Tag Archives: WLAN

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. 

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:

 

Cambium Networks’ Quick Deploy Positioner is a Force-Multiplier

PTP_Positioner_300x300a

If you’ve ever installed point-to-point bridges to extend a network, you know that alignment can be the hardest part. The longer the link is, the more difficult alignment gets, and even those of us in the business who have a good knack for alignment can get thrown for a loop on occasion. To compound matters, sometimes wireless bridges get installed in tricky, dangerous places. It’s not uncommon to use bridges for short-duration connectivity needs, like for events or even battlefield operations. I’ve set up my share of wireless bridges, and I’ve that occasional situation where even after a few days, the alignment bolts are starting to strip and we’re no closer to getting a stable link. I have a feeling I’m not alone here.

Cambium Networks has recently introduced what can only be described as a “force multiplier” when it comes to getting their popular point-to-point hardware aligned. The Quick Deploy Positioner is not the only device on the market that promises to help with automatic bridge alignments, but Cambium does feel they have a winner in the Quick Deploy Positioner thanks to a number of differentiators:

  • Usable, optimized links are brought to life in under 5 minutes
  • Non-experts can successfully create high-speed links using the Positioner
  • Power options including PoE, AC, and even solar

I challenged Cambium on the Positioner’s list price (a little north of $18K) and was convinced that the cost very well would be justified in the right circumstances. According to Cambium:

  1. Some of these links are deployed in extremely remote areas where travel would be difficult and time-consuming. Sending an extra person just to align the antenna could cost them a day out of the office every 30 days for every positioner deployed.
  2. For emergency response and disaster recovery there isn’t always room to take along someone else in the vehicle to perform this function.
  3. In some cases (Border Patrol and Dept. of Defense applications, for example) there is danger to the personnel on-site.  So each additional person requires extra security, and adds extra risk to the mission.

The Positioner looks pretty sweet, and I can see it earning it’s keep on the Cambium bridges that it’s compatible with (PTP 650, PTP 700, PTP 450i and PMP 450i).

Read more in the press release above, or at the Positioner’s product page.


 

Related- I had the pleasure of meeting Cambium’s staff in person, at Wireless Field Day 8. See their presentations here.

I was not compensated by Cambium in any way for this blog- I just think the Quick Deploy Positioner happens to be a slick bit of kit, baby. 

Oh Say Can You See- What’s Driving Up Your Small Site Data Costs?

One of my small rural customers was frustrated. A site I’d not yet been involved with has a single PC that runs a specific agricultural application that occasionally checks into a web database used by all of their sites. And since the problem location is in the boonies, they had no options beyond 4G for Internet service. The frustrations:

  • Huge data bills that weren’t making sense for a single PC
  • No sense of what was going on at the site over the network
  • Getting to the site isn’t exactly a quick drive

I researched the agricultural application and found that it shouldn’t be using but a few MB at a time when it synchronized, yet usage was well into the GB per day. It was time to visit the site, and to do some sleuthing.

More Than Just One PC After All, Other Oddities

The notion of Network Policy can be hard to formalize in small businesses where everyone knows everyone, and it’s as much like family at times as it is a business. When I first  got to this site to do my investigation, I confirmed with the site chief that yes, there was only a single computer. And a time clock, behind the 4G connection. That was all that was officially in service operationally. When I got into the 4G modem though, I could see multiple Wi-Fi clients connected to the 4G hotspot… <the plot thickens>. It also turns out that the fairly lightweight application- the only reason the 4G link was being funded to begin with- had it’s own story.  And… the data plan itself was pretty pricey as it had not been freshened up in years.

