Tag Archives: Wi-Fi

Wanna Blog? Then Blog Already

This post was created for a ten-minute talk for the Wireless LAN Professionals Conference (2018). Want help getting started in blogging? Hopefully this blog lights a little fire for you, and I’m always happy to answer questions if you reach out.

Want to blog about Wi-Fi?

1. Take the first step. Writing, like public speaking, puts you “out there” for praise and criticism. If you’re gonna do it, do it.

2. Be yourself. Your words, your thoughts, your style. It’s OK to be inspired by others, but the world needs YOU, not you copying someone else. Write from YOUR experiences and discoveries.

3. Have something to say, but don’t force it. When the time is right to get your shareable thoughts out, you’ll feel it.

4. Put a fresh angle on the topic, whatever it is. Find something else to lead with that others aren’t discussing, some under-told feature or use case, etc. It’s OK to write about what others are writing about, but find some way to make it fresh, even if just subtly so.

5. Write often enough to stay relevant. If you last wrote back in 2015, chances are you’ve fallen off of most people’s radar. Every few weeks is OK, every few months is acceptable. Beyond that, don’t expect a lot of readers. Bonus- the more you write, the better you will get at writing.

6. Blogs aren’t novels- people have limited reading time. Don’t write more than you need to on a topic.

7. Promote, and be promoted. Get proofreading help early on if you need it; your blogging “advisor” will likely promote your blog.

8. Don’t be thin-skinned, and keep your ego in check. BTW- none of us know everything. And “experts” aren’t omnipotent- know the difference when interacting with people.

9. Any comments/feedback are worth responding to (almost). Stay respectful, and try to foster healthy dialogue. But it’s better to delete hyper-caustic comments than to reply with rancor.

10. Money can be made writing for the right outlet (or company) but generally it takes a while to build up to that- and you might have to know someone to get in the game. Unless you’re truly gifted, you won’t get rich with blogging. But you might develop a nice side income, and get other writing gigs.

Will Reliability Be Prioritized Before Wi-Fi’s Whizzbang Future Gets Here?

This blog looks forward, but before we go there we need to zoom back to 1983 where I will corrupt John Mellencamp’s “Crumblin Down“:

Some features ain’t no damn good
You can’t trust ’em, you can’t love em
No good deed goes unpunished
And I don’t mind being their whipping boy
I’ve had that pleasure for years and years

Indeed. I too have had that pleasure for years and years. Whether it’s what comes out of mechanisms that are supposed to ensure that standards and interoperability testing bring harmony to the wireless world (but don’t), or code suck that flows like an avalanche coming down a mountain, I’ve been there and suffered that a-plenty. Somewhere during one of many wireless system malfunctions, the opening lyrics of “Crumblin’ Down” started blaring in my head, usually followed up Annie Lennox singing this line from 1992’s “Why”:

Why can’t you see this boat is sinking
(this boat is sinking this boat is sinking)

But enough of the musical ghosts trapped in my head, waiting to sing to me when the network breaks. We’re going forward, and as Timbuk3 sang in 1986- The future is so bright I gotta wear shades.

Maybe, maybe not on that.

Super-Systems Become Super-Terrific Systems

Soon, market-leading WLAN vendors will likely unveil grand strategies that finally bring real SDN kinda stuff to the Wi-Fi space. And just like the day is fast coming where you can’t just buy a simple RADIUS server from the same folks (you have to invest in a NAC system then simply NOT use the parts that aren’t RADIUS to get a RADIUS server), one day some Grand Orchestrator of All Networky Things will get it’s tentacles into our wireless access points and controllers and you might not have a say in that. (Some of this is already happening with specific vendors, but it’s all just warm-up for the big show, in my opinion.)

This magic in the middle will promise API-enabled everything network-wide, so provisioning and on-going operations on LAN and WLAN will be child’s play. The frameworks will have spiffy marketing names, and get pushed heavy as “where our customers should be going”.

Some of you are probably thinking “So what? This is evolution. Deal with it.” I’m down with that, to a point.

What If They Don’t Fix What’s Broke First?

I know well that I’m not alone in feeling a bit behind the 8-ball when it comes to our networking vendors. There are far too many code bugs impacting far too many components, end users, and networking teams. There’s also an entrenched culture that keeps chronically problematic operating systems alive when they should arguably be scrapped and the bug factories in full production.

