Category Archives: Wireless Networking

One Example of the Just How Clueless and Misleading Wireless Device Makers Can Be

Sigh… Stop me if you’ve heard this one- A wireless device maker sells something to an unwitting customer on, shall we say, some stretched truth. The pitch that led to the sale isn’t quite the proverbial pack of lies, but certainly left out key information that may have doomed the deal if the customer had a clue about what questions to ask (or had involved their IT staff before writing the check). A fairly limited-capability WLAN client shows up, and suddenly the network has to flex itself in unsound ways to accommodate devices that arguably shouldn’t have been purchased. Can anyone relate?

Security “Lite”… or is it Security “None”?

Here’s my current problem child.

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That’s a time and attendance clock. It’s networked, and it talks to a server out in the cloud. It can use a wired Ethernet connection, or dual-band wireless (we’ll talk about that in a moment). Yay! Cloud! Yay! Wireless! Perfect for just throwing several dozen in and and off they go, because you have a wireless network- it’s a slam dunk, baby!

But it’s not a slam dunk. Because the network it’s likely to land on very well might just be an Enterprise-secure WLAN. That means it doesn’t use living room grade pre-share-based wireless security. Yet the best you will get out of this particular time clock IS living room grade security. It doesn’t support 802.1X authentication or WPA2-Enterprise CCKM encryption.

What happens if you don’t have, and don’t want, a PSK-only Wi-Fi network in a large secure enterprise environment just because someone made a questionable purchase of a WLAN feature-constrained time clock? You don’t have a lot of choices, and the couple that you do have smell and taste bad. Ah well- at least it’s DUAL-BAND WIRELESS.

Yeah… sure it is.

Radios in a Lil’ Faraday Cagey Kinda Thing

I was pleased to hear that the clock was at least an 802.11ac device. Because the environment it will work in does NOT have a PSK network and the clock can’t do enterprise security, it will go on an open guest network with MAC exception so it can bypass the guest gateway (relying on application-layer security to encrypt the data involved). So, I needed the wireless MAC address to set up the exception on the test unit. It was not printed on the clock or packaging, so I opened the device to see if I could find it inside.

I did locate the WLAN adapter’s MAC address, but had to remove the adapter to read it. The clock uses a StarTech USB433WACDB which is in fact dual-band .11ac in spec. But the environment needs to be right for wireless thingies to work to their max performance spec, and things are far from environmentally right in this clock enclosure. The little USB adapter has no external antenna that might help the situation, and sits behind a circuit board and a metal plate inside the clock, with the back of the enclosure and ultimately the wall that the clock will mount on behind it.

Given the RF-unfreiendly location of the adapter inside the clock, I was curious if it would connect at 5 GHz. Here’s where I will admit that my testing was not exactly methodical, but I’ll tell you what I saw and did.

This clock came to life about five feet away from a dual-band access point in the same room, with a couple more dual-band APs beyond other walls but still within range. It first connected on 2.4 GHz. I moved it right next to the AP, and it again connected at 2.4 GHz. I disabled the 2.4 GHz radio on that closest AP, and the clock connected to a farther away AP, using 2.4 GHz. So… it doesn’t look good for “dual band” here. I did not sniff packets to see if the clock is trying in 5 GHz, so I can’t say that maybe it’s not a driver or dodgy band-steering issue. But I can say that in initial testing the clock certainly doesn’t appear to be realistically dual-band despite the adapter spec.

And so it goes…

At the end of the day, this is far from my biggest problem. I’ll hold my nose and get the clocks to work, but it is work calling out the reality that not only are not all wireless clients ready for the business WLAN, sometimes they aren’t even what they claim to be at all in spec because of the way they have been built.

We are collectively in the 5th generation of major Wi-Fi technology with .11ac, with .11ax around the corner. Our WLAN infrastructure systems are advancing with rediculously rich feature sets beefed up with every code release, yet the client device makers seemingly operate on another planet where getting in sync with business WLAN requirements doesn’t seem all that important, given that these clocks are just one very typical example.

Ah well. I realize that nothing told in this narrative is news, but at the same time it needs to be talked about once in a while. Part of that discussion is hoping for better days on the client device front. And part of it is channeling a rant into a story that you can share with others so that they know they are not alone in their own frustrations.

