160 MHz Wide Channels: Just the Tip of an Iceberg of WLAN Industry Dysfunction

What lies ahead in this blog isn’t so much a rant, as it is an analysis. That sounds classier, and implies critical thought rather than just someone bitching about things. With that in mind, I give you the following image, stolen from Matthew Seymour (on Twitter at @realmattseymour) and sourced from this year’s Aruba Atmosphere conference in Europe:

The topic of the slide is 802.11ax, but that is tangential to the points I want to make here. Read that first caveat- this requires the use of 160MHz channels, which is generally not possible or just not a good idea wow.

I’m not sure who actually presented this session, but I’m assuming it is a trusted voice from a trusted company- Aruba folks generally know their stuff (as evidenced by their growing customer base and industry longevity). When I saw this come across Twitter, something in my mind clicked and this simple thought bubbled up:

Why does the WLAN industry do this idiotic shit to itself?

When I say the WLAN industry, I’m including the IEEE, the Wi-Fi Alliance, and the vendors that provide the hardware and the marketing of wireless networking products. Let me state the underlying problem as clearly as I can: the IEEE creates the 802.11 standards, and since 802.11n each standard has had a nonsensical top end- you simply cannot reach the high part of the spec. Evuh. The Wi-Fi Alliance does nothing to bring any sanity to the situation, and WLAN vendors build in configuration options with high-end settings that actually do WLAN operational damage and so let us create operational situations that are…

just not a good idea

Has anyone TOLD the IEEE that no one is really impressed with the promise of high end specs that can’t actually be leveraged? That it’s all a big stupid tease? Got some bait-and-switch going on here… The entire professional WLAN community knows that 160 MHz channels are…

just not a good idea

So why do WLAN vendors present 160 as an option in the UI? Why don’t the Wi-Fi Alliance and the vendor community repaint their messaging with reality-based promises of what each new WLAN technology can do? Wi-Fi 6 will STILL be impressive- but market it as if 160 MHz channels don’t exist- and watch the Sun of Truth rise over the wireless landscape (can I get a witness?).

I’m guessing some of you are thinking “you idiot, the FCC is going to give us more spectrum and then we’ll be rockin’ 160 for sure”. To that I say- pffft. I’ll believe it when I see it- and even then the ability to toggle 160- to even see it in configs- should not be a default.

The argument might also be made that “Maybe people AT HOME can use 160 MHz channels so you should shut up about it already”. Don’t go there, girlfriend. That only amplifies my beef with the Wi-Fi Alliance members who refuse to draw a clean line between Enterprise Grade gear and Wonky Shit That Plays Well at Home But Shouldn’t Be Dragged Into The Enterprise environment.

And that loops us back to the “tip of the iceberg” thing- and a couple more examples of general industry dysfunction. We have cheap printers that come up in default 40 MHz wide channels in 2.4 GHz, which also is…

just not a good idea

And an industry-wide trend where pretty much most 5 GHz gear comes up with 80 MHz channels enabled. Which also happens to be…

just not a good idea

We’re at an odd place where all the players involved are obviously aware of all the things that are

just not a good idea

yet they MARKET bad ideas and then we have to explain to those we support why we can’t really USE those bad ideas which have been marketed to us.

We kinda need our collective wireless head examined. Thus ends my analysis. 

Good Tools in Good Hands = Good Outcomes

A while back I wrote about the importance of the Good Guy On Other End (GGOOE) for those of us charged with keeping up far-flung network empires. Even when you have decent instrumentation and infinite powers of configuration, sometimes you need someone to move, touch, or add something. It sounds so simple, but even simple tasks asked of the wrong person can result in the failure of those tasks- and possibly the creation of more and bigger problems. Having someone you can trust (even if they aren’t a networking type) on site when you are two, two hundred, or two thousand miles away is huge.

Then of course came The Soon To Be Famous Cocktail Napkin that rocked the IT world to it’s foundation. With one graphic that looked like it could have been inked by a drunken child, I dared to tell the world that “sometimes problems that feel Wi-Fi-ish may not be”, and the cosmos rippled with hyper-galactic truth and acknowledgement, I tellya. OK, maybe it wasn’t quite that epic, but a lot of people seemed to derive value from that simple drawing and the idea behind it.