I personally shudder to think what might happen if that grand vision for the future meets the Culture of Suck, and a whole new species of bug is unleashed on end users. Ideally, vendors would take a hard look at their code bases, their developers, and their cultures and ask if what’s in place today is worth rigging up a bunch of APIs to as part of The New Stuff.

As an end user, it terrifies me.

A House Built on Suck Can Not Stand

As a man-of-action-living-in-the-world, I’ve been around.  I’ve seen first-hand what happens during earthquakes to buildings and people when there are no rules governing building quality. I’ve seen carnage and devastation in multiple situations “out there” that all could have been prevented, and when I became Deputy Mayor of my village, I was able to appreciate what our Code Enforcement Officer does to keep people and buildings safe. Often it’s just curbing somebody’s foolish way of doing something.

As silly as it sounds, I’d love to see independent Code Enforcement Officers  for the network industry who enforce… well, code quality.  They would audit developers, their track records, and the pain inflicted on end users. Any vendor that gets too sloppy gets fined, or has to probably clean up their mess before they can keep developing. Like I said, I know how silly that sounds- but the current culture of poor Quality Assurance and protracted debug sessions at customer expense does not serve as a suitable foundation for the Super-Terrific Systems that are coming our way.

What’s really scary is that vendors tend to go all-in on these initiatives. It’s not like they leave a de-bloated, scalable option (key phrase) for those who don’t want all the Terrific Superness as they develop these monster frameworks of complex functionality.

I’d like to put on my sunglasses for the future of wireless, but if things aren’t cleaned up first for certain vendors, the current cloud over their wireless units is just going to get darker.

Of Malfunctioning Boats and Wi-Fi Support

boats_230_odyssey_20742179I have an old power boat, and it has recently taught me a life lesson that very much applies to Wi-Fi support. Every boat should have a name, and this vessel is the Sweet Baboo. She’s a 22-foot Cuddy Cruiser, built in 1985. It’s powered by a 5.7L OMC motor (basically a Chevy 350). This is my first “real” boat, and it has humbled me… A boat like this is really just another vehicle to keep up, but it has mystique and mystery to the new boat owner and the passengers that ride on it, just like Wi-Fi often has mystique and mystery to many networkers and clients.

Just a bit more background, if you’ll indulge me. I consider myself a pretty good shade-tree mechanic, and I do everything I can on my vehicles when it comes to maintenance. I like to save money, and know HOW a job was done, in exchange for my time and skinned knuckles. But I do know my limits, and know when it’s time to get professional help.

Stay with me- I promise the Wi-Fi angle comes into play soon.

Something about being a new boat owner made me kind of silly. Every oddball problem this old boat has had seemed exotic somehow, until very recently. After all, every part on the thing is a “marine” component. It has a marine carburetor, a marine ignition system, a marine gearshift, etc. Which for a while made me think that somehow they were all forged by unicorns in Magic Marine Parts Land, and for whatever reason I’d get stupid when it came time to troubleshoot. I’ve seen Wi-Fi have the same effect on network troubleshooters… somehow everything they know about basic network troubleshooting goes out the window because Wi-Fi is also exotic and different.

Finally, working through one lingering, long-term headache I was able to get my boat mind right, and to draw parallels with Wi-Fi support.

I got through that problem, but I did some really knuckle-headed things along the way. I threw away money and time because my troubleshooting methods were not sound. I looked past “the basics”, and often got sparkly-eyed that my problem had to be some exotic marine thing, just like many people get sparkly-eyed and start dicking with controller settings, adding APs, and taking other fruitless steps to solve exotic Wi-Fi problems that often end up being not so exotic.

The boat problem? Well, Sweet Baboo would start nice, idle great, and run really well at low speed. Give her some gas to speed up this big beast, and the motor would stall or fall back to idle speed at 2,500 RPM every time. Put another way, I had crappy performance.

