Of Malfunctioning Boats and Wi-Fi Support

boats_230_odyssey_20742179I have an old power boat, and it has recently taught me a life lesson that very much applies to Wi-Fi support. Every boat should have a name, and this vessel is the Sweet Baboo. She’s a 22-foot Cuddy Cruiser, built in 1985. It’s powered by a 5.7L OMC motor (basically a Chevy 350). This is my first “real” boat, and it has humbled me… A boat like this is really just another vehicle to keep up, but it has mystique and mystery to the new boat owner and the passengers that ride on it, just like Wi-Fi often has mystique and mystery to many networkers and clients.

Just a bit more background, if you’ll indulge me. I consider myself a pretty good shade-tree mechanic, and I do everything I can on my vehicles when it comes to maintenance. I like to save money, and know HOW a job was done, in exchange for my time and skinned knuckles. But I do know my limits, and know when it’s time to get professional help.

Stay with me- I promise the Wi-Fi angle comes into play soon.

Something about being a new boat owner made me kind of silly. Every oddball problem this old boat has had seemed exotic somehow, until very recently. After all, every part on the thing is a “marine” component. It has a marine carburetor, a marine ignition system, a marine gearshift, etc. Which for a while made me think that somehow they were all forged by unicorns in Magic Marine Parts Land, and for whatever reason I’d get stupid when it came time to troubleshoot. I’ve seen Wi-Fi have the same effect on network troubleshooters… somehow everything they know about basic network troubleshooting goes out the window because Wi-Fi is also exotic and different.

Finally, working through one lingering, long-term headache I was able to get my boat mind right, and to draw parallels with Wi-Fi support.

I got through that problem, but I did some really knuckle-headed things along the way. I threw away money and time because my troubleshooting methods were not sound. I looked past “the basics”, and often got sparkly-eyed that my problem had to be some exotic marine thing, just like many people get sparkly-eyed and start dicking with controller settings, adding APs, and taking other fruitless steps to solve exotic Wi-Fi problems that often end up being not so exotic.

The boat problem? Well, Sweet Baboo would start nice, idle great, and run really well at low speed. Give her some gas to speed up this big beast, and the motor would stall or fall back to idle speed at 2,500 RPM every time. Put another way, I had crappy performance.

I went through the troubleshooting steps in the repair manual fairly diligently, but also (in retrospect) bit on many red herrings, hoping for an easy fix. But… even easy fixes can hide behind complex symptoms and pre-conceived notions. I fixated on “it’s GOTTA be this!” at least a half-dozen times after reading online user forums. In those user forums, I latched on to the sage advice of frequent-posters that seemed to be revered by the other folks in the forum. And it turns out they were wrong every time. Or rather, I wrongly applied their analysis to my situation because they seemed to know their stuff.

All the while, because this boat is an exotic marine craft, my brain refused to acknowledge that when I let myself apply sound troubleshooting techniques I have fixed a wide range of cars, computers, F-4 and A-10 aircraft, broken furniture, swimming pool pumps, blenders, and more over the course of my life. I wasn’t letting myself simply proceed as I would normally in the course of troubleshooting anything, because I had never worked on a real boat before. I made it into something it wasn’t, in my mind. I KNOW this happens in Wi-Fi support often.

I ended up needlessly replacing (or tearing into):

  • Every ignition component (some two or three times)
  • Fuel pump
  •  Carburetor
  • Shift cable
  • Electronic shift module
  • Throttle cable
  • Exhaust flapper valves
  • Fuel lines

I’m sure there were other things that I hosed up along the way, too. I broke things trying to fix things- but then again, I was dealing with an exotic marine situation so my buffoonery was OK, right? Well, no- it’s not OK. I’m somewhat embarrassed of my conduct, and I can’t describe the frustration I felt over two seasons of fighting this problem. But again, I have seen people approach wireless support in this same scattered, desperate way.

Anything and everything feels like a WIRELESS problem when you have a problem and happen to be using Wi-Fi. Those not trained or acclimated to the Layer 1 and Layer 2 implications of Wi-Fi can do really dumb, desperate, nonsensical things that they would NEVER do on wired networks. For some reason, we all have things that make us forget what we should know when we most need it. For me, it was this boat. For other folks, it’s troubleshooting Wi-Fi.