Now fast forward to the point of this blog. I recently fielded a challenge from an esteemed colleague: “one of our VIPs who telecommutes is having a horrible time with his Wi-Fi at home, I need to get to the bottom of it”. My friend is really smart, but his core strengths are in other facets of IT. He had a tight window for a site visit, and I had a conflict during that window. He floated the idea of buying some sort of wireless tool for a couple of hundred bucks, but I was able to head that off.

We talked a bit deeper about what was going on- and it didn’t sound so “wireless” to me. Evidently there was some ISP issues in the past, and the VIP was using a managed laptop, so this could go in a few directions. Yet because Wi-Fi was involved- and when things got wonky, the VIP was using Wi-Fi- the specter of Wi-Fi problems still loomed. I took a few minutes to introduce him to a real tool- the NETSCOUT AirCheck G2, with emphasis on how to restart a monitoring session, let the channels all scan a couple of times, and then save the session. The idea was he’d visit the site, do his best to analyze anything possibly in play, and then return the AirCheck to me where I would analyze his captures.

So how did that go?

Again, he’s a smart guy. He was able to prove ISP service interruptions, probably related to crappy cable outside of the house. He also found a pretty significant problem with the YIP’s laptop. And… we were able to exonerate the wireless in this case through almost a dozen captures taken at different points in the home with the AirCheck. He gathered them, I analyzed them, and though THE EXPERT couldn’t be on site to prove that the wireless-feeling problems weren’t really wireless, the right tool in the right hands boiled all of the mystery off of the Wi-Fi side of the discussion. Plenty of signal at sufficient strength and quality inside the home, no real RF encroachment from outside. It also provided a baseline that we can refer to if the situation ever needs to be revisited.

It’s not easy handing off the expensive, beloved tools to someone else. But if you can get past that and you are handing the tools to the right GGOOE, it’s the next best thing to being there.

The Numbers Game

Another academic year is almost in the can at my day job. As things wind down for staff and students, a lot of IT work is just kicking off for the project frenzy that is the summer months in higher ed. There is a lot to ponder and analyze at the end of every school year, but this go around feels a little different.

On the personal side, I’ve crossed the 21-year mark with my current employer, and am thankful every day that I had the good sense to take a 25% cut in pay way back when to get my foot in the door in hopes that a fantastic career would blossom (it did). I’m also counting the miles I need to drive to see my daughter graduate college, and the months until her wedding later in the year. I’m tallying the time until each of my two sons finish their PhD programs in the near future, and wondering what comes next for all of my kids in the days to come. My wife and I are approaching our 30-year anniversary, we just lost a beloved dog who lived to be 14, and I figure I can now play about 8 good chords on the ukulele. Lots of numbers to think about… thankfully most have good connotations.

But back to work, and work-related numbers.

Image result for numbers clipart

I’m seeing that our big-honkin’ WLAN served around 30K simultaneous clients at the busiest part of each day.  Add remote sites in the US and abroad, and we’re well towards 33K. That equates to millions of aggregate hours of network usage that includes academic instruction, online business applications, gaming, entertainment, and all kinds of stuff whizzing across that sweet, sweet Wi-Fi. We’ve had phenomenally low numbers of trouble tickets (statistical zero, by several measures) and few social media swipes at the WLAN over the last two semesters, and continue to validate that our mantra of “stability above all”  has yet again paid off for a lot of people who need to do their work (and play) over the WLAN.

