Tag Archives: Bonjour

So Close, Yet So Far Away With Mersive’s Solstice

Ah, the display mirroring challenge… There are all kinds of neat things you can do with the likes of AppleTVs and Chromecast devices in the home, where most of us have a single small network and don’t have to worry much about how protocols like Bonjour scale, or the impact of multicast on our little wireless environments.

Then there’s the pain that many of us with very, very large WLAN environments deal with in trying to make standards-based, enterprise-secure networks do odd tricks to accommodate the consumer-grade (but very cool) capabilities that are possible at home (where a fundamentally different network paradigm lives, one largely built on the classic single Class C subnet.) Reference the Higher Ed petition from 2012, asking for Apple to step up and help with the dated and often-frustrating nature of Bonjour when their devices come to work. This is but one example of the “Works Easy At Home, Complete Pain In The Rear At Work” category of display devices.

Then there’s Mersive’s Solstice software, which almost became my silver bullet to the display conundrum.

I fell in love with the notion of Mersive’s Solstice last year, when I was the lead wireless judge for Best of Interop. Solstice did well, and being a foot soldier in the ongoing Bonjour Wars of Higher Ed, I saw the value of Solstice as a network-agnostic, don’t-make-any-topology-changes-on-our-account, viable option in enabling client devices of all types to get their displayed content onto the room projector or other display with minimal effort. I had great dialogues with the company, learned of their origins as computer scientists and makers of the most gorgeous multi-screen video walls used around the world. They were able to address all of my concerns on early versions of the product, and I tried my hardest to explain the way large campus networks are laid out, and what does and doesn’t work for our demographic in general.

I trialed Solstice, and I liked it. I helped it evolve. I showed it to colleagues in the decision making process, and they liked it. Solstice is a nice, easy, problem solving snap-in to any network environment. The company has some of the nicest people you’ll ever talk with behind the curtain. All the basics are in place.

But it also costs a king’s ransom. 

In a market where Solstice is competing against $35 Chromecasts and $100 AppleTVs, a list price of $3,500 per copy immediately comes across as a turn-off. Mersive has every right to charge what they feel is fair for their products, and I don’t begrudge them that. But when you’re looking for something that can get used in hundreds (or potentially thousands) of classrooms, meeting rooms, and collaborative spaces, price concerns scale up quick. Even at “deep discounts” off of the $3500 list price, Solstice comes out high.

To me, the fact that Solstice solves many of the challenges associated with hardware-based alternatives certainly does make it worthy of pricing beyond what the problematic gadgets themselves fetch. But when it starts at a thirty-five times higher price than an AppleTV, an environment of any size will be hard-pressed to make a go of Solstice.

I sincerely hope Mersive’s Solstice does well for the company in whatever their target market is (perhaps companies with deep pockets and just a handful of rooms to fit out?). But when I put on my Detached Analysist’s Hat, I can’t help but  lament that I’m watching a good product price itself out of other markets that could really benefit from it.

And that’s a bummer.

Mersive’s Solstice- A Nice Alternative To Complicated Presentation Paradigms

UPDATE: https://wirednot.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/so-close-yet-so-far-with-mersives-solstice/ my take on Mersive’s pricing.

Mersive is a company that only recently made it to my radar, but I’m glad they did. I covered their interesting Solstice product for Network Computing back in March ’13, and was so smitten with the promise of what Solstice could do that I nominated them for Best of Interop award consideration. Fast forward to today, and I’m liking Solstice more, as it has gained some polish and added features.

Here’s a quick summary of the problem that Solstice solves, as I see it: since wireless became mainstream, users have wanted to walk into a projector/display-equipped room and quickly mirror the screen on their laptop, tablet, or smartphone to the in-room display for all to see.