After replacing component after component, fiddling with this and adjusting that, I was SURE I had a bad carburetor. There was simply nothing else it could be. So I ordered a pricey replacement… and it changed nothing. Floundering around out in the middle of the lake after putting the new carb on the engine, I was livid. At me, at the boat, at the Boat Gods, and pretty much everyone and everything. I called my wife, and admitted defeat. I told her that we’d have to tow the pig off to a marine mechanic, and take our chances that we could find one that was reputable. But as I was limping the Baboo back to the dock, I had an epiphany. Two thoughts collided in my brain at the same time, and they would lead me to resolution.

I was filthy from repairs, hot from the sun, and pissed-off low-down feeling. I had dozens of hours, and at least a thousand mostly wasted dollars on this escapade. At my lowest, one part of my brain told me “Come on… you’re better than this.” And another asked “listen you schmuck, how would you approach a seemingly complicated wireless problem?” It might sound cheesy, but I was recharged. I pulled up at my dock with a plan. I WAS GOING BACK TO BASICS. This damn boat was the client, and I had a client problem. And it was a similar problem to hundreds of other boats/clients that I had read about online. The solutions were usually proven to be simple, and I empowered myself at that moment to start over, with simple in mind.

Early on in the troubleshooting process, I had pulled the fuel pick-up tube from the gas tank (a 60-gallon monster built into the floor of the boat). I had EXPECTED to find a filter screen at the bottom, but didn’t. Not knowing better, I assumed at that early point that there was no such filter on THIS boat. I was wrong- and simply looking closer at that pick-up tube a second time revealed that the filter was INSIDE the tube where you can’t see it. And it was gummed up with crud pretty good. It was letting enough gas into the system to allow for starting and low-speed operations, but was blocking the increased fuel needed at higher speeds. I had “looked” right at the problem before skipping over it because it didn’t match my assumptions, and at that fateful moment I also turned a simple fix (blow it out with compressed air and carb cleaner) into a two-season exercise in grasping at straws.

I’m not sure what specific analogy to make here to wireless troubleshooting, but I do know that THE ESSENCE of my boat problem and what happens when the unskilled or “blame the WLAN” types get involved with wireless performance problems are the same. Sometimes Wi-Fi doesn’t work because non-Wi-Fi components have faults, but if you lock on to blaming the APs or controller early on, you’ll often never find the issue. Assumptions, poor methodology, and not looking at the basics thoroughly and with an open mind can lead you down rabbit holes. It’s not fun when you do it to yourself, and I really should have known better after decades of honing my troubleshooting approaches.

Just like my boat really is not “exotic and mysterious”, neither is Wi-Fi. But to support either, you have to have the right mindset and not be afraid to just use good sense and thorough checks of the basics as you proceed.

But as I’ve just shown here, that is easier said than done- even for the best of us.

 

No Thank You, Apple- I Don’t Buy Your Slanted Views on News Headlines

My relationship with Apple products has always been a warm-cold affair. I (mostly) love their device build quality, but loathe that Bonjour hasn’t yet been scrapped by a company that now wants to be seen as an Enterprise player. I’m thrilled with the the under-the-hood resources that the latest Macs have for WLAN support types to leverage, yet I’ve spent more than a decade dealing with Apple’s well-documented Wi-Fi bugs and the deeply flawed “I have an Apple device, if it’s not working right then it must be your network!” mentality that the company has carefully cultivated. The examples are many, and I only claim them as MY OWN feelings on Apple. If you disagree, I respect that. We all have our own frames of reference, live and let live, and all that…

Now, I find myself fed up with not so much a technical issue regarding Apple, but one of politics and what I would call an abuse of power. This takes the form of Apple’s extremely anti-Trump/pro-Clinton views being force-fed to the masses that own iDevices.