Looking forward, I feel a tension brewing. At some point, our 4,300+ access points will need to be moved off of legacy controllers (Halle-freakin-lujah!), and will grow by hundreds as new buildings come on line and old designs are updated. But those 30K+ clients will need the same stability we’ve mastered on the existing hardware (by never upgrading from one of the few stable code versions we’ve ever found), and new hardware is the devil you don’t know. Then there are the new licensing paradigm numbers- as best I can tell we’ll being paying a lot more but not actually getting a lot more (beyond buzzwords) for those dollars, but I hope I prove myself wrong. I do know that my “Intent” is that the next generation of wireless code won’t suck as bad as the last, and that our vendor at some point realizes that you can only license the shit out of so much before you force customers to find relief elsewhere. Whatever- that is my battle to fight.  Meanwhile… a reminder on the most important numbers:  those 30K+ clients with their millions of hours of network use just want things to continue working well.

We’ll continue to be peppered with big marketing numbers as .11ax makes it way into town, and as with any past WLAN technology will have to translate it all into “realistic” numbers that come from boiling off hype. We’ll be learning about how new WPA3 security does away with the 4-way handshake of WPA2, how 192-bit security becomes more relevant, and where 5G will or won’t eventually fit in with Wi-Fi 6. mGig and UPOE bring new numbers to reconcile in our own environments. Numbers, numbers, numbers. There is no escaping them. Numbers are part of who we are and what we do. They change with time, and they always have- both at work and at home.

Numbers are funny… just a few bad ones- like hours of downtime- have a way of reputationally negating millions of good ones (like hours of uptime).

You all have your own numbers swimming around in your heads right now. Many of us are facing the same concerns and changes in the days to come, but what they map to for numbers of budget dollars, training hours, or trouble tickets will vary. Learn, evolve, adapt and try to use the various numbers to your advantage as much as possible.

Just remember that your own users probably also want stability above all as you wrestle with all of the numbers in your life. That fact has it’s own number.

Image result for #1

 

Ekahau Retools For The Future

As a long-time Ekahau user (pretty sure I was one of the first few American customers way back when), I’ve gotten used to continuous improvement and evolution from Ekahau Site Survey (ESS) suite of tools. There have always been new features right around the corner, and the company has been perhaps the best I’ve ever seen at gathering and acting on user feedback. It’s been a great run. In the recent past, the hot-selling Sidekick provided a unique new dimension to the survey and spectrum analysis processes, and the Ekahau company was purchased by Ookla/Ziff-Davis. Both of those developments are pivotal to what comes next for Ekahau.

And what comes next is called Ekahau Connect.

Ekahau Connect

There’s  A LOT here to talk about, starting with ESS getting rebadged as Ekahau Pro, now compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems. (If you are new to the world of WLAN support, trust me that Mac is a far-better tool platform than Windows- and I am unabashedly NOT an Apple lover.)

Then there is Sidekick’s expanded capabilities- including wireless packet capture leveraging Sidekick’s dual radios (yay!) and the ability to interface with the iPad as a survey platform. This is a pretty big deal, and the light physical weight of the iPad makes for easier, more comfortable surveys.

Ekahau iPad

And… Ekahau does a little catch-up with it’s introduction of Ekahau Cloud. This is one extremely valuable capability that competitor iBwave has had for some time, as I wrote about here. Having used iBwave’s cloud tools, I can assure you that Ekahau’s customers who work in teams are going to love it and there is no doubt that the cloud expertise behind Ookla has some impact here.

And is if this all wasn’t enough for Ekahau Nation, feast your eyes on another new benefit- Ekahau Connect components working together to identify, classify, and locate interferers:

interferers

I have been fortunate in that I have been a beta tester for Ekahau’s latest. At the same time, a couple of serious “life happens” events have kept me from being a good beta tester. So for real-world first-hand perspective, I’ll hand you to two two of my favorite people on the No Strings Attached podcast.You’ll be in good hands with Sam and Blake.

 

 

Unfortunately, Seeing Isn’t Always Believing With Meraki Network Topology View (updated)

update After opening a support case, Meraki was able to verify what I describe below in their own lab testing- some MX ports were not doing LLDP right. And…. the fix: “The issue of the transmission of LLDP packets from the MX is fixed in versions starting MX14.2” – which so far is proving to be the case. (Now we need to solve client MAC addresses showing up on the wrong switch ports, but that’s another tale for another time.) Read on if you’d like, but keep in mind that they DID fix this problem at long last.