Options to accomplish this have been clunky at best. There are ad-hoc wireless connection protocols and thingys that don’t play well in the enterprise for a number of reasons, and that paint the single user that might leverage them into a corner of sorts where they can only project (usually while causing interference to the corporate WLAN) and not be on “the network” at the same time. There are new Wi-Fi direct hardware options that also create odd little islands of radio noise where used. Then there is Bonjour, the limited, dated protocol that requires what I consider to be ugly rejiggering of the LAN/WLAN to make desired display functions work only for select Apple devices.

In other words, there has not been an easy-to-implement, OS and network friendly (and agnostic) way to solve the simple paradigm of letting users show what’s displayed on their devices on the big screen without plugging in.

Back to Mersive and Solstice.

The cats at Mersive are computer scientists and display experts that understand getting pixels where they need to be, and generally don’t give a rip about hardware. Mersive’s software magic powers most of the biggest, most impressive video walls you’re ever likely to see, and they approach the boardroom/classroom display problem differently from all of the clunky alternatives that came before.

If the goals are:

  • Require no additional hardware
  • No network changes and make it work across subnet boundaries (piss off, Bonjour)
  • Let any mainstream OS project to the central room display
  • Don’t let the users in one room hose their neighbor’s display
  • Make it simple to use
  • Keep it affordable

Then Solstice’s latest (1.2.1) hits the mark *almost* perfectly. I have been experimenting with it for a couple of weeks, and like what I see. I have the server software installed on my mocked-up “podium PC”, and free Solstice app software on several Android and iOS mobiles, along with Win 7 and 8 laptops all on different wired and wireless subnets on the same network.

And it just works.

There is the briefest of learning curves, excellent documentation, adequate security, and it all is simply an add-on to what you already have for network topology. Specify the name or IP address of the Display server from the client device, hit “connect”, and display away. Reliably,  for both pictures and video, or for the whole device desktop.

You can get a little fancier with Solstice’s operation, and allow for several users to collaborate by all projecting their content to a common display simultaneously (it is touted as a collaboration tool) and do a few other advanced options that may or may not fit for individual use cases.

Though I am only  kicking the tires right now, I can say that after years of fighting the display paradigm fight, I have found the best weapon I personally have ever seen in Solstice.

Did I mention that you don’t have to touch the network to make it work?

It’s not cheap at list price of $3,500 per server instance, but then again, this is a quality solution that instantly takes care of a number of display headaches.

Oh yeah- and you don’t have to touch the network. Me so happy.

Google and Apple Should Be Giving Network Admins A Cut

It’s a bit curious how at least part of the relationships between device providers and customers are catalyzed by unsung heroes in the equation: wireless network administrators. The contemporary model seems to go like this:

  • Big company teases out an upcoming product release with well placed leaks and sneak-peaks
  • Media fan-boys and fan-girls promote the living bajeezus out of the new devices before and after release, rarely mentioning   their technical shortcomings in any meaningful way
  • Customers fall in love with the new toys; usually the romance starts on the home network
  • Customers high on their new-found gadget love rush into the work environment with their slick new products.  And banking on the accuracy of incomplete articles like this, get frustrated when said gadget doesn’t spring to life on the business network
  • A call goes out to the WLAN admin, who has to decide whether a one-off work-around and likely violation of  organizational policy is in order to get the device in service

Let’s talk about the Chromecast specifically. First and foremost, I love mine. It gets a tremendous amount of use at home. On the work WLAN, it’s not so pretty. Many enterprises disallow ad hoc wireless networks, and the Chromecast needs ad hoc connectivity for at least some of it’s functionality. Then there’s the same issue that Google Glass, early AppleTVs, cheap wireless printers (and not so cheap wireless printers), and a raft of other popular devices that users want to bring to work suffer from; they don’t do any sort of real wireless network security. If you have a mechanism in place to provide MAC exceptions on open or PSK-based network (which isn’t always the case), you can accommodate some of the toys. Unless, like with Bonjour-based devices, mDNS requirements and home-centric network requirements cause you to jump through more hoops on your carefully-designed WLAN. We won’t even get into legacy client chipsets that need data rates that most of us vacated five years ago to gain better performance from our expensive wireless networks.