I’m not “for” either candidate, as in my mind we have a callous asshat running against a career criminal (you figure out who is who in that equation), and both lie, empty-promise, and shape-shift their way through this gloomy time in American history. But Apple only generally targets Trump with it’s choice of “Siri Suggested” headlines, largely giving Mrs. Clinton a free pass on her own many transgressions and unfulfilled promises. It seems like negative Trump headlines outnumber any mention of Clinton by at least 20:1, and all Clinton headlines are picked from friendly (to her) news outlets like CNN. If there was any modicum of equal shame, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

trump

I’ve been watching this anything-but-subtle campaign go on for weeks, and I’ve had enough. I opted to shut Apple up when it comes to their attempted swaying of public opinion on the iDevices I use, and you can, too. Here’s how:

Spotlight

It’s this simple:

  • Go to Settings, then General
  • Select Spotlight Search
  • You’ll find “Siri Suggestions” is enabled- simply disable it

After this, you won’t see any news headlines on that “Swipe All the Way Right” page again. You can’t choose what news outlets Apple cherry-picks it’s headlines from, so I opt not to have them pick anything.

In closing- I’m not the only one not digging Apple’s approach to presenting it’s own news selections. A quick search shows many a discussion like this.

(Thanks for reading- and though I have no interest in dragging politics into my blog, I also don’t tolerate unfair play very well. End of rant!)

 

 

Training Tips

Master 1I was recently approached by an esteemed wireless colleague who was tasked with putting together a day-long training seminar for non-wireless installers. We talked about shared opinions on what Wi-Fi specific topics would be right for this particular group, as well as general procedural steps that he might take to keep it all on track. After all, a “day” really isn’t very long when you factor in breaks, lunch, questions, distractions, and Murphy’s Law. As we chatted back and forth, he made the comment to me “you really out to write some of this down for others”. And so here we are.

Before I dig in- let me address the “what makes you qualified to give this sort of advice?” question that some of you might be thinking.  Here’s the quick and dirty: in my 10+ years in the Air Force, I spent the second half of my career as a Technical Training Instructor. More re less, I was dragged into it – and was a bit angry about the turn of events in the beginning. After all, I was an Electronic Warfare “field guy”, and liked what I was doing on aircraft like the F-4 and A-10. Once I got over myself somewhere around the third week of Instructor school, I came to realize the tremendous value in being able to confidently deliver complex materials and keep a group heading towards a series of objectives- both for me and the folks in the seats in front of me. I eventually achieved the Master Instructor rating, was certified as an Occupational Instructor, and amassed thousands of hours in the classroom and developing curriculum that others would use as well. After the Air Force, I taught basic electronics, CWNA, CWSP, undergraduate classes, and (still do) graduate networking classes. I’ve also done hundreds of hours of informal training and presentations for my employers and at a number of IT conferences. I don’t know it all or claim to be the best, but I do have a lot of experience and have valued both the high ratings and criticism I’ve received along the way.

Now, back to topic. Here’s a quick primer for anyone that has to do training/presentations, but nay not be particuilarly comfortable in that role.

Before the Session:

  • Research the audience. What level(s) of expertise will you be dealing with? Don’t assume anything without asking whoever requested the training.
  • You may have to adjust your favorite “canned” presentation a bit for each audience.
  • Develop a lesson plan/presentation AND a time budget for each topic
  • Don’t be a mile wide and an inch deep- ever- on any topic. Cramming a week’s worth of content into a single day rips everyone off.
  • Accept the fact that YOU will determine the success of the training, and are driving the boat. Your management of the topic and the clock are nobody else’s responsibility.
  • Understand well what you will be talking about. Thin credibility will absolutely shine through.
  • Ask that whoever is in charge of those you are training ensures that the group is expected to be attentive and present. No running in and out taking calls, etc.
  • Make sure you have your material prioritized- should the session go wrong and fall apart, make sure the most important topics are identified so you can focus on them.
  • Test the audio-visual equipment well before the start of the session, and have a Plan B in case something goes wrong.

During the Session:

  • Share your time budget with those you’re training or presenting to. Hopefully everyone will help it to stay on track.
  • Embrace the notion of Intro/Content/Summary. Or “Tell ’em what you’re GONNA tell ’em/Tell ’em what you HAVE to tell ’em/Tell ’em what you TOLD ’em” – for each section, each major part of the day, and for the entire session.
  • Take questions that are easily answered along the way.
  • Save long-winded, complicated discussions for the end of the section, break, or lunch. Don’t bust your time budget by being led astray.
  • Occasionally, something WILL go horribly wrong during the session. Roll with it, make the best of it, and make sure the priority material gets conveyed.
  • Watch for signs that you’re losing the audience, and pop an easy question to draw them back in. Example: “So, who has ever done ___?” Then when a hand is raised, let someone respond so another voice breaks up the monotony of your own.