I Don’t Fly Drones, I’m an Unmanned Aircraft System Remote Pilot

Drone

Today, I sat for the Federal Aviation Agency’s “Part 107” exam. I passed by a comfortable margin, but it was no walk in the park. I studied hard, probably a total of 25-35 hours (I’ll tell you how I studied in a bit). I made an appointment for the exam at a flying school that also tests for every level of pilot skill. I paid $150, filled out FAA paperwork, and had an awesome test proctor named Mario. (He flew on EC-47s in Vietnam doing electronic warfare, which was my own career field under the USAF’s Tactical Air Command a dozen and a half years later. It’s really a small world sometimes.) I had butterflies, as it was a formal test setting… I struggled with maybe 10 of the 60 questions, but ultimately found that my studying had paid off when I saw my final score.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are a real deal in the aviation world these days. You can read elsewhere about just how big of a force they are becoming, but if you are going to use drones ANYWHERE in a business setting then you should be licensed as a remote pilot. For one thing, it’s the law. For another, you will learn a lot along the way as you study for the exam that will help you to not get in trouble as you use your drone for business.

Get Your Mind Right

Drones are playthings. Toys. Model flying machines that you race and take videos with on the hobby side of life. There’s no negativity here, and I use my own drone in this way as well sometimes. But when you cross that line and put your small unmanned aircraft to practical, revenue-generating operational use, EVERYONE benefits from you reshaping your attitude. That UAS is a legitimate aircraft (you’ll put a tail number on it) and you are a licensed pilot. You and your craft can achieve great things, but you also have to understand where you fit in the overall framework of the aviation system. Skip it all and be a rogue operator, and you can easily put lives and property at risk- and I’m not being dramatic. The journey to getting that license will teach you incredible things about the aeronautical world that you’ll be a part of.

How to Approach the Study Process

If you are an accomplished self-study kinda person, then read on. If you don’t do so good teaching yourself new and complicated material- and this is absolutely a complicated body of knowledge- then you probably ought to invest in one of the many available online ground schools. If you’re serious about going down this road, it will be time and money well spent.

I happen to be very good at self-study, with more years than I care to admit spent perfecting techniques that work for me. There are a a lot of blogs and videos out there about “How I passed the Part 107 exam”, and each is a personal testimony that may or may not bring value to you. What comes next here is my own methodology- I make no promises that it will work for you. But what may be different about my approach is that I also happen to be an educator, researcher, writer, and analyst. I think critically, and I generally don’t cut corners.

What Worked For Me

Here we go.

You are after achievement of competency/mastery in a working knowledge of these areas:

  1. Applicable regulations relating to small unmanned aircraft system rating privileges, limitations, and flight operation
  2. Airspace classification and operating requirements, and flight restrictions affecting small unmanned aircraft operation
  3. Aviation weather sources and effects of weather on small unmanned aircraft performance
  4. Small unmanned aircraft loading and performance
  5. Emergency procedures
  6. Crew resource management
  7. Radio communication procedures
  8. Determining the performance of small unmanned aircraft
  9. Physiological effects of drugs and alcohol
  10. Aeronautical decision-making and judgment
  11. Airport operations
  12. Maintenance and preflight inspection procedures

This is the prize that your eyes need to stay on. Now get to it- and have a notebook at the ready.