The Fix(es)

To get the costs under control, and to remove all mystery about what was going on here, I did the following:

  1. Calculated what the application should need, along with Windows updates, etc. then found a newer, more generous plan than what they were on. I recommended 12 GB/month plan for $80, which should provide fixed cost and at least 300% headroom on my estimated usage. (The bonus, Verizon throws in an extra 2 GB per month on this plan.)
  2. Had the application vendor audit the application behavior. What was taking 600 MB per day was dialed down to around 60 MB by changing from continuous sync to a 4-hour interval (which still met the owner’s needs).
  3. Reigned in the 4G rogue client use. On this modem, the Wi-Fi can’t be disabled. But I changed the SSID and password, lowered the number of allowed users to 1 (the minimum) and instructed the owner to tell the staff that this network is off-limits even if they can figure out how to get back on,  along with a message that “the IT guy monitors everything!”
  4. Both eliminated any mystery and took control of the bad habits associated with the PC by installing a Meraki Z1 Teleworker appliance between the 4G modem and the PC and time clock. Weedsport3

With the Z1, I was able to accomplish a number of things:

  • Use traffic analysis to remotely see what else was going on with the PC, besides the ag application
  • Use firewall rules and application controls to put an end to all non-authorized applications
  • Provide a client VPN-endpoint so I can access the environment for troubleshooting if need be
  • Monitor data usage and get automated reports on what’s going on in the small environment
  • Get alerted should either the PC or time clock go offline
  • Make myself the heavy in the situation, and take that title off of the owner

After the changes, I’m seeing total site usage of only around 80-90 MB per day in an operational paradigm where I’ve budgeted for around 400 MB per day. As I see recreational traffic pop up, I can quietly block it remotely, without the owner constantly needing to re-enforce the rules (staff here have specialized skills, they can’t just be replaced). And I’ve given the owners a 3rd-party they can turn into a bogey man if they need to should anyone complain (this in itself has value).

Bottom line- this was a fun one to solve. We were able to contain costs, remove any mystery, and provide remote monitoring and alerting. Also- by using the Z1, the time clock can benefit from site-to-site VPN back to the main site where another Meraki MX is in use with the Time and Attendance server.

Though I have used many Meraki wired and wireless products, this was my first outing with the Z1. It’s an impressive little gem, and very much “feels” like it’s big brothers, the MX line.

 

Wireless Handheld Testers You May Not Know About

In the world of Wi-Fi engineering and support, there are definite crowd favorites when it comes to tools.  Not every WLAN Pro sees the world exactly the same when it comes to tools, and usually what we pick to use in our daily duties comes down to ease-of-use (which can be subjective), cost, and effectiveness. That equation shakes out a little bit different for each of us, yet the same tools tend to show up often in what is a fairly limited market. I’m not talking apps here, as there are lots of those. Here, I’m more getting at handheld wireless tools, or if you want to stretch it a bit, ones that plug into a USB (or Lightning) port to turn the host device into a handheld tester. Before you yawn and click away, let me get right to the point: chances are that almost all of us have at least one tool from MetaGeek, or AirMagnet/Fluke Networks, or maybe Oscium. You know… the usual stuff. (Again, no slight to the software/app toolmakers in the crowd.) But this blog is about the slightly exotic. Of late, I’ve stumbled across some funky looking brands of hand-held testers/spectrum analyzers that I’d like to share. If you know of others that are off the beaten path, please let us know in the comments.

I’ll ease you into this with one from a company that’s actually been around a long time, and used to be more mainstream among wireless tools- the Yellow Jacket BANG, primarily a spectrum analyzer from Berkeley Varitronics Systems (BVS).

YJ-BANG

Everything BVS has ever put out just looks cool. Here’s the specs on the Yellow Jacket BANG.

Next- get an eyeful of this thing:

winet

From Test Um, with more info here. Needless to say, it’s underwhelming… yet interesting to look at, no?

Next up- the RF Explorer. (I wish I could say that in a Darth Vader voice with reverb effect.)

rfexplorer

(With handsome carrying case!) Details and specifications here.

Moving on to the 802 AWE from Trilithic Broadband Instruments, I have to say that this one looks like it could be for real, and a possible competitor to the Fluke Networks AirCheck.

802_AWE

I’d love to take the 802 AWE for a test drive. Check out this whitepaper, and see what you think.

We’ll finish with an interesting offering from the UK.

artisan

 

The Vonaq Artisan Wi-Fi Tester also looks like a for-real tester, and that snazzy orange case means it should be safe in the woods during deer hunting season.