Closing/After:

  • If appropriate, leave your contact information for further discussion if anyone is interested.
  • Figure out some way to ascertain whether your session had value. It may be an email to whoever set up the session the following day, or a survey you leave behind. You want to know if you’re hitting the mark and what might need to change.
  • Don’t convince yourself that you can use the same presentation every time- as mentioned during “Before”, you may have to adjust for the next session to be effective.

Training or presenting to even a small group of people is a skill. Public speaking can cause people great anxiety, but having a simple checklist like the points above can help take the nervous edge off. Even those of us with lots of podium experience get jittery, but get through it by being prepared for both what WE WANT to happen and for  WHAT MIGHT happen.

Best of luck to you as you train or present.

Do you have any training pointers to share? Please contribute to the discussion.

 

 

CWAP-402 Is Here!

It’s been a long time coming, but the Certified Wireless Analysis Professional (CWAP) course from CWNP has been updated. The 270 version was retired at the end of June, and the current version is 402.

Regarded by many who are chasing their CWNE certification as the hardest of the exams in the program, I can assure you that CWAP is challenging. At the same time, 402 is an excellent upgrade that re-thinks the notion of wireless analysis and it will absolutely teach you much as you prepare for the exam. What you learn isn’t throw-away content, either; real-world WLAN professionals will draw on this body of knowledge throughout their entire careers

The overview for CWAP can be found here.

The Kindle version of the new study guide is available on Amazon, by clicking the image of the book cover.

CWAP402

Best of luck with your CWAP studies, or whatever you happen to be studying now.

You ARE studying SOMETHING, yes?

 

 

 

I Can’t Use My New Cisco AP. There’s No Code.

 

There I was… about to fire up Cisco’s latest rocket-ship AP, the 3800. Ooooh, so nice, and so much promise with flexible radios and sexy features galore. But then a strange thing happened.

no Mr1

I looked at what software I’d need on my controllers to run the 3800s, and saw that I need “8.2MR1”. But when I went to the software download pages, there’s no such thing. There’s other 8.2 code, but nothing called MR1.  The product data sheet said I require MR1, but there is no software in the library named MR1.

Ah well, so close.

But wait… I plugged the 3800 in- you know, just to see what it would do. It joined the controller! How can this be? My code is not “MR1”. It’s some other 8.2 thing…

JUST A COTTON-PICKING MINUTE! Does that mean that this MR1 stuff is actually the SAME as some other code version? And if we stretch that out… might Cisco be referring to the SAME code by different names, depending on whether you are on the downloads page or off looking at some document?

Nah- it can’t be. Because that would be confusing to customers.

Getting to Know Ubiquiti’s UniFi Cloud Key

Ubiquiti is a fairly fascinating WLAN gear company. I use different Point-to-Point bridge models from Ubiquiti, including some in 900 MHz, 5 GHz, and their big ol’ 24 GHz AirFiber 24. I don’t have a real deep history with the company’s Wi-Fi access gear, but have enough hands-on time with it to understand the mass appeal of this competitively-priced WLAN product line. I’ve written about things I’ve learned about regarding Ubiquiti bridges along the way, and covered the company’s introduction of 11ac access points back in 2013 for Network Computing. I consider myself familiar with Ubiquiti enough to have my own opinions about various products and the way the company does certain things, but I am by no stretch a Ubiquiti “power user”.

I mention that because many of the Ubiquiti faithful in the company’s support forums can be a bit- shall we say – fervent in their loyalty to the company, it’s products, and it’s methodologies even when those of us outsiders with WLAN expertise call Ubiquiti into question for something or other. I’m not bashing those rabid Ubiquiti fans, but I also know that they have long since lost their objectivity on the product and tithe frequently at the Church of Ubiquiti. For me, I try to see the good and bad for what it is with each product or feature and not generically bash or praise any product line or vendor. That’s my self-characterization on objectivity, and it brings me to a handy little gadget I’m evaluating now: the Ubiquiti Cloud Key.