I went through the troubleshooting steps in the repair manual fairly diligently, but also (in retrospect) bit on many red herrings, hoping for an easy fix. But… even easy fixes can hide behind complex symptoms and pre-conceived notions. I fixated on “it’s GOTTA be this!” at least a half-dozen times after reading online user forums. In those user forums, I latched on to the sage advice of frequent-posters that seemed to be revered by the other folks in the forum. And it turns out they were wrong every time. Or rather, I wrongly applied their analysis to my situation because they seemed to know their stuff.

All the while, because this boat is an exotic marine craft, my brain refused to acknowledge that when I let myself apply sound troubleshooting techniques I have fixed a wide range of cars, computers, F-4 and A-10 aircraft, broken furniture, swimming pool pumps, blenders, and more over the course of my life. I wasn’t letting myself simply proceed as I would normally in the course of troubleshooting anything, because I had never worked on a real boat before. I made it into something it wasn’t, in my mind. I KNOW this happens in Wi-Fi support often.

I ended up needlessly replacing (or tearing into):

  • Every ignition component (some two or three times)
  • Fuel pump
  •  Carburetor
  • Shift cable
  • Electronic shift module
  • Throttle cable
  • Exhaust flapper valves
  • Fuel lines

I’m sure there were other things that I hosed up along the way, too. I broke things trying to fix things- but then again, I was dealing with an exotic marine situation so my buffoonery was OK, right? Well, no- it’s not OK. I’m somewhat embarrassed of my conduct, and I can’t describe the frustration I felt over two seasons of fighting this problem. But again, I have seen people approach wireless support in this same scattered, desperate way.

Anything and everything feels like a WIRELESS problem when you have a problem and happen to be using Wi-Fi. Those not trained or acclimated to the Layer 1 and Layer 2 implications of Wi-Fi can do really dumb, desperate, nonsensical things that they would NEVER do on wired networks. For some reason, we all have things that make us forget what we should know when we most need it. For me, it was this boat. For other folks, it’s troubleshooting Wi-Fi.

After replacing component after component, fiddling with this and adjusting that, I was SURE I had a bad carburetor. There was simply nothing else it could be. So I ordered a pricey replacement… and it changed nothing. Floundering around out in the middle of the lake after putting the new carb on the engine, I was livid. At me, at the boat, at the Boat Gods, and pretty much everyone and everything. I called my wife, and admitted defeat. I told her that we’d have to tow the pig off to a marine mechanic, and take our chances that we could find one that was reputable. But as I was limping the Baboo back to the dock, I had an epiphany. Two thoughts collided in my brain at the same time, and they would lead me to resolution.

I was filthy from repairs, hot from the sun, and pissed-off low-down feeling. I had dozens of hours, and at least a thousand mostly wasted dollars on this escapade. At my lowest, one part of my brain told me “Come on… you’re better than this.” And another asked “listen you schmuck, how would you approach a seemingly complicated wireless problem?” It might sound cheesy, but I was recharged. I pulled up at my dock with a plan. I WAS GOING BACK TO BASICS. This damn boat was the client, and I had a client problem. And it was a similar problem to hundreds of other boats/clients that I had read about online. The solutions were usually proven to be simple, and I empowered myself at that moment to start over, with simple in mind.

Early on in the troubleshooting process, I had pulled the fuel pick-up tube from the gas tank (a 60-gallon monster built into the floor of the boat). I had EXPECTED to find a filter screen at the bottom, but didn’t. Not knowing better, I assumed at that early point that there was no such filter on THIS boat. I was wrong- and simply looking closer at that pick-up tube a second time revealed that the filter was INSIDE the tube where you can’t see it. And it was gummed up with crud pretty good. It was letting enough gas into the system to allow for starting and low-speed operations, but was blocking the increased fuel needed at higher speeds. I had “looked” right at the problem before skipping over it because it didn’t match my assumptions, and at that fateful moment I also turned a simple fix (blow it out with compressed air and carb cleaner) into a two-season exercise in grasping at straws.

I’m not sure what specific analogy to make here to wireless troubleshooting, but I do know that THE ESSENCE of my boat problem and what happens when the unskilled or “blame the WLAN” types get involved with wireless performance problems are the same. Sometimes Wi-Fi doesn’t work because non-Wi-Fi components have faults, but if you lock on to blaming the APs or controller early on, you’ll often never find the issue. Assumptions, poor methodology, and not looking at the basics thoroughly and with an open mind can lead you down rabbit holes. It’s not fun when you do it to yourself, and I really should have known better after decades of honing my troubleshooting approaches.

