Tag Archives: Wireless printers

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.

Hey Printer Makers- You Realize That It’s 2013, Right?

printer My latest annual trip into the wireless printer space has been as frustrating as the many that have come before it… *sigh*.

The world is going wireless, isn’t it? Wireless networks are bulking up in size, capacity, and feature sets as Ethernet is getting pushed farther toward the margins for general access. Workstations do nicely on good wireless, and those using them aren’t missing being tethered to a jack in the wall. And wireless lets you have amazing flexibility in configuring office spaces by eliminating the need to only put desks next to wall jacks. Good times, yes?

Except for the sorry, sucky, stagnant, stinky state of enterprise printers that don’t support business-class wireless networks.

What’s really crazy is that printers are amazing machines, and other than their networking capabilities, have evolved right along with everything else in the office environment. Printers have gotten ever more sleek, energy efficient, feature rich, and cost-effective. Given that printers are living in the same atmosphere as the rest of the business environment, I just don’t get why their networking abilities are frozen somewhere around 1992.

My latest adventure, which is deja vu all over again from previous attempts to see if printer manufacturers yet “get it”:

I invited every printer rep I have access to (via the clients I support) to update me on their ability to provide a printer that functions as a wireless network client in a secure, standards-based business wireless environment. The general low-level discussion reflected that most printer sales people still really have no idea what this even means, but one came forward and thought he had a good solution.

I won’t throw rocks at the salesguy or SE that tried to work with me, as they sincerely thought they could fill the bill based on the simple needs: support WPA2-AES encryption, with MS-CHAPv2/PEAP authentication and not just work in a pre-share mode. These gents read through specs and thought they had a winner, despite not really understanding what the words meant, and in good faith got me a trial unit.

The skinny? Indeed, all the right words were there in the interface. In fact, the interface looked like someone opened up a Newton’s Telecom Dictionary and dumped every protocol they could find even remotely related to networking onto the pages.

Yeah- 802.1x was there- but it was for the printer’s wired Ethernet adapter, I realized after several attempts to make sense of the UI. You could instruct the wireless config that you wanted WPA or WPA2 (and not the PSK version), but these setting don’t “map” to the 802.1x settings in any way. So close…

This has been my experience time and again with top-end printers that claim wireless capabilities in business settings. You wade through a sea of obsolete protocols in the config pages, get your hopes up if you see the right EAP types and similar mentioned, but can never quite stitch it together in a way that works. I have yet to see a clear, single-view menu that lets you build a wireless profile like you would on other wireless client devices, and it is maddening.

Ah well, time to box this one up, send it back, and hope for better from the printer industry in 2014.