A Crazy-Assed Idea For Business Wi-Fi

Free your minds. Are they free? OK then… What I’m about to describe is a notion so profoundly bold and stupid that I know some of you reading will think that crazy bastard just might be onto something here. We’re talking Wi-Fi, in the business setting. Where big dollars flow for infrastructure components, and where there is a precision of approach and knowledge that goes into doing Wi-Fi “for real”.

Read that last sentence again.

<pause, for dramatic effect>

What if there was another way of doing enterprise-grade WLAN that didn’t put cables in hard to reach places using expensive pathways? That didn’t need that precision approach? No, I’m not talking about meshing wireless.. that’s old news.

What if we were able to leverage the wired computers that so many businesses have, by using wizardry like Connectify to provide wireless connectivity? Add a decent WLAN adapter to your typical GigEthernet-connected PC, use magic software, and BAMMY! You got a Wi-Fi hotspot! In a business, it’s BAMMY! x100, or 500, because there’s lots of computers!

<deep breath>

So that was fun to contemplate about for about 5 seconds, but then the WLAN professionals among us start thinking “bah, what an idiot. What about channels, and power, and proper AP placement, and fast secure roaming, and big areas where there are no PCs  that still need WLAN coverage?” And there are many other problems too with this idea.

But remember… we’re talking bold and stupid.  And that makes many things possible in conversation.

What if some whizz-kid developer took the Connectify paradigm and blew it out to infinite scale, and magically coordinated all those new PC-hotspots with orchestration sorcery that could manage the RF environment, and let these new soft APs actually be part of a hybrid architecture that included real access points for areas where there are no PCs?

Here’s where I admit two things:

  • This isn’t completely my idea. A pal named Andrew who happens to be an Active Directory God planted the seed when we were talking about Connectify as we both learned about it for the first time.
  • I just had a decent shot of Jameson’s.

In my mind, it all makes absolutely perfect sense as I picture people a lot smarter than me whipping up the code that makes my strange vision work.

Laugh if you choose… but as a technologist who likes to daydream I have to think that maybe something like this isn’t as silly as it might sound to the ears of Wi-Fi folks that have always done it “the old way”.

What do you think? Is this bold and stupid? Just stupid? Bold and maybe not so stupid? I’d love to hear your opinion, or your own crazy idea.

Update: One of the really smart guys out there in WLAN thought leadership has already been down this road! 

10 thoughts on “A Crazy-Assed Idea For Business Wi-Fi

  1. Frank Sweetser

    No need to get the pc itself involved. If you’ve already got the wire run to the location, just slap an Aruba 205H (or equivalent from your favorite vendor) directly on the faceplate. You still get to leverage the desktop wiring you already have, there’s no dependencies on the pc hardware power or software, plus you even get a few extra gig ports at the desktop out of the deal!

    Reply
  2. apcsb

    This is not crazy (and not new either). There was a company called, I think, WLANcontroller (try checking with Access Agility folks) that did just that – turns Win7+ and Mac PCs into APs. For some reason they no longer exist and this must be the answer to your proposal 😉 My take, just maintaining compatibility with all possible chipset/driver/OS combination generated insane OpEx either on vendor or customer side, making the whole endeavor unfeasible. Plus, you don’t get any bells & whistles implemented only in proper AP chipsets.

    Reply
      1. Dave J

        That really isn’t “my” crazy idea. People far crazier and desperate than me came up with that one

  3. ZK

    Tried my best to promote this type of idea back in 2010/2011. As you noted in blog post above we built a production solution that did almost everything you mentioned + added centralized WiFi scanning / basic WIDS. Below is a copy/paste from an email in sent to a person that doubted if this concept was useful. The person liked the wifi scanning idea but didn’t think using PCs as infrastructure devices was a good idea. Keep in mind I’m doing my best to help this person see the potential of this crazy idea in 2011 so some of the technology mentioned is dated.

    “The main goal of the cloud manager and software clients is to reduce
    the time and cost to blanket 802.11 access and scanning coverage for
    an entire area by leveraging existing clients. Convincing end users to
    use clients as infrastructure is something we are working on. As we
    add features and provide case studies it will be easier.

    We think for WiFi access the first wave of users will be SOHO dial-up
    users in international markets that want to enabled computers as an
    access point to share Internet with smart phone or a second PC. Next
    wave will be SMB and then Enterprise.

    For WiFi scanning / rogue AP detection we think we have a good
    solution for SMB and enterprise networks today.

    In version 1.0 of cloud manager and clients our primary goal was to
    create a very flexible cloud manager architecture that would allow us
    to add clients from any OS easily. I think we have demonstrated that
    our design can support many different client operating systems and
    hardware. We have considered releasing a custom firmware for
    Linksys/Broadcom-based routers (our server communication protocol
    added to Tomato or similar) or create firmware for ODM hardware
    (http://accton.com/products/product_range/21_weap/MR3202A.htm) but
    decided not to for now because http://www.powercloudsystems.com/ is
    basically doing this and our original goal was to leverage existing
    clients and we want to fully explore that before adding a hardware
    based client.

    What we have released in v1.0 is based on our experience designing and
    implementing WLAN for enterprise customers using Cisco, Motorola,
    Aruba gear (and a few others). We continue to run into same issues.

    1) Cost of deployment is very high (site survey, design, cabling, etc)
    2) Cost of equipment is high especially 802.11n gear
    3) Most end users only use a fraction of the WLAN and WLAN security
    features in enterprise systems

    We surveyed many solutions (Cisco, Aruba, Moto, Meraki, Linksys/SOHO,
    etc) and they all have pros/cons but each one requires hardware access
    points to be deployed and cabling to be run to each access point for
    data and/or power. We took the opposite approach and eliminated the
    hardware access point / scanner and cabling requirements are want to
    see how far we can take our approach of using clients for WiFi access
    and scanning.

    Regarding your concerns/questions…I will try to answer them below
    but think a discussion over phone and/or Webex will help.

    Scalability – Our cloud manager (http://manage.wlancontroller.com)
    uses Amazon AWS and I’m very confident that we can scale number of
    devices managed without any issues. When client is is not connected to
    manager they still work and commands are queued and sent when
    connection is active.

    Predictability – If you mean performance predictability of network of
    clients that are acting as sensors and access points…we’ll have to
    see. We don’t have any feedback from large deployments yet but our
    v1.0 client code seems to very solid in all our testing. Clients can
    also be fixed stations (desktop with USB wireless card) so there is a
    way to add predictability.

    Security – Today for WiFi networking we are limited to standard APIs
    in Windows, Mac OS, and iOS…we have not modified or created custom
    access point/internet sharing code we have just created a layer of
    management on top of existing OS capability. So for Windows we rely on
    Wireless Hosted Network” feature aka Virtual WiFi and any security
    features it offers for access point mode.

    Flexibility – Need more details on what you are looking for but we
    offer a 30-day trial to see if our cloud managed soft client solution
    is a good fit. The end user can deploy 300 soft clients for 30 days
    and if it isn’t a good fit they just uninstall the software. No
    complex evals, no equipment to return, no demo kits to buy, no buyers
    remorse.

    Infrastructure Control – each client can be individually enabled for
    Access Point, 802.11 scanner, and wired scanner mode. We plan to add
    more modes in the future. Soft access points and scanners can be
    added/deleted/enabled disabled from manager by end user.”

    Reply

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