Just like my boat really is not “exotic and mysterious”, neither is Wi-Fi. But to support either, you have to have the right mindset and not be afraid to just use good sense and thorough checks of the basics as you proceed.

But as I’ve just shown here, that is easier said than done- even for the best of us.

 

Extreme Networks Makes the Case for 802.11ac Wave 2

With Wi-Fi technology constantly improving, it’s easy to stop paying attention to what incredible things are really happening for WLAN users. And incredible things are happening. With the arrival of 802.11ac’s Wave 2, we see new wheels put into motion for wireless users, and paths that the wireless industry had started down being turned into legitimate highways. 802.11ac Wave 2 is big news, and businesses are benefiting from its transformative nature, as over-viewed in a new eBook published by Extreme Networks.

As a wireless architect who builds WLAN environments of all sizes, I see first-hand how modern Wi-Fi enables new workflows and allows businesses to re-invent their processes as wired Ethernet gets pushed increasingly to the margins. Wireless connectivity has become the access method of choice for a huge swath of the business world, and Wave 2 is very persuasive to those who haven’t cut the cord yet. As highlighted by Extreme, it’s not just about signal coverage- or even speed- any more with enterprise Wi-Fi. Wave 2 also brings impressive capacity that further makes the case that businesses truly can run their operations over well-designed wireless networks, while enjoying the benefits of portability and mobility. With data rates topping 1.7 Gbps in ideal conditions, wireless traffic is forwarded with great efficiency in Wave 2 environments.

Extreme’s eBook makes the point that Wave 2 delivers a number of new or improved technologies, and these get even legacy client devices on and off the network quicker. Wi-Fi is still a shared medium, but that notion is getting blurred a bit with Wave 2, for everyone’s benefit. Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO) is rightfully getting its share of media coverage, as for the first time we have the capability for a single access point to service multiple clients simultaneously. Like with Wave 2’s impressive top-end for data rates, there are many factors that have to line up for MU-MIMO to live up to its capabilities at any given instant. But even though it may not be leveraged for every client and every transmitted frame given the variability of wireless, there’s no disputing the aggregate performance gains to be had by MU-MIMO. It really is exciting stuff, even to those of us who have seen it all when it comes to WI-Fi.

As businesses of all types consider whether Wave 2 is worth upgrading to, Extreme makes some good points. With more delivered network performance per AP, even for older non-802.11ac client devices, properly designed Wave 2 environments can significantly up the return on investment for the same spend as 11ac Wave 1 or 11n, if you negotiate your discounts right. If you’re sitting on an 11a/g or even early 11n network, making the jump to Wave 2 may be easy if your cabling plant and switches are up to date. Even if they’re not, it’s not uncommon to find that when planning for a new high-end wireless network, you can decrease your wired Ethernet expenditures as you make the jump. Everyone has their own OpEx/CapEx/TCO paradigm to define and muddle through, but Extreme gives pretty good food for thought in their eBook as you wrestle with your own situation.

Yes, Wave 2 has a business story to tell. Efficiency, performance, more-for-the-money, and so on- yes, those are all valid and noteworthy. But the Wave 2 story is also exciting at the user level. BYOD is an established fact of life, and in reality it’s more like Bring Your Own Many Devices for most of us. Our users have a slew of devices of various types and purpose, and 11ac Wave 2 helps with the overall Quality of Experience. Better cells are a tremendous asset to the end user, especially when those cells can self-leverage their best qualities for different device types.

Just remember that Wave 2 isn’t a design, or a deployment scenario. It’s a really awesome technology to be used to solve business problems and to facilitate business operations. As Extreme points out, Wave 2 is part of a bigger technology evolution story that features not just better Wi-Fi, but also switching developed just for 11ac, new analytics capabilities, improved security options, the Internet of Things, and (depending on your needs) impressive SDN and cloud tie-ins. Nothing under the network sun evolves in a vacuum, and Wave 2 fits very well with other advanced enterprise developments. Whether it makes sense for you to consider the move to Wave 2 is ultimately your call (and you’ll like get there at some point anyway). Extreme’s eBook on 802.11ac Wave 2 is an easy read, and does a pretty good job of telling the story of Wave 2 from a few different important angles.


