A WLAN Doer Contemplates the Cisco/Apple Partnership

I’ve been in the wireless game with Cisco products since long before thin was in. These days, I support many thousands of access points and tens of thousands of Wi-Fi clients on those APs. At least half of those client devices are Apple products, and in some spaces in my environment, as many as 85% of all clients are Apple. Obviously, I hope for the best of outcomes from the new Cisco and Apple partnership, as my customers would benefit from those positive outcomes. There’s no meanness intended in what follows, just reflection on days past and what I hope comes of these two market leaders becoming more collaborative.

Code Counts as Much as Hardware

Cisco and Apple both put out beautiful hardware with premium price tags. Many purists who worship either or both companies have a hard time believing that anything defective could come in hardware that is so robustly built, pretty, and expensive. If my iDevice isn’t working, your network MUST be to blame. And if my WLAN is acting up, it must have been designed wrong because Cisco code isn’t cheap… and it comes from the market leader, by golly. Both Cisco and Apple are at the top of their games as measured by volume of devices in many large and small WLAN environments. And both frequently, too often, put out mediocre (or horrible) code that leaves people like me holding a bag full of smelly network pain.

In Cisco’s case, their WLAN controller code is just short of being chronically buggy, and a culture of “get it out the door and let our customers QA it!” seems to rule the product line. (Greg Ferro sums it up nicely in the opening paragraph of this article.) It’s not uncommon to spend days on the phone with TAC only to find out that randomly rebooting controllers or some oddball client behavior is actually a known bug.

For Apple, you never know what you’re going to get related to Wi-Fi behavior with OS and iOS upgrades and patches. Release notes are scant, and it seems that the Wi-Fi area of Apple devices is always being tinkered with back on the mothership. From a history of sticky-client behavior to curve-balls in how you are “allowed” to configure profiles to decidedly non-enterprise quality gimmicks like Bonjour, it has been an interesting ride administering business networks that have lots of Apple wireless clients on them. (This is not just me ranting, the Apple support forums are chock full of frustrations with Wi-Fi client behavior through the years.)

Features? What About Standards (and stability)?

Cisco networks also have to support a lot of non-Apple client devices. Making Apple’s consumer-centric AirPlay/Bonjour feature sets work in large business enterprises can be a nightmare. And though Cisco (and other vendors that do similar) mean well with mechanisms like band-steering and load balancing across APs, these enhancements cause their share of problems in the Wild West of widely varying client types found on big WLAN networks. It would be nice to see more focus on standards-based interoperability and feature sets rather than vendor-proprietary juju.

Looking Forward

I used to marvel a bit at Apple’s mastery of talking out of both sides of their corporate mouth when it came to their place under the network sun. Sometimes they were unequivocally not an Enterprise company, and sometimes they were. It seemed to depend on the audience, and how well their unyielding way of doing things fit into the general networking landscape where they were trying to gain specific market share. Now, with the Cisco alliance in play, Apple is emphatically stating that they are an Enterprise player. Hopefully, the company gives strong consideration to what that means to all of the users who love Apple gear but get frustrated because too much of the “Living Room, Single Class C Subnet Network” mentality is in play.

From the Cisco side, ideally my Wi-Fi vendor won’t skew their already frequently-frustrating code too far in the Apple direction at the expense of the rest of the client devices that have no use for Apple-specific features. Also ideally, Cisco would also find a way to end the code bug madness before it starts tweaking WLCs to do magic things for iDevices, lest bugs beget bugs.

This could be absolutely wonderful for environments like mine, or it could just be more of the same- but disappointingly amplified. I’m crossing fingers that both companies get it right…

An Open Letter to the FCC

Dear Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners,

In response to the recent Commission actions relating to Smart City  and Marriott blocking of Wi-Fi hotspots, as a WLAN professional I implore you to recognize that these actions are creating significant amounts of confusion for enterprise Wi-Fi environments and those of us who keep them operational for the millions of business clients that use them every day.

The running theme of late very much seems to be “you can’t use Wi-Fi mitigation techniques to deny individuals the use of their paid-for cellular-equipped personal hotspots” (my own words). But from here, the questions start.

DA 15-113 Enforcement Advisory states clearly “Willful or malicious interference with Wi-Fi hot spots is illegal.” That seems pretty cut and dry, until later in the document we read “No hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s Wi-Fi network. Such action is illegal and violations could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties.”