How many of these have YOU seen before? Ever laid hands on any of them? Do any of them interest you? There *may* be life beyond MetaGeek and Fluke Networks here… Please add your thoughts.

Want Great Wi-Fi? Good Luck With That

It ought to be sooooo easy to achieve great Wi-Fi these days. All the makings are there, right? We got the promise of “Gigabit Wireless” and an endless pipeline of screamin’, smokin’ WLAN hardware. Just take a looksee:

ASUS

Man, that all sounds really nice. Then there’s this:

Xirrus fast

Wowsers, that’s fast. And there are plenty of other fast wireless access points out there from every vendor under the sun, and at every price point. The good times are a’ rolling. All you have to do is spend some money, hang up one of these rocket ships, and bask in the glow of Gigabit Wireless connecting your iPad to Netflix at breakneck speeds. Woo woo!

Yeah, right. If only it were that simple.

The truth is, you may NEVER have this kind of great Wi-Fi. Get used to it. The lofty numbers you see on anyone’s glossy are pretty much out of your reach, and there is not thing one that you can do about it, Bucko. Now let’s talk about why.

If great Wi-Fi is defined by the promise of gigantic, outsized throughput numbers, it’s pretty much screwed before product ships. Why? Because most products that do ship tend to end up in The Real World, which happens to be a pretty cruel place for Wi-Fi signals. Even common sense factors that ought to add up to great Wi-Fi frequently don’t… including:

  • Strong Signal
  • Lots of APs
  • 802.11ac
  • Expensive gear with huge specs
  • Professional surveys and installations

It turns out that strong signals can be deceiving (take the ‘a’ and ‘r’ out of bars and you get closer to the truth on signal strength widgets…). You might have a bucket full of signal showing in your client indicator, but a lot of it could be performance-sucking noise or interference in the mix. Or it could truly be great signal, bolted up to a crappy LAN or tiny Internet pipe (say hello to Mr. Bottleneck) which makes the Wi-Fi feel slow.

Lots of APs carefully laid out and functionally coordinated in a High Density environment can be a good thing. Lots of APs without coordination, like from neighboring WLANs can be a disaster. Here we have interference of various sorts, and even rogue devices and Man-in-the-Middle attackers when the environment is AP-fat but untended.

Just because an investment is made in 802.11ac, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get anywhere near the vendor’s performance promises. A laundry list of parameters has to click before those big numbers are possible (client type and config, spectral cleanliness, no other clients competing for AP, proximity to AP, uplink quality, LAN quality, all can be contributing factors) and chances are you’ll rarely ever come close to what the hype promises.

I’m a firm believer in the adage “you usually get what you pay for” and expensive gear typically fetches a premium because it’s better made with beefier resources (CPU, memory, radio technology, physical construct, feature sets) than the cheaper competition. But even the best gear can’t overcome the laws of physics when the RF space is hostile, and can’t make the WLAN perform any better if your core services like DHCP, NAT, DNS, and routing are flaky.  Then there’s that pesky ISP connection thing again… your “Gigabit Wi-Fi” (which happens to still be half-duplex so a Gig ain’t a Gig to begin with) might be peppy on the local network, but it becomes a 10 Mbps connection if you’re heading off to the Internet on an ISP connection of that size.

Then there’s the critical professional survey and WLAN design. There are absolute advantages to having a professional originate the WLAN design for a business network. But I can design you the prettiest WLAN in the land yet have it’s performance undermined by bad operational policy, an over-zealous NAC system, crappy code, or some new consumer-grade cheesewhiz client that you insist on providing access to.

By now, you get the point- there are a lot of detractors from “great” Wi-Fi. But it does get even worse… with every new kick-ass, performance-promising Wi-Fi standard, we also have a culture of backwards compatibility and unstructured feature sets. Wireless gadgets from 2001 MUST be accommodated on even the latest gear, and BYOD and IoT bring a flood of odd-ball, often ill-conceived consumer-grade gadgetry to the business WLAN that knock the life out of potentially great Wi-Fi. This trend is only getting worse, with no end in sight.

Enough of the Gloom! All is not lost.