No matter the exact tech details that lead to tension between consumer devices and business WLANs, there are only two paths to resolution:

  1. Device makers stop screwing over network admins, and bake in compatibility for ALL networks, not just the one behind my cheesy little Linksys router. Or…
  2. Wireless network solutions come with enough sophistication to let toy-toting users get their own limited devices on the air, while also preventing the devices that can use real security from following the toys down the same logical path, while bridging multiple operational realms so the full-blown secure client can interoperate with gadget that has to be handled differently.

Hats’ off to WLAN vendors that are moving their own cheese closer to #2, but that sort of sophistication comes with a lot of cost to the customer and complexity that wouldn’t be required if #1 was simply provided by the Googles and Apples of the world.

As it is, there are a lot of WLAN admins out there right now struggling to accommodate wonderful new devices that we should all be celebrating for what they bring to our users, but we really are getting the short end of the stick. If we can’t accommodate the Chromecast or whatever, we’re viewed as obstructionists that can’t appreciate disruptive new tools. If we can get them going onesy-twoseys, we stand on a slippery slope of support nightmares when the devices misbehave (or lose their settings on power down), or when all of the sudden we’re making MAC exceptions and special ACL/firewall rules all over the place and bypassing our own security perimeter to accommodate the inadequate devices.

So uh, Google and Apple- please pick up a WLAN calendar- the industry is fast entering the 5th generation of WLAN technology. So why are two of the richest companies on the planet still putting out products that can’t go past 2nd generation security?

If you’re not gonna spend the bucks on finishing  development on the products that you absolutely must know are going to find their ways onto our business WLANs, how ’bout putting us WLAN  admins on your payroll? After all, your success frequently comes down to our creativity in addressing your shortcomings. 

Bummers in WLAN Land

None of the following gripes are the industry’s biggest problems. At the same time, they are nuisances and occasionally rise to the level of major headache. Some of these apply to WLANs of all sizes, others are far more applicable to bigger wireless environments. The remainder? They’re just goofy. If any one of these were to be corrected or adjusted a bit, the wireless world we live in would be a little sunnier. In time, each and every one of these will “age out” and cease to irritate, but for now they are fair game to call out into the light  of day. I got me a license to bitch, and here it comes, in no specific order:

  • Why are those cheap bastards at the laptop factory still putting out 2.4 GHz-only capable computers? It can’t cost more than a couple bucks to provide a dual-band adapter in even the cheesiest laptop during manufacturing. Yet you have to look fairly hard, and often get into some serious upgrade dollars, to find a consumer-grade laptop (beyond Macbooks that come with dual-band 11n in all cases) that features both bands. It’s almost unheard of in the “Sunday Specials” that feature prominently in the BYOD demographic. We all suffer for the side effects, and it’s about time Acer, ASUS, Lenovo, and the other economy-class PC makers stepped up and became better citizens of the WLAN community.
  • What’s Up With Gartner’s Quadrant When It Comes to Wireless Vendors? Gartner has always been a bit polarizing in their analysis of various technology sectors, but they flat out blew it with eliminating the WLAN-specific quadrant in favor of including only “unified” vendors.  It boils down to these:
    • Sure, some vendors make Ethernet switches and wireless APs. But in many environments, switches do little more than provide PoE for APs. Big flippin’ deal.
    • When a company as radio and antenna savvy as Ruckus can’t make it into The Quadrant because they don’t have switches, there’s something seriously wrong.
    • A Unified Quadrant isn’t bad, but it’s incomplete and therefor a disservice to the industry. It’s time to bring back a WLAN only Quadrant, and a switching-only view IN ADDITION TO the unified Quadrant.
  • Apple really missed the boat by not including 11ac in their very expensive new iPhones. The Big A should be a better steward of the client device space’s future. If Samsung can do it, so can the Gods of Cupertino’s Mountain of Cash. Instead of breathing life and craze into early 11ac adoption, Apple cheaped out and disappointed the fans (and wireless admins) that were hoping for more out of Apple’s phone, especially for the money.
  • Apple’s Bonjour. Enough already. Fix it, and do your part to provide some pain relief to the wireless shepherds of the BYOD fields where your gadgets roam free.
  • Cisco’s Wireless Management System. It’s WCS! It’s NCS! It’s NCS Prime! It’s Prime Infrastructure! Whatever it’s called this week, it’s still buggy, slow, frustrating, and demanding of it’s own FTE staff just to keep it breathing at times. To think about putting switches into this same management framework as wireless on very large networks as “unified” gets deeper into the management paradigm is the stuff of horror- unless we see a major overhaul soon. Too much of the WLAN market relies on this sometime-train wreck to not improve it.
  • The Fallacy of Interoperability and Standards in the WLAN Space. Sure, we check our wireless devices for the famous Wi-Fi Alliance seal of approval that should mean all is well when devices need to talk with other devices, but there’s a lot more to the equation. Consumer-grade stuff often doesn’t play well in the Enterprise but nothing on the packaging explains the delineation. And… I can’t mix and match enterprise WLAN hardware or features like I can Ethernet switches. This is arguably the way it has to be, but its also a royal pain in the butt at times. Vendor lock is real, for better or worse.