Given that most of us doing Wi-Fi are not lawyers and very much want to stay within legal boundaries, these questions hang over the WLAN space:

  1. What constitutes an “other commercial establishment”? Would these be hospitals? Universities? Does it even really matter? If not, why call out just hotels and conference centers?
  2. There is emphasis on Wi-Fi blocking being frowned upon especially when it is used to try to force those using hotspots onto an expensive WLAN service. What if blocking ISN’T used to try to push hotspot users onto a pay Wi-Fi service, but to try to eliminate a hotspot that’s significantly interfering with an organization’s private Wi-Fi and business operations- especially if a free Wi-Fi option is available to the hotspot users?
  3. Are hotspot users free to bring their devices anywhere and everywhere regardless of the interference caused by those hotspots?
  4. In  DA 15-113, and other FCC documents (including those related to Mariott), blocking of Wi-Fi is increasingly implied to equal “jamming”. Does blocking Wi-Fi with either wide band noise in the traditional sense OR network frame manipulation in fact now constitute jamming?
  5. Pretty much all major WLAN vendors sell network management systems that include the very mitigation tools that were used by Marriott and Smart City to block hotspots. Are these tools legal under any circumstances? (If frame manipulation now equals jamming, it would seem not.) If they do have an envisioned legal use, in what situations can they be used without an administrator needing to worry about running afoul of the law? This is perhaps the absolute murkiest aspect of the entire Marriott/Smart City situation to those of us who bought these tools on good faith from our WLAN vendors. If blocking of Wi-Fi is illegal in every situation, why are these tools allowed on the market?

Without clear guidance, there is broad room for misinterpretation of what the FCC both is and is not saying on this general matter. PLEASE consider revisiting DA 15-113 and providing greater clarity on the above questions, for the benefit of all concerned.

Kind regards,

Lee Badman

Is It Just My Perception, or Are We Getting a Bit Screwed Here?

Warning: pissing and moaning ahead- if you’re not in the mood, click away now.

My daughter was lamenting today that her iPhone keeps filling up, no matter what she does to try to keep it’s storage lean. We’ll talk about that in a minute, as Rant #1. For Rant #2, I want you to to think about your mobile data plan, and the notion of paying for content you don’t want and have little control over.

Come on now, who do you, who do you, who do you, who do you think you are,
Ha ha ha bless your soul
You really think you’re in control?
Well, I think you’re crazy
I think you’re crazy
I think you’re crazy
Just like me
– “Crazy”, Gnarles Barkley

Back to the iPhone. If you think that when you buy a 16 Gig iPhone, you’ll have 16 GB of storage for YOUR files, you’re sadly mistaken. If you think that 32 GB equals 32 usable Gigabytes on a mobile device, again you are wrong. Basically these numbers are agreed upon lies perpetuated by Apple and other gadget vendors (yes, Android too) and visited upon We the Sheeple who adoringly pay what they say and question little about the shiny new devices that we just gotta have. And if we find that we only get about 3/4 of the device capacity that we think we paid for because the rest is used by fat operating systems and installed bloatware apps, well that’s just our problem.

Or is it?

I ran across this article that talks about Apple being sued by users who have had enough of numbers that you can’t trust and vendors who don’t seem to care about how much of OUR drives they squat on. We’ll see if it actually goes anywhere, but I’d be happy with two outcomes:

  • An end to the industry wide practice of flat-out lying to people about what they are buying (don’t tell me it’s in the fine print)
  • A separate partition on the on-board storage that delivers what the vendor is promising- some amount of storage that truly is yours to junk up as you so choose, that comes absolutely empty. No OS, no bloatware- that goes in another partition.

Data plans have so many bullshit aspects to them it’s just sinful. I don’t know how you fix this one, but for those of us who like to get what we pay for, it’s a travesty. Let’s say you pay $50 a month for a data plan that’s only so big, and when you exceed that usage, you pay overage fees. That’s not unreasonable, right?

Where we have a problem is that you reasonably assume that YOU will decide how your data plan gets used. Ah, you sweet naive kid.

You know all those apps that come on your phone? The ones that you have no use for and can’t uninstall? Some of them are sizable- and so are their updates that eat into your data plan. Think about how many times you open CNN or Reuters and an inline commercial or add kicks off- you’re paying for those too. If you’re saying “so what? I have commercials on cable TV and on my home Internet” then you’re forgetting that those subscriptions are not metered like your cellular data plan is. But there is all kind of force-fed content that helps itself to your data plan regardless of your interest.

The only defenses? Use Wi-Fi as much as possible, root the device to remove the apps you don’t want, or buy some kind of ad-blocker software (you’re still going to get a lot of video that just starts playing when you open web pages). But should consumers really have to go to these lengths to not have their data usage squandered by applications they didn’t invoke or ask for?