CLoud Key

The product glossy is here, and my own dashboard looks like this for device management:Cloud Key Manage

And system monitoring (don’t read anything into the sucky throughput values, this test environment is set up extremely crudely right now):

cloud key mon

Now, back to the Cloud Key itself. It’s an interesting device, roughly the size of an elongated Raspberry Pi. It can be accessed locally, or from the Internet if you opt to allow that. It’s an NMS that requires no server, and it does a pretty decent job of managing and monitoring the Ubiquiti UniFi environment. (This blog isn’t about individual APs or overall system performance that you should expect if you use Ubiquiti networking equipment- it’s just a quick intro to the Cloud Key as it really is a slick and curious system manager.) I’m currently managing an edge security gateway, a switch, and two APs, but the Cloud Key can certainly scale much, much larger for bigger Ubiquiti environments.

Drilling into my switch shows the types of config work done via the Cloud Key, as an example:

cloud key switch

You’d see similar for the access points and security gateway in my environment if your were to click around.

Administration of the Cloud Key itself is fairly intuitive and pretty well designed, from bringing it to life to assigning administrative roles to adding managed devices and doing upgrades.

That’s enough for now… if you’ve never seen the UniFi Cloud Key, hopefully this blog gives you some idea of what it can do. I reserve my opinions on the other Ubiquiti network pieces for future blogs as I spend more time with this eval environment. But I can say that the Cloud Key has impressed me as innovative, interesting, and effective (so far) in doing what it was built to do. With a low price and no licensing costs, it is one example of why Ubiquiti sells A LOT of wireless gear.

 

 

Wardriving With the Netscout AirCheck G2- Just For Fun

Ah, wardriving. Those of us with a long history in wireless networking know well what it is, and to me the very word conjures up memories of a different time… when Wi-Fi was new, kinda edgy, and not everybody really understood it very well. There are different motivations behind the act of wardriving, and I’m going to purposefully leave that side of the discussion out.

Wardriving used to be cool…

If you’d like to learn more or re-familiarize yourself with wardriving, look at these:

Back in the day, Netstumbler was the go-to wardriving tool for Windows, while Kismet was popular with the Linux community. There have been a slew of other suitable tools, but few have stood the test of time for name recognition like Netstumbler and Kismet.

Today, all you need to wardrive is a smartphone, and it’s really not all that glamorous anymore. We’re so used to looking at that list of SSIDs that more of them is hardly exciting, and it’s actually a pain at times. But through the right lens, wardriving is still kinda fun.

Netscout’s AirCheck G2 is a big gun

As I continue to evaluate the latest model AirCheck tester from Netscout, I decided to have a little fun with it on my way to work. My wife and I carpool, and I usually ride shotgun. So, one morning I opted to let the AirCheck G2 listen as we rolled through a couple of rural Upstate NY villages. The last time I did this exercise in these sleepy hamlets, I’d be lucky if I could see two-dozen networks. But times have changed, and in a stretch of about five miles in two villages with a combine population of under 4,000 people, The G2 shows that Wi-Fi live is a-thumping even out in the country.wardrive

As you can see in the snippet above, some of these networks are obviously printers and such, but there’s still a lot going on. The AirCheck was in the car (sub-optimal reception), the vehicle was moving at 30, 45, and 55 MPH, and we have long stretches where there are no buildings. This is hardly scientific, but it is interesting and the AirCheck makes gathering and extracting the info a breeze with it’s reporting capabilities..

Here’s some of what I saw:

  • Around 2 dozen truly open networks
  • Around a dozen WEP
  • 17 WPA-PSK networks
  • Balance (around 80) WPA2-PSK
  • No 802.1X WPA
  • Lots of channel buffoonery from “CableWiFi” and “TWCWiFi”
    • 17 on channel 3
    • 8 on channel 4
    • 6 on channel 5
    • 3 on channel 7
    • 1 on Channel 8
  • At least half of all networks name NetGear-xxx or other default SSIDs

The point?

There really isn’t one, except sometimes it is fun to simply gather SSIDs along the way and see what you can characterize about them as a data set. Of course, a good tool helps- and the AirCheck G2 is a very good tool.


Related:

My review on AirCheck G2 for Network Computing