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…

4 thoughts on “A WLAN Doer Contemplates the Cisco/Apple Partnership

  1. Zach Jennings

    Hahahah, I just read the press release. It’s such a load of nothing at all. Apple doesn’t need to do anything at all to comply with this agreement. All developers have access to the tools to build this kind of integration that they mention in the press release. And if you think for one second that Apple developers are going to help Cisco build their apps for iOS, well then, you don’t Apple very well. :p

    Reply

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