So… we got devices that aren’t as big as they claim to be and data plans that will never be ours alone to control, despite that they are ours alone to pay. And “the industry” couldn’t be doing better these days.

So is it me, are are we not in fact getting screwed?

How Well Do You Know Common WLAN RF Views?

OK, so maybe all of these aren’t exactly common. But none are particularly obscure or exotic, and all are part of my reality within a given week or month. See any that you haven’t seen before? Drop me a comment and I’ll share the origin of any that stump you. Thanks for playing our game!

#1SpecAn AirMag

#2
SpecAn Channelizer

#3
SpecAn Dongle

#4
SpecAn ESS

#5
SpecAn InSSIDer
#6
SpecAn SE

#7
SpecAn WinView

#8
SpecAn Xirrus

#9
CKhjgSLUwAA-2S3

#10
Screenshot_2015-08-05-15-16-09

#11
SpecAnMeraki

#12
SpecAn Exalt

How’d you do? I’ll admit, now that you’ve looked at them all, there’s one zinger in the mix that has nothing to do with WLAN. You can probably spot it, but curious how many can identify it.

Cradlepoint Introduces a Beauty

(Quick edit, 8/17/15)

Of late, I’ve had a few opportunities to learn more about the mobile edge router space and the really powerful feature sets that exist in this market. I’ve been briefed by the big players on how their gear is winning over traditional networking in a variety of scenarios, and how slick tools like cloud management and SDR (software defined radio) make mobile edge gear pretty advanced in capability. Read more on the general topic of 4G edge-routing developments with a piece I wrote for Network Computing.

Cradlepoint’s latest announcement provides a great example of the impressive tech in play in this unique realm that creatively puts networking in a variety of interesting places, from public transportation fleets to retail kiosks that pop up and disappear as events come and go to permanent locations like restaurants and gas stations. The new product is the AER3100, and with it’s specifications and flexibility, it’s going to fast find it’s way into all of the markets that Cradlepoint serves with micro-branch/mobile and small branch style offerings.

Here’s the quick view, stolen from Cradlepoint’s web site:

AER3100

This is light-years past simple personal hotspot kind of 4G modem kit. If you ever get an opportunity to take a briefing with Cradlepoint, you’ll realize that the businesses using these sorts of components have a lot to lose by making poor choices with their networking, from lost revenue to data breeches. Cradlepoint seems to have covered all of the bases with robust security, multi-carrier support, and legitimate enterprise network feature sets (including 11ac support on the WI-Fi side) in small components that just happen to get their ISP connectivity generally via 4G.

Give the Tech Specs a look, and see if you’re not as impressed as I was when I first got familiar with them:


Technical Specifications

WAN

  • Integrated 4G LTE (with 3G failover) Multi-Carrier Software-Defined radio
    • Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Europe, and generic models available
    • Dual integrated modem option
    • Dual SIM slot in each modem
    • Most models include support for active GPS
  • 13 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports (WAN/LAN switchable)
  • WiFi as WAN (only on AER3100)
  • Failover/Failback
  • Load Balancing
  • Advance Modem Failure Check
  • WAN Port Speed Control
  • WAN/LAN Affinity
  • IP Passthrough

LAN

  • 13 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports (WAN/LAN switchable); Supports four ports of PoE (9-12) for class I, II, or III devices (up to 15W) or two ports high power PoE for class IV devices (up to 30W)
  • LLDP support
  • VLAN 802.1Q
  • DHCP Server, Client, Relay
  • DNS and DNS Proxy
  • DynDNS
  • Split DNS
  • UPnP
  • DMZ
  • Multicast/Multicast Proxy
  • QoS (DSCP and Priority Queuing)
  • MAC Address Filtering

MANAGEMENT

  • Cradlepoint Enterprise Cloud Manager¹
  • Web UI, API, CLI
  • GPS Location
  • Data Usage Alerts (router and per client)
  • Advanced Troubleshooting (support)²
  • Device Alerts
  • SNMP
  • SMS control
  • Console Port for Out-of-Band Management

¹Enterprise Cloud Manager requires a subscription
²Requires CradleCare Support

ROUTING

  • IPsec Tunnel – up to 40 concurrent sessions
  • OpenVPN (SSL VPN)¹
  • L2TP¹
  • GRE Tunnel
  • OSPF/BGP/RIP¹
  • Per-Interface Routing
  • Static Routing
  • NAT-less Routing
  • Virtual Server/Port Forwarding
  • VTI Tunnel Support
  • NEMO/DMNR¹
  • IPv6
  • VRRP¹
  • STP¹
  • NHRP¹