  • Visit this FAA page– bookmark it and refer to it often (some exam answers are on the page). Download the PDF version of each of the Suggested Study Materials and give each at least one read-through. Don’t get hung up on memorizing stuff yet, but try to remember what is in each resource. You’ll be coming back to them.
  • Watch this video by Tony Northrup. I love his delivery, his style, and that he gave of his time and perspective freely for the rest of us. I do NOT agree with his assessment that the Part 107 exam was a cake-walk. I know that mine certainly was not. Refer back to parts about sectional charts, METARS, and TAFs as often as you need to. You need to be as comfortable with all these as he is.
  • Take yourself to the free Part 107 exam site at the King Flight School. Note that you can test on each individual knowledge area, and I recommend that you do. Then take the practice test with 60 questions from all the areas at least a couple of times. GET THAT NOTEBOOK OUT. Through the King Practice tests, you’ll start to find specific areas that stump you. Write those questions down in your notebook. Don’t get hung up on them. Take a break from King… but you’re not done here.
  • Take yourself to the 3DR Part 107 practice test pages. You’ll find great overlap with King, but the look and feel is different enough to help you to not fall under the spell of simple memorization of any one test site. The same guidance on stumpers applies here- write them in your notebook. But don’t get down on yourself for anything that isn’t clicking- this is some pretty arcane stuff in spots. You’re not done here either…
  • If you have an Android device, get this app. Like the King site, you can test on individual areas or the whole mix, and there is also a handy Study Mode with decent explanations. Here too, use that notebook when something stumps you.
  • Run through ALL THREE OF THESE PRACTICE TEST FRAMEWORKS a couple of times. By now, you’ll feel your confidence growing in spots and frustrations mounting in others.
  • Hopefully, you have several pages in your notebook of individual questions- that represent discreet topics- to work on. And you’ll work on them via the FCC docs that you downloaded back in the beginning. The PHAK will be your main go-to here. Don’t just clarify the question that confused you- remember that the question represents an entire topic, and you have to explore all facets of that topic. I can’t stress this enough, especially for the Sectional Charts and Airspace Classes. Gotta know them cold, I tellya.
  • NOW SCHEDULE YOUR EXAM FOR 1-2 WEEKS OUT
  • In the remaining time, rotate through your notes/areas that challenge you, and each of the practice tests. By now you’ll be somewhat in the trap of having memorized many of the questions and answers. Discipline yourself to slow it down, not be a robot, and actually read the words while thinking about the bigger topic.

notebook

How Did This End Up Working For Me?

Pretty good, actually. I felt that I had gone far past brute memorization of practice tests, and actually learned A LOT. (I also want to build on that knowledge through real life experiences as a commercial UAS pilot). There were questions that threw me for a loop on the real exam, but I learned enough in studying to make decent guesses and to rule out bad answers.

As a Part 107 pilot, I have to recertify every 24 months. I’m comfortable that my initial studying was done with sufficient depth of retention (and sparking of the desire to keep learning along the way) that I’ll be in pretty good shape when I do this again in 2020.

Good luck to you on your own quest to get licensed.

 

RELATED: So, I’m a Drone Guy Now

Ubiquiti Gets Serious About Hospitality (?) Wi-Fi Market

I’ve written about Ubiquiti a fair amount over the last year or so. The company is simply fascinating to watch evolve. They are on a trajectory that sees them shaking their perception by mainstream networkers as “that company that sells A LOT  of cheap gear with no real tech support”, and becoming more of a legitimate contender in many, many markets where bigger pedigrees tend to dominate. Competition is a good thing for customers, and it’s nice to see Ubiquiti and other “down-market” solutions provide some balance to the high-end stuff that is getting ever pricier, hyper-complex in spots, and way buggy if you land on the wrong code.

Now, word has made it’s way to me that something else big is afoot in the Ubiquiverse.

Take a look here:
ted Watson

I generally don’t care so much about who went where, and am not a fan of ego-stroking the C-levels just because the PR folks think I should. But Mr. Watson above (and some talented co-workers) have jumped from the Ruckus ship to Ubiquiti in a move that further tells the market that Ubiquiti is serious about growing up. I’m told from insiders (I run in those circles) that Ruckus’ deep penetration into the hospitality WLAN space has a lot to do with Watson and Crew.

And now they wear Ubiquiti polo shirts when they drive to work. THEY. A team that worked at Company A who now works at Company B, and who will no doubt be trying to duplicate their successes in at least the hospitality vertical for Ubiquiti. (Who knows- maybe other verticals as well?)

Stay tuned-  I have no doubt that Ubiquiti has other things brewing as they continue their metamorphosis to the big leagues.
—–

Related:

Past Wirednot blogs about Ubiquiti 
One in Network Computing about early Ubiquiti 802.11ac
Ubiquiti Elite (paid support) Testimonial at IT Toolbox

About That Free Fortinet Access Point From WLPC… DON’T THROW THAT CARD OUT

FortiruwoowooI’ll get right to the point- I did something silly, but explainable- and hope to head off anyone else from doing the same. I THREW OUT MY CARD FOR A FREE FORTINET (Meru) ACCESS POINT.

Don’t you do the same!

Why did I trash the opportunity to get a free access point? The answer is simple, but flawed.

