When setting up a WiFi network at home, you typically set up an SSID and password, accept the defaults for any other options, and be done with it. (In some cases, these are done for you by your service provider — you don’t even have to think.) You share the password with family and visitors, and everyone is happy.
Business WiFi is a bit different. If you set up a WiFi network for your business with a single password for all staff and visitors, that password eventually leaks out, and people (former employees, suppliers, and snoops of all kinds) can log on to your WiFi network any time. The situation is especially bad if the WiFi network gives users access to sensitive information, such as financials, intellectual property, and customer records. You could change the WiFi password occasionally, but then you have to give it to all the staff so they can log in again, and the problem starts all over.
Advantages of RADIUS WiFi authentication
Before delving into what RADIUS is and how it works, let’s take a look at what it buys you:
Individualized authentication. Each user (or device) is assigned unique credentials for accessing the WiFi network. No more password sharing, as each user manages his or her own credentials.
Sync with LDAP/Active Directory. The system can be set up so that the users’ network directory passwords are used to authenticate on the WiFi network, enabling single sign-on for users.
Wide range of implementation options. RADIUS can be implemented as a dedicated on-premise server, using purchased RADIUS server software or a free/open-source option such as FreeRADIUS. Many network devices and server operating systems have RADIUS built-in, so no extra software or hardware purchase is needed. There are also cloud-based RADIUS services available, which can free you from the system setup and maintenance tasks altogether. This is very attractive to smaller organizations with limited (or nonexistent) IT staff and budget.
RADIUS WiFi 101
RADIUS, in case you’re wondering, stands for “remote authentication dial-in user service.” It’s an authentication system that has been used to secure networks for many years (hence the “dial-in” in the name). A wireless RADIUS server uses a protocol called 802.1X, which governs the sequence of authentication-related messages that go between the user’s device, the wireless access point (AP), and the RADIUS server.
When a user wants to connect to a WiFi network with RADIUS authentication, the device establishes communication with the AP, and requests access to the network. The AP passes the request to the RADIUS server, which returns a credential request back to the user via the AP. The user provides the proper user name and password, which the RADIUS server checks against the authentication directory. If the credentials are correct, the RADIUS server informs the AP to allow the user access to the network.
Implementing wireless RADIUS
As mentioned above, implementing a wireless RADIUS server can be simple or complex, and the implementation path you choose depends largely on the size of your organization (that is, the number of users and devices you need to support), your budget, and the expertise of your IT staff. An on-premise solution involves a good bit of setup, but might be more cost-effective than a hosted solution if you have a large number of users. If you decide on an on-premise solution, but lack the resources to pull it off, Network RADIUS can help you install, set up, and manage a FreeRADIUS system for your wireless (or any other) network.
These days, hackers are looking for any way into organizations large and small, and they know that many WiFi networks are vulnerable. Failing to protect your business from WiFi vulnerabilities is inexcusable. If you haven’t implemented RADIUS authentication for your WiFi network, the time to act is now. It’s easier than you think.