Are you sufficiently bummed out yet? Truth be told, little that I’m whining about here is new under the Wi-Fi sun. It’s just that wireless is getting ever more pervasive, and so the deficiencies in the WLAN paradigm that have always been there are magnified- especially as we see promised top-end speeds that approach fairy-tale quality. I offer that great Wi-Fi has little to do with achieving those lofty throughputs, and is actually about a solid experience that works well for end users and results in very, very few trouble tickets.

To get to THIS definition of great Wi-Fi, where things just work so well that users could give a fig what their actual data rates are, you have to look at any environment holistically. Solid WLAN needs excellent design, but also excellent LAN and core services, and a decent pipe to the Internet. Good policy, systematic onboarding, and client education are the icing on the cake. However an individual environment shakes out, great Wi-Fi is as much a well managed state of being as it is an exercise in big numbers.


Please note: Andrew von Nagey is running a very quick survey on WLAN Vendor Selection Criteria through the end of July. Please consider contributing, and sharing what is important to you when WLAN shopping. Thanks!

In Appreciation of White Box Guest Access

“Guest Access” means different things to different people, and organizations. Certainly if you’re a traveler using hotel or conference Wi-Fi, you have a general set of expectations and desires. If you’re a company or a school, the guest wireless service you provide is likely shaped by organizational policy. And for many of us, the guest environment also tends to act a s a catch-all for client devices that don’t fit on our secure WLANs- a place for “free passes” and MAC exceptions. But the devil is in the details, and I have found finding the right guest access feature set can be difficult.

What you WANT may not be what you can HAVE

Having designed a number of guest environments for large and small networks, I’m always astounded to engage a WLAN vendor on the topic and to find how far their guest offering is from what I’m looking for (more on that in a bit). Worse, seldom do I hear “what are your requirements?” as it tends to be more like “this is what we think everyone should want and accept”.

Simplicity? Fat chance… 

Guest access can also have a lot of moving parts, depending on how it’s implemented. Overall functionality tends to be broken up and scattered across access points, controllers, RADIUS servers, credential stores, web servers, and sometimes switches. It all has to click, or you have problems. And for me, despite the typical complexity of guest services, I still find myself frustrated at features that are not included.

What worked for my environments

Years ago, for my big honkin’ 3,000 AP environment (and our small branches alike), we arrived at a desired feature set that went more or less like this:

  • Our guest SSID would equal a single dedicated guest VLAN
  • 24-hour individual self-sponsoring is a must
  • Alternatively, ANYONE authorized to use our wired or secure wireless network could sponsor a guest
  • For self-sponsoring, a ten-digit mobile number capable of accepting a text must be provided and within seconds a password would be sent
  • For large events, a shared account could be generated
  • All accounts were time limited with role-granularity
  • The system would have easily configurable firewall rules and (generous) rate limiting capabilities
  • On the admin side, we could add MAC exceptions and login-bypass
  • The system would provide NAT to preserve public IP addresses
  • Reporting would be easy, as would user quarantine (rarely used)
  • ALL OF THIS WOULD HAPPEN UNDER ONE HOOD-VIA A SINGLE INTERFACE
  • A programmer would not be needed to stitch it all together
  • Ideally, it would have vendor support (for a number of reasons, open source not desirable)

Going back those several years, our WLAN vendor (Cisco) didn’t come close to being able provide what we wanted. In their defense, nor did any other market leaders at the time. We heard that Colubris Networks had a gateway that might fit the bill, but they had just been bought by HP and try as we might, we couldn’t locate anyone that could talk with us about what we were looking for.

Then we found Bluesocket (now Adtran) and their BSC Controllers. When I first contacted Bluesocket, we came to the mutual realization that they could do about 75% of what I wanted. They weren’t really initially open to developing the self-sponsored texting and “anyone authorized can sponsor a guest” features. So… we thanked each other for our time, and I kept searching. Then a week or so later Bluesocket called back, and said they were game for a bit of development, and saw the value in what would become a feature set that they were able to market to others. They were able to do everything I was looking for in a single, kick-ass box in a matter of hours.