The only thing worse than an important feature that’s missing in a network management solution is an important feature that works wrong. Those of us who pay for these systems expect the features that we trade our dollars for to actually, well, work. And bad information is just terrible in that it sends us down time-wasting bad roads.

Meraki- you have a problem. Your topology view doesn’t refresh for hours, days, or weeks after changes are made. And for whatever reason, you have not given us decent LLDP tools that we can invoke on demand. That’s the polite description, which can be abbreviated down to your topology view sucks at times.

Before I show and tell my latest frustration in this regard, let me share Meraki’s summary on it’s topology view and evidence that what I’m about to describe is not my frustration alone. See this post from the Meraki community. Now on to the defective topology feature.

It Just NEVER Updates

In a faraway branch location, we had two switches that daisy-chained off of another switch due to physical layer constraints. Here’s the old topology:

Pay attention to VillaRosa-3, Villino-1,and Vilillino-2. V1 and V2 were daisy-chained off of V3. THEN THEY WERE MOVED TO EACH DIRECTLY CONNECT TO THE MX. And then I got an email… “The switches got moved to ports 6 and 7 on The MX, but the topology isn’t updating. Maybe I should restart the devices…” As we see in the community forums, we may be waiting quite a while for this map to update…

The Implications

Few things are more basic in network support than simply knowing what connects to what- both physically and logically. Commands like <show cdp neighbors> and <show lldp neighbors> are pretty important, but not available in the Meraki dashboard paradigm. Instead, we need to rely on incomplete or inaccurate graphical information.

As I mentioned above, V1 and V2 moved to direct connects on the MX. So what does the MX say about the switches that are connected to it? Unfortunately, nothing. For whatever reason, Meraki has never seen it as important to give full lldp information for devices connected to an MX:

This is utterly nonsensical for enterprise-grade networking equipment. But it gets worse. Let’s look at one of the switches that has had it’s uplink moved to the MX. Days after the move, the switch still says it’s connected to it’s old uplinked V3 switch:

This is pretty bad. It’s wrong, it’s outdated, it’s misleading, and it’s inexcusable. Let’s have a look at “VillaRosa-3 / 51.

To recap:

  • Topology views don’t refresh as they should (if ever)
  • The MX doesn’t tell who it’s lldp neighbors are- which is a glaring deficiency
  • The lldp neighbors information on the Meraki switches can’t be trusted
  • There are no obvious ways to invoke on-demand refreshes for topology and lldp views, we are at the mercy of some undeclared loooooooong refresh timer

That this “feature set” can be this off-kilter defies logic- especially when you consider the cost of the gear and it’s licensing and the importance of lldp to network support.

Announcing #WIFIQ 2.0

I’ve heard the cries of anguish. I know the many lives that have been ruined and rendered meaningless since I announced the end of #WIFIQ on Twitter at the end of last year. I too have lived in silent agony since the daily discussion exercise went dark, even though that darkness was of my own making.

I’m well aware of the value that others have found in #WIFIQ, and I again thank all of the individuals and organizations like iBwave who have said kind things about #WIFIQ.

And now… I’m happy to announce that #WIFIQ is back, baby!

But going forward, the NEW version of #WIFIQ will not flow from my muscular, impressive fingertips. Ah, the stories those fingertips could tell…  *Ahem* It’s time for fresh minds to take up the cause, and I’m tickled to announce that the Wireless LAN Association (WLA) has expressed the desire to bring back the good thing that is #WIFIQ.

I’m not sure exactly how the WLA will originate their questions, or if they will take input like old guy who did #WIFQ did. But I do know the men and women of the WLA are good folks with great minds, and I haven’t a worry in the world that they will do justice to the #WIFIQ concept.

If you don’t yet follow the Wireless LAN Association on Twitter, get yourself hooked up with @WLANAssociation handle and standby for #WIFIQ and related news as they re-prime the pump of wireless knowledge, fellowship, and goodness.

I salute you, WLA.

wlan-association-logo-gold