Wireless Standards Just Aren’t Enough

First the love:

Anyone in the wireless game, like really in it, knows that wireless networking is incredibly complicated under the hood. That the IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance could herd enough cats to get us to where we are today- enjoying our 11ac honeymoon- far from the days of early 802.11 is amazing.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about how far we’ve really come, because it is impressive indeed. From a technology that was an expensive accessory at one point, with low data rates, high prices, and anemic security, to being the preferred method of access today for most of us, with rates and security features that are fitting for any environment (when installed right), wireless has grown up.  A huge thank you to everyone involved, as you’ve given me the best job in the world- that of a WLAN professional.

Now the lament:

As impressive as the modern WLAN is, somehow we ended up with some crazy market fragmentation and mindsets. Even though interoperability testing mostly keeps the wireless train on the rails, we still end up with enough in-place chaos to make life pretty miserable for wireless clients and support staff at times.

Maybe we try too hard for backwards compatibility. Perhaps device makers are lazy or out of touch, or could it be that the BYOD comet just hasn’t caused enough pain to really get everyone’s attention? For sure, the fuzzy, often-bludgeoned distinction between consumer and enterprise-grade components doesn’t help matters.  Here’s what I mean:

– In a world where we’re talking about “Gigabit Wireless”, we still have device and instrument manufacturers churning out chipsets that need 1 and 2 Mbps data rates to behave right. These devices are frequently intended for networks that aren’t likely to have those rates enabled.

– Printer manufacturers have far deeper roots in the business environment than does wireless. Yet, we can’t get printer makers to understand what their devices need to do for desired functionality on the “business WLAN”.

– What we call BYOD is actually BYOD/T; that is bring your own device AND TOYS to the WLAN. If it works at home on the living room network, you know damn well people are going to want to use them at work. Like AppleTVs and Google Chromecasts. To the uninitiated, you look at the specs on the packaging and see “compatible with 802.11n/g” or whatever, and jump to the conclusion that it must work because that’s the kind of network we’re using. The  warning label that should say “check with your networking department before buying this for office use” never makes it to the packaging.

But… rather than having to explain to users why this gadget or that can’t work on the WLAN, or killing ourselves to put in hyper-complex, house-of-cards-quality work-arounds, wouldn’t it be nice if somehow the Community of Wireless Client Device Makers could get with the times and build compatibility for both consumer and enterprise networks in to begin with?

Just supporting enterprise security would help immensely, and likely add little to the device cost. (I’m astounded at how out of touch the business printer/projector makers seem to be). There are certainly other nuts to crack as well before everything is perfect between the WLAN and BYOD/T devices, and Apple could be an absolute leader here. Bonjour has long had it’s day, as I’ve bitched to anyone who will listen.  “Apple TV is perfect for the boardroom” provided that you have one small flat network and one boardroom. But when you have hundreds of boardrooms/classrooms and complicated LAN topologies, devices like the Apple TV are a supreme pain in the assbone. If Apple could do right by the customers who continue to fatten the company’s immense bottom line and give us something better than Bonjour for their devices in the workplace, maybe other device makers would follow suit. (Did you know that higher ed is begging Apple to provide relief from Bonjour headaches?)

Maybe we need tighter “categories” from the Wi-Fi Alliance- with devices that are labeled either “Enterprise Ready” or “Consumer Grade”. This would give incentive for the lower-end stuff (including Apple’s Bonjour-based devices) to step it up. It would also give a clean delineation for networkers to point to for device support. If done right, We could say “if it’s got the Enterprise-ready label, we support it” and if not, don’t bother bringing to us. Everyone would know where they stand, as the criteria that goes into an “Enterprise Ready” compatibility testing program would be based on far more than just whether radios can talk to each other. It’s a nice thought anyways.

Ah well- end of rant. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go explain why Chromecast doesn’t work on our 802.1x-based WLAN.

2 thoughts on “Wireless Standards Just Aren’t Enough

  1. Keith R. Parsons

    You’d think the Wi-Fi Alliance would/should be that ‘Community of Wireless Client Device Makers’ – but that’s a big NEGATORY BIG GUY… they exist to perpetuate all sorts of client device issues by NOT denying any WLAN Vendor anything, by minimizing standards so even terrible and old devices still qualify.

    The main group whose job is to promote Wi-Fi is actually the cause of much of this problem you accurately defined.

    I know the Wi-Fi Alliance’s salaries and operating budget come from their ‘members’ – but it’s pretty ridiculous they don’t do anything to help solve this issue.

    Shame on them.

    Reply

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