I’ve known Meru through the years as a competitor to Cisco, Aruba, etc. when it comes to wireless. Meru was bought by Fortinet back in 2015, and generally fell off of my own radar. Fast forward to WLPC 2018…

Fortiru graciously offered a free cloud-managed FAP-S313C AP to all WLPC attendees, all you need to do is send in the card that was in your swag bag. But in my mind I thought this:

I don’t want to register yet another free AP, license the thing for a year for free, then either renew the license at my cost (ain’t happening) or throw it on the pile with all of the others that have come before it… Meru competes with everyone else that all license the hell out of everything and therefor Fortiru must be license-happy as well.

Did any other conference attendees think this as well?

To my chagrin- and this is something that Fortinet ought to market the absolute hell out of- there are no licenses needed for APs in the Fortiverse. Start the cloud account for free, register the AP for free, and enjoy the goodness into perpetuity. That’s not only generous to WLPC attendees, it’s also a huge differentiator for marketing and TCO.

I had the pleasure of talking recently with long-time industry friend Chris Hinsz, now the Director of Product Marketing for Wireless at Fortinet, who set me straight on the no-license thing.

Now you know!

Ventev Knows- What a Difference That Antenna Makes

Have you ever designed a WLAN for a stadium? Ever taken a tour a of a top-tier professional stadium that has just had a a new wireless network installed throughout? I’ve done both, and the challenges of stadium WLAN have to be experienced before you can fully appreciate them. Regardless of what WLAN vendor you use on the radio side, you have to get the signals to where they need to be and to manage their fidelity in an environment that has great potential to devolve into an RF cesspool during events. Antennas- and their placement- are the keys to success, Daddy-o.

There are only so many places you can stick access points and antennas in a stadium environment’s fan seating areas. Depending on the venue, you might get great bleed-out/in between the bowl area and the concourses and office areas where different WLANs are likely to be found. Then there is the sheer volume of client devices, the other RF systems on and around the field, and whatever hotspot noisemakers fans and media show up with. Precision placement, alignment, and antenna patterns are the stuff of stadium wireless networks, and it’s all gotta be done in a way that protects the WLAN gear and rowdy fans from each other.

Lately, I’ve been fortunate to spend a little time on multiple occasions with Dennis Burrell of Ventev talking about antennas and his work designing them for challenging environments. Let’s have a look at one of Ventev’s specialty solutions, straight from Soldier Field (home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears):

enclosure

And now a cutaway of that “handrail enclosure”:

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If it’s not obvious, the advantage here is that the antennas are not below the seats or at some far-away overhead mounting location, but rather at waist-height with more clear lines of sight into the adjacent seating rows, shooting in two directions out of one enclosure. You can read more about the 275 of these units at Soldier Field here.

It’s fascinating to see the stadium challenges get answered by people like Burrell who have the talent, know-how, and empowerment to do what needs to be done. I also wrote this recently, which will lead you to many more of Ventev’s stadium projects.

Finally- let’s see what you might now about the stadium Wi-Fi market. Any idea how many large venues are “out there”? My past blog “What’s the Big Deal With Stadium Wi-Fi?” will help you to appreciate this fascinating space. And in this space, you can bet that the WLAN designers and owners appreciate Ventev’s contributions.

 

Today’s WLAN Vocabulary Word: Dichotomy

I just got back from the excellent 2018 Wireless LAN Professionals Conference (WLPC), and feel compelled to share one of the most impactful notions that I left the event with. Though what was said on the stage and in the training sessions has voluminous merit, there was something else afoot that is worth mentioning as well. Something of concern, curiosity, and headaches.

As with the greater WLAN industry, DICHOTOMY was a powerful elephant in the rooms at WLPC.

dichotomy

Merriam-Webster defines dichotomy as “something with seemingly contradictory qualities”, and I can’t think of a better word for the state of wireless networking today. Except it’s not a single dichotomy unto itself, but more of an industry/technology/mindset fraught with DICHOTOMY.

To be clear, “fraught” in this case means we are oozing dichotomy out of every orifice we collectively have that is capable of oozing. And when I say we are “oozing dichotomy”, I actually mean that we as a wireless industry can’t get our collective acts together on sooooo many fronts. We do counterproductive things… I blame everyone involved, from the IEEE to the Wi-Fi Alliance to Cisco and Aruba to every marketer in the mix and many individuals. But “blame” is too strong, maybe. Somehow, we all just kinda lost our way.