What Bluesocket was able to deliver after actually listening to our requirements has been in play for us for lots of years. We’ve served thousands and thousands of guests with it, along with using it as a mechanism for supporting wonky devices like Google Glass (turn head, spit) that weren’t built with enterprise security support, and so can’t be on the WLANs we’d rather they used.

It’s been absolutely great, and I know of at least three other schools that pursued the same guest access model after experiencing ours.

Looking forward

Our old Bluesocket boxes are getting, well… old. They are appliances, and Adtran seemingly has no desire to virtualize what we need into an OVA or the like. In fact, on newer Adtran wireless products, what we appreciate about the BSC has been moved to Adtran APs that we’ll never buy, so the research for a suitable replacement starts again.

The thing is, we absolutely love what we get out of our aging guest solution, and in a perfect world, I’ll find a similar third-party, one-box bolt-on for our big Cisco WLAN. (I will give Cisco another chance to catch me up on how their native guest access services have improved, but I also know that my requirements are firm). I have also inquired to Adtran one last time about the possibility of somehow preserving this wonderful magic, but the silence thus far is pretty telling.

Which brings me to Meraki. The features I need for my guest environment are pretty much included in the WLAN side of the Meraki product line, and we use it with great success in our Meraki-enabled branch sites. But… to bolt the Meraki capability up to my Cisco WLAN in a way that would replace Bluesocket, I’d need the guest features made available in the Meraki MX security appliances and not just in the AP feature set. I’m hoping to get Meraki’s ear on this anyway, because guest access needs also do tend to pop up on the wired side occasionally, too. Right now, wired guest needs are a gap in the MX.

If Meraki can accommodate, a big MX would snap in nicely where my Bluesocket sits now for guest access. If not, I’ll have to consider things like pfSense, Packetfence and other one-offs that I’d rather not get into after being happy with a commercial solution. Or, I’ll have to rethink our requirements, which would really suck, as they really are what we consider requirements, not just nice-to-haves.

There will obviously be more to follow to this evolution.  I am curious if anyone else is facing a similar situation, and how you might be approaching it.

(Please- I’d love your comments, just don’t blast me with pointless “you should switch to vendor X for your WLAN!” type feedback.) 

Results of the Wirednot Blog WLAN Pro Survey

As promised to those following, the survey of WLAN professionals work experiences, preferences, etc. has ended and it’s time to share the results. An up-front thank you to those who participated.

About the Survey, getting participation

In the WLAN industry, there tends to be a lot of chatter about products and trends, but not so much about We the Wireless People. The survey was meant to let us view ourselves against our colleagues in the wireless space, on an eclectic mix of topics. Though there were only 33 questions, they did yield at least a couple of hundred data points when said and done. The point? Well, the point is yours to define, seize, and take away.

I used my favorite free survey tool, from Toluna Quick Surveys. It took about 25 minutes to craft this, and “distribution” took the form of:

  • 12 Tweets by me, lots of retweets by others (again, thank you)
  • 3 postings of the survey link on LinkedIn
  • 2 postings on the Educause higher ed listserv
  • 1 mention during my Interop session on cloud-managed networking in NYC

It ran for 6 days, and we ended up with 342 respondents from over 35 countries. (My own informal goal was at least 200 replies, and I’m thrilled we hit over 300.) It should be noted, very little prevented the same user from responding more than once, so there is an element of “honor system” in play.

What does the data tell us?

I won’t give too much away, as the results make for a nice combined data set. At the same time, here are a number of points that I found interesting:

  • 17% of all respondents do only wireless
  • 47% have no wireless training certs
  • Over half have no involvement with Point-to-Point bridging
  • 3 unfortunates feel like they are living a lie when it comes to their skillsets
  •  26% have experience with Single Channel Architectures
  • 30% see no value in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for wired/wireless
  • 35% say Apple products are not worth the price tag
  • 84% DO NOT (or rarely do) wireless side work
  • 31% use Google Voice
  • 58% expect 1-2 current WLAN vendors to fold in the next 24 months

Now that you’ve had a taste, take a look at the entire survey here

And again, much gratitude to those who took the survey, and propagated it’s distribution. We might have got even more response, but 27% who replied don’t use Twitter!