We’ve all got things that steam our clams when it comes to wireless networking. These are on my short list this week. The world certainly doesn’t have to change on my say so, but at the same time time I can squawk about it, by golly.

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.

How WLAN Vendors Can Solve The College Dorm Problem

Ladies and gentlemen of the WLAN industry, here are the problems with wireless networking in college dorms, and a head start on how you can develop a solution.

Problems:

  1. College dorms are usually covered by the same enterprise 802.1x network used on the rest of campus, but are really more residential feeling at the operational level.
  2. Wireless printing doesn’t work where you have hundreds of anything-goes printers with no coordination on the same WLAN- and consumer-grade $40 printers don’t support enterprise security.
  3. Game consoles and Bonjoury toys also are fraught with problems and usually need yucky work-arounds on the business network usually found in dorms, or get relegated to the wired network.
  4. Rogues get installed to get around what campus WLAN can’t easily provide
  5. Ditching the enterprise WLAN and letting students bring their own wireless routers is a recipe for chaos and angst from the RF and support perspectives.

Solution:

It’s not cut and dry, and my enormous cranium hasn’t yet formed the whole solution. But it starts like this:

  1. Keep all the benefits of a centrally-managed solution. RF coordination, central monitoring and configs, etc- whether cloud-based or local not so important here.
  2. Study PowerCloud’s Skydog network paradigm. Everything about it doesn’t fit the dorm challenge, but a lot of it does. If you can treat each dorm room as an apartment, with a dedicated SSID or some other compensating control (not all dorm rooms would need their own AP) we’d be off to a good start
  3. Maybe use elements of Ruckus‘ Secure Hotspot in a way that lets a single student or roommates have all of her/their gadgets in a little “private WLAN” all somehow using the same private PSK.
  4. Make sure any one student’s most common gadgets can all interact in their own little WLAN space (even Bonjour toys and printers), that it’s all easy to self-setup, and can be administered by WLAN admins if trouble hits. 
  5. With all device types accomodated, the reasons for rogues are eliminated.
  6. Make sure students can’t get to each other’s stuff, but allow for on-demand temporary access when sharing is desired.
  7. Make sure that however it all gets put together, the RF environment is still well-coordinated.

There- that was easy. Now someone just needs to build the code and interfaces… 

 

 

Pondering WLAN Innovation

The modern wireless network, regardless of who creates the components, is certainly getting complicated. But is it innovative?

Asked another way- does sheer complexity equal innovation? And who decides what constitutes an innovative feature or component? Is it the vendor? The customer? A developer thousands of miles away from both?

