Trying To Stay Sane In A Crazy Wireless World

I'm here to tell you, supporting wireless and mobile clients is nothing like keeping our Ethernet-tethered users happy. In the wired network world, you either get the speed that you're supposed to, or some counter or log somewhere points you to what's wrong. In the wireless realm, the variables are almost infinite. It's way more complicated, and getting worse. A lot worse.

March 4, 2012

6 Min Read
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I'm here to tell you that supporting wireless and mobile clients is nothing like keeping our Ethernet-tethered users happy. In the wired network world, you either get the speed that you're supposed to, or some counter or log somewhere points you to what's wrong. In the wireless realm, the variables are almost infinite. It's way more complicated and getting worse. A lot worse.

The wireless world of today is becoming fraught with enough irony, dichotomy and what-the-freak-are-they-doing-to-us-now factor that if your head is not yet spinning, you need only stick around a while. It's nuts, I tell you. Nuts. And the industry itself is to blame. Of course, when I say "the industry," I'm talking about the business, the wireless market in its multidimensional glory--the place where innovation reigns supreme, where incredible minds are doing exciting things with silicon and little tiny antennas and where marketing folks might as well be on the set of an "Alice In Wonderland" production for as much sense as many of their wireless-related claims make.

With that off my chest, let's get down to it. The likes of Cisco, Aruba and all of their contemporaries in pursuit of WLAN market share are putting out incredibly sophisticated, high-dollar product sets that can deliver Ethernet-competitive speeds when deployed right. My own multimillion-dollar WLAN can tell me every time someone heats up hot cocoa in a microwave oven or introduces his or her own wireless access point in an environment that forbids them by policy. As have my colleagues in Big WLAN Land, I've worked hard with my fellow IT managers to get reasonable policy established, and have arrived at a client authentication and encryption framework that balances ease of use with the desired security. I've even developed a nice guest portal for my esteemed visitors. We've learned what our"normal" is and have gotten pretty darn good at spotting and fixing system-level and client issues on our large standards-based wireless network. I've covered all the bases, and life should be pretty smooth in my corner of the high-density, properly designed wireless world.

But heed my words: Storm clouds are gathering, and we're starting to feel a light sprinkle.

Even as the big vendors continue to try to out-do each other with feature sets sporting fancy names and one commissioned study after another that proves their wireless performance superiority, we're starting to take strange incoming fire that works against all that we've worked so hard to achieve. Sure, disruptive technologies should be celebrated, but some of what we're up against right now is just goofy--like Mi-Fi devices and personal hotspots that bring happy little interfering islands of default Channel 2 into our meeting rooms so that our spectrum cleanliness tools have something to alert on and our nearby users can see their performance degraded as our policies get trampled. But these little cells are so easy to use! Can't the visiting VIPs use them just for today? It's easier than having them spend 5 seconds to properly get on the guest network. Please? They're great in the hotel lobby, but not so much at customer sites. Yet those who own hot-spot devices either tend to have no clue about or regard for site policy, nor do they understand the interference the devices cause.

And what about cutesy ad-hoc printing mechanisms that work great at home but are out of place in the enterprise? What's your answer when the frustrated come to you and ask, "When is our stupid wireless network gonna support AirPrint?" It matters little that AirPrint doesn't even work with Apple AirPorts because it's a device-to-device technology. Users don't tend to grasp such nuance. If it works at home at the touch of a button, then by golly our big honkin' expensive network should work with it, too, no? No, indeed.

Then there's Bonjour-based toys like the AppleTV. If Apple would catch its wireless development efforts up to its coolness factor and price tags, network administrators might actually be able help folks who want to use these gadgets for iDevice-controlled presentations on their standards-based WLANs. On a related note: In higher education, residential wireless networks are big business. Students tend to bring lots of game consoles to their temporary homes, but unfortunately these are another example of a device class that comes with wireless adapters that are living too much in 2002. Same same with commercial-quality printers and projectors. What? You mean the typical business-grade wireless network is actually bigger than a single subnet, has its 802.11b data rates disabled and requires real security? Shut up!

Popular devices like iPads and iPhones can be downright crappy hosts when they refuse to properly roam among APs, randomly choose to jump SSIDs for reasons known only to Apple, and get lots of users squawking about the unreliability of the same networks that perform swimmingly for Microsoft and Android users and pretty much any non-Apple device. The BYOD mania that we're all currently enjoying just exasperates the situation based on having more people to explain reality to when their shiny mobiles misbehave.

It's not fun explaining to frustrated execs that the problem really is their expensive smartphones and there's little you can do to get the devices to stop rebooting every time they try to use the Wi-Fi network while the mobile network connection is also on, but that the carrier has an update available that might help. The world is getting complicated. Smart WLAN designers can deal with low-powered clients and device density, but can do little for a class of clients that is bewilderingly erratic in the wireless department (but unfortunately quite popular).

Back to BYOD and where it fits in this cry for sanity. Yes, BYOD is here on a scale that can't be ignored. Admirably, an entire market niche has sprung to life rather rapidly and the mobile device management (MDM) vendors are all making full-court presses to drum up business while BYOD is a hot-button issue. But this is also an area where the rhetoric gets hard to take. There's a lot of "Gartner says we'll all need 300% more wireless because of iPads!"-type stuff out there right now. Uh, yeah ... 300% more than what? All wireless environments are not created equal, and some of us saw the future coming and so designed for low-power devices--and lots of 'em. I get the marketing opportunity, I really do. I also get that not every wireless device under the sun has a "right" to be on the network in the name of BYOD, and that the business network still has an operational framework and policy that users need to live with, regardless of who paid for the unit.

Did I mention that the typical wireless professional works hard to keep the wireless networks deeply grounded in standards? Yes, what comes out of the antennas is certainly of 802.11 in origin, but the magic in the middle of these systems is as maddening as anything. It never ceases to amaze me when Vendor B Sales Guy looks shocked that you don't want to take a chance on his stuff when you've got thousands of Vendor A's bits and pieces in service and when A and B are so proprietary where it matters that you can't use them together--as you can with different vendors' Ethernet switches. Even if you're unhappy with your current wireless system for whatever reason, switching or trialing other vendors is far more complex for wireless than it ever was for Ethernet.

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