaces -- hooks that allow developers to link to, and develop programs on top of, other software.)

Kozup doesn't expect that to happen anytime soon -- although it should be noted that Symbol has opened up its MMS source code to allow third-party developers to get down and dirty with its wireless LAN.

And the independent nature of security-focused software agents -- they can download onto new machines without asking permission -- means that a user who connects to a lot of different wireless LAN networks could end up with more code than he need on his machine.

"That could get annoying," notes Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group. "Having five or six security applications competing [on your machine]."

The size of the agent could also be a problem. Smaller devices such as WiFi-compatible cellphones and wireless LAN-based RFID tags may not have enough memory to actually run them, even though they are typically only a couple of hundred kilobytes of code.

Although Unstrung's never had any complaints about the size of its agent.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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