Here’s where I pause, and assure readers that what follows is not meant to bash any company, I’m simply pondering what innovation means to today’s WLAN, and whether it couldn’t perhaps be stewarded along a bit more collaboratively as the world gets increasingly more dependent on the fruits of our wireless labor and our systems get fatter with features.

There are a lot of definitions of Innovation, and some pretty fascinating reads on the topic. For the purpose of what’s on my mind, I’ll call innovation a good idea that serves customers well with some meaningful market duration while making the originator a profit. Simple enough. If I had to give innovation a formula, it might look like:

(Good Idea + Customer Acceptance) x (Time on Market + Affordability) =  Amount of Innovation
Or something like that.

Back to the question of who decides what constitutes innovation? If a new feature or product is marketed as “an innovative new offering”, my first thought would be “how do you know it’s innovative if it hasn’t proven itself in the market yet?” Time judges innovation, not the person who came up with the idea. Sure, HP’s TouchPad was an engineering accomplishment, but if it was really innovative, it wouldn’t have tanked, would it have? Or maybe it’s too harsh to say that “failed innovations weren’t really innovative after all” (Perhaps some would-be innovations come along at the wrong time- again, I’m just pondering.)  Whatever- it’s heady stuff to contemplate at the analytic level.

Back to wireless networking. I look at some of the systems I use (both for client access and WLAN management) and see a mix of innovation and feature bloat. Sure, there are nice aspects that bring value to the typical customer, but also ill-conceived features that obviously were never presented to a WLAN Admin Focus Group. Because they are all packaged together, you have have to tolerate the non-innovative distracting stuff to get into the innovative features, It’s just the nature of the beast. Maybe this overall affect could be improved. Maybe we should start hyping BYOI as much as we hype BYOD.

What’s BYOI? It’s Bring Your Own Innovation- and we need more portals for it between customers and WLAN makers.

Wireless network administrators know what they need. Arguably, they can be serve as the advisory panel for features likely to be good innovations, and also judges for when an innovation has “expired” and needs to be replaced (why I am thinking of Apple’s Bonjour protocol?) Sure, vendors give us hyper-complicated systems bursting with graphics and endless menus, but that doesn’t mean we’ve been given innovation. And innovations don’t have to be crazy disruptive and life-altering for the entire WLAN space, they can just be simple little changes that we’d buy more of because they are needed.

Without a clearly defined method of getting feedback and feature requests to decision makers within WLAN companies, it is my conjecture that innovation suffers. Meraki came close to getting it right with their Make a Wish mechanism (i remember being thrilled when I asked for alerting on DHCP pool exhaustion and then it showed up shortly after), but even after I made my wish, there was no way of knowing whether it was heard. Or whether others had asked for it as well. For many big companies, the culture seems to be “you the customer can just wait for us to innovate on your behalf, and if you feel like getting frustrated feel free to talk to your SE who also has no clue what’s coming”. Again- no bashing; the WLAN industry is generally amazing. But some of us would like to influence the innovation we pay for and help the mothership to realize when they get it wrong in the name of innovation.

Wouldn’t it be cool if each vendor (or the industry itself) had a portal for  “What Admins Love and What Admins Hate About The Current System”? Ideally, it would be visible to at least other customers of the same system so we could see what our peers are also thinking. And if once a year, the feedback was aggregated, sorted, and put in a Top 5 of Loves and Hates with vendor commitment to answer them in some meaningful way (“Yes, we see that 98% of you hate the new Flash Interface, we’ll try to work on that by 12-months out”, or “75% of you would like to see ______ but here’s why that is technically impossible” kinda stuff). Or if not a feedback dashboard, some mechanism that accomplishes the same thing.

We The Wireless People would love to have more of a hand in innovation, for everyone’s benefit. We’re closest to our clients, we know what we need, and we know what we don’t. And if it doesn’t get used, it isn’t innovative.