 

FTC-required disclosure: I was compensated to review and comment on the 802.11ac Wave 2 eBook referenced in this blog, by PR company Racepoint Global. I have no direct business relationship with Extreme Networks, and in no way claim to be an Extreme Networks customer or representative of Extreme Networks. 

The Soon To Be Famous Cocktail Napkin Wi-Fi Big Picture

Get it while it’s hot… Print this baby out and put it on the break room fridge. Staple it to the helpdesk manager’s forehead so he sees it when he looks in the mirror, or have it printed out on a T-shirt that’s two sizes too small, so it accentuates your six-pack abs. What you’re looking at is the proceeds of a discussion I recently had, where I pontificated about how most “wireless” problems really aren’t wireless problems, even though ALL network problems “feel” wireless to the average user.

The Wi-Fi part of the story certainly can be temperamental on occasion, sure. But on a well-designed Wi-Fi network attached to a well-designed LAN, the overwhelming majority of user problems are going to be individual issues. When things do spin out– and multiple Wi-Fi users feel the pain– that’s when you want to turn to this masterpiece created on my enormous iPad Pro to remember just how complicated “Wireless” can be. (I missed “captive portal” as problem source…)

img_0083

How Does Ekahau ESS Stay Current For APs and Antennas?

EkahauSo I’m sitting on a bench at the mall, and this guy plops down on the other end. I can hear him sobbing a little. I’m thinking “poor bastard, must be a death in the family, or his wife split…” But then I hear his kid about 10 feet away say to a pal “my dad is a complete loser- he doesn’t even know how the world’s best Wi-Fi survey and planning tool gets updated for new APs and antennas!”

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: I really don’t know how it happens, either. I’m a loser too!

But there’s a big difference between me and Sobby Bench Guy. He’s not a gonzo bloggist with a license to ask the tough questions. That’s my turf, and that’s just what I did to get my mind right on the topic. I put on my Interrogator Fez and went gunning for everyone’s favorite European guy, Jussi Kiviniemi. Sure, he’s Ekahau’s VP of Wi-Fi Tools, but I don’t mind running in those circles now and then. I grilled Dr. J pretty good, and he gave me what I was looking for. Read on.

Q. How long does it take to get a new WLAN AP or antenna added to ESS, once Ekahau
has the technical information?
Jussi: Depending on load & urgency, it takes 1 day to 3 weeks to get it done. It’ll be published in next sw release (sw updates about every 2 months).

Q. Does Ekahau have a strategy for retiring old APs or antennas from the software
Jussi: Good question. Not really. Happens organically through Wi-Fi vendor acquisitions. We actually should probably take out the 802.11b stuff if we haven’t already 😉

Q.  How does Ekahau find out about new APs/antennas from the major vendors?
Jussi: It varies. Today, they often send the new or upcoming stuff proactively. That’s good for their business too. If not, we ask. Often customers ask us, then we ask the vendor. 

Q.  Why is it advantageous for vendors to get their stuff into ESS?
Jussi: A lot of their partners use our tool (we are tool of choice for Cisco, Aruba, Aerohive,…). And they often want to design using the actual stuff as it is more accurate. 

Q.  What’s the oddest antenna you’ve seen in ESS?
Jussi: At first, the Xirrus arrays were different. I wish we had the planner already back in the Vivato days, that would have been interesting. Also, the Ventev floor mount stuff is refreshing. 

Q.  Any other thoughts on the topic of adding products to ESS?
Jussi: I highly encourage the public and vendors to contact us to tell us which APs or antennas they are missing. It’s a free service to add them. Twitter, web site form or wifidesign@ekahau.com all work. 

We also add things like multi-SSID MAC combining as one radio, and multiple radios into one physical AP.  This requires specs from vendors too. 

And there you have it. Just a little behind-the-scenes information on how a great tool stays fresh. I’ll echo Jussi’s last point: if you see something missing, give Ekahau a shout to get the program updated. ESS is huge tool in the WLAN industry’s toolbox, so keeping it current is a win for everyone.

Additional Resources:

 

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!