¹–Requires an ECM PRIME subscription or an Extended Enterprise License

SECURITY

  • RADIUS and TACACS+
  • 802.1x authentication for Wireless and Wired Networks
  • Zscaler Internet Security¹
  • Certificate support
  • ALGs
  • MAC Address Filtering
  • CP Secure Threat Management²
  • Advanced Security Mode (local user management only)
  • Per-Client Web Filtering
  • IP Filtering
  • Content Filtering (basic)
  • Website Filtering
  • Real-time clock with battery backup for CA certificate validation

¹–Requires Zscaler Internet Security License
²-Requires a CP Secure Threat Management license

PORTS AND BUTTONS

  • 54V DC Power
  • 13 10/100/1000 Ethernet LAN
  • Console port
  • Two cellular antenna connectors (SMA)
  • GPS antenna connector (SMA)
  • Lock compatible
  • External USB port for USB modem and/or firmware updates
  • Factory Reset

TEMPERATURE

  • 0° C to 50° C (32°F to 122°F) operating
  • −20° C to 70° C (−4°F to 158°F) storage
  • Redundant internal fans for reliable cooling

HUMIDITY (non-condensing)

  • 10% to 85% operating non-condensing
  • 5% to 90% storage non-condensing

POWER

  • 54VDC 2.25A adapter
  • 802.3af (15W) or 802.3at (30W) PoE capable

SIZE

  • 12.2 in x 10.6 in x 1.75 in (310 mm x 270 mm x 45 mm)
  • 1U height for rack mount

– See more at: https://cradlepoint.com/products/aer-3100#!specs


I’m new to this space when it comes to looking at it to any real depth. What I’ve seen so far makes me think beyond my own typical wired ISP approach to certain branch environments, and it does get fascinating when you contemplate robust networking being enabled anywhere you have halfway decent 4G coverage. I’ve really just skimmed the surface of a pretty big story here, and I look forward to learning more.

Do you work with Cradlepoint gear or competing mobile edge solutions? I’d love hear your take, and examples of success or failure with kind of solution.

TLPS- Chapter Something or Other

The ex partes are a flowing at the FCC in regards to TLPS. Here’s the latest  from engineer-turned-investor Greg Gerst, and like the previous filings, it only adds to the intrigue of the TLPS situation.

Here’s where you can find all of the filings to date on the wannabe WLAN offering from Globo Gym.

And here’s my coverage of the drama so far (start at the bottom and read up for proper historical order.) It’s utterly fascinating stuff. I’m obviously not in favor of FCC approval based on the way TLPS has been spun and packaged, but it’s reads like a mystery/drama/who’s really telling the truth saga regardless of what side of the issue you’re on.

Bullshitometer

What’s Up With Old-School Payphones?

I’m not just a gonzo tech blogger of international renown, I’m also a fantastic photographer not afraid to use words like bokeh and f-stop. Let your peepers run up and  down this saucy little number:

IMG_1489

Yeah… that’s the stuff.

But enough about me. As I was  recently pointing my world-class DSLR at this curious setting, I got wondering how many payphones might still be in use. Like really in use as legitimate payphones, not new-fangled Wi-Fi hotspots or little library thingies. Given my command of The Google, I set out to find the following semi-interesting factoids on the topic:

  • There have been a lot of articles written on how many legitimate payphones are still in use, with a lot of conflicting information
  • The total these days likely ranges in the neighborhood of 200,000 in the US
  • Around 7,500 of these are in New York City (again, lots of conflicting info- this is my educated guess)
  • Calls placed from these phones number well over a billion per year
  • Local calls are generally twenty-five or fifty cents
  • Long distance rates are supposed to be posted on the phones, and surprisingly are often much cheaper than cell rates (even to foreign countries)
  • 911 calls are free
  • No payphones give change- they don’t have the mechanisms to figure out and dispense change

So… who uses payphones (other than prisoners in jail)?

  • It’s estimated that over 12 million American homes have no telephone service of any kind
  • As many as 130+ million adults in the US have no cell phone
  • Payphones do well in immigrant communities
  • Some cities subsidize payphones because they are extremely reliable, and tend to survive the worst natural disasters when cell networks are crippled
  • Airports, truck stops, train depots and the like have payphones that see a lot of use by the above mentioned groups, along with travelers with dead cell phone batteries or who lost their phones along the way

And there you have it! The next time you’re out photographing old phone booths, you’ll have all of the answers to those heady questions that are bound to pop into your noggin.

Thanks for reading!