If you’ve made it this far, you might be thinking “all right, get to the point already… show us examples of this dichotomy stuff so we can all get on with it.” OK- let’s do that. Following is a bulletized list of seemingly contradictory qualities. I’m also throwing in some bummers and head-scratchers for good measure.

  • Access Points are shipping with 80 MHz channels enabled in 5 GHz, while many a WLAN expert is saying that 20 MHz is plenty for most environments
  • The quest for WLAN design and survey hyper-precision marches on with awesome refinements to suites like Ekahau and iBwave, yet many people doing WLAN can’t afford these Caddilac-grade tools, so they do what they can with the “lesser” tools they have available- and frequently do just fine
  • For those of us who do put a lot of time into our designs and surveys (to both provide needed services and to generate revenue) we tend to factor out that wireless is also fairly forgiving to imperfect conditions and that Very Good may be the better fit than highly-tuned Perfection over time
  • Network manufacturers are pushing mGig switching for 802.llac Wave 2 APs while a huge percentage of the WLAN pro population leads with “It’s overkill and we’ll never need mGig” when asked about it – why the disconnect?
  • As the higher end of the standards are aggressively marketed by WLAN vendors, the very factors that need to line up to achieve the max performance is being undermined by client device makers who never got the memo that the 90s are over and yesterday’s shitshow doesn’t play well in today’s WLAN opera house
  • Security is the running headline du jour day in and out, yet client device makers are missing the boat here as well, so for decades we’ll be stuck with PSK networks and having to provide layers of network defenses for devices that are too hastily thrown together to be able to defend themselves for decades
  • Standards are evidently only standards to a point. When you need to design separate networks  for Apple devices, something is wrong with the bigger wireless world
  • We’re collapsing WLAN controllers into ever larger-capacity units to reduce uplink port counts, rackspace, etc- but the old saying about all the eggs in one basket applies here when too-frequent code issues impact thousands of APs and the clients using them
  • Our wireless boats at the enterprise level are drifting into the Automation Sea, where new magic promises to take the human touch of configuration and tuning out of the equation. Yet to get to the new “see- isn’t that simple?” paradigm, crazy complexity and cost have to be gotten past
  • While market leaders develop super-complicated WLAN systems that prioritize feature bloat over stability (evidently having both is not an option), “lesser” vendors are doing the REAL innovation as they prioritize serving ever larger numbers of clients without the system imploding under it’s own weight every few months

The list certainly goes on, but I’m sure you get the point. Before we close this out, give a little thought to Ethernet… Ever seen this weapons-grade lunacy on the wired network? I’m sure at least a couple of you are thinking that I’m not appreciating that WLAN is “flexible” which forgives everything that the WLAN Crazy Train might be hauling. To you I say: It ain’t innovation if it sucks.

So… what do we do as WLAN professionals, with all this DICHOTOMY afoot? I’d recommend recognizing it all for what it is. Skepticism is healthy, and enterprise WLAN work (and spending of enterprise WLAN dollars) deserves large doses of said skepticism. Part of our jobs as WLAN professionals (in my opinion) is to boil off hype, find warts, and make the best out of situations that are rarely as good as vendors would have you believe- as opposed to being Kool Aid drinkers and vendor fanboys. Dichotomy isn’t going  anywhere, so get used to it.

It’s also one of the parts of being in the WLAN field that I actually enjoy contending with, which in itself might be considered a dichotomy.

2018 #WLPC Person of the Year

OK- Scott got me laughing here. Thanks for the kind words, your own awesome blog, and for helping to make my WLPC experience a blast.

The it Rebel

As we near the close of the 2018 US version of #WLPC, Keith Parsons took to the stage to announce the person of the year. This award was previously held by Adrain Granados, well known maker of the WifiExplorer (and other Mac WiFi tools) within the wireless community. Definitely a hard act to follow.

With so much angst for members of the community, this year the awardee was Lee Badman.

DWp1m-UU0AIi65p.jpg-large 2018 WLPC Person of the Year – Lee Badman

Now, most would agree that Lee has been very influential this past year with his #WIFIQ tweets daily that have sparked some great discussions within the community. But let’s get to know the REAL Lee.

  1. This is no surprise to many, but Lee loves pugs. That’s right pugs. Possibly the least beautiful animal in the genus Canis. I mean, what real man wants a pug? It’s like the animal just ran…

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