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Wi-Fi Aware And Wi-Fi Sense Spark Concerns

There’s no hype like WiFi hype. Two new WiFi technologies -- Wi-Fi Aware and Wi-Fi Sense -- have recently made headlines for their potential impact on consumers. But these consumer-focused WiFi capabilities will invariably impact enterprise WLANs, and wireless administrators will have to deal with the fallout.

Sanctioned by the Wi-Fi Alliance and heavily marketed in advance of an expected coming deluge of supporting client devices of all types, Wi-Fi Aware is all about device-to-device connectivity. Playing off of the white-hot trend for leveraging location-based services, Wi-Fi Aware promises to keep participating devices aware of each other’s locations and application capabilities.

If my device and your device agree that we have a common app that we’ve opted into, Wi-Fi Aware enables any one of many actions, including migrating us both to the same WLAN where we can carry on our app-based session on a more robust connection. That app could be a gaming app, a restaurant queueing and loyalty application, or any number of yet-to be developed applications.

Then there’s Wi-Fi Sense, which is exclusively part of the Microsoft Windows 8.1 and 10 operating systems. According to Microsoft, Wi-Fi Sense can automatically connect you to crowdsourced open WiFi networks (I don’t even know what that means), can accept a WiFi network's terms of use on your behalf -- providing additional info for networks that require it -- and also let you exchange password-protected Wi-Fi network access with your contacts to exchange Internet access without seeing each other's WiFi network passwords.

If you allow Wi-Fi Sense  appropriate permissions in settings, your Windows wireless adapter can interact automatically in a variety of ways with other clients -- which brings us back to why enterprise WLAN managers are watching both Wi-Fi Aware and Wi-Fi Sense with concern.

Business wireless is all about security, control, and trying to define the borders of your environment. Even where BYOD is allowed, there’s usually either mobile device management technology  in place or minimally a strong policy to tame an otherwise unpredictable beast.

Figure 1:
(Image: niekverlaan/Pixabay)

(Image: niekverlaan/Pixabay)

With Wi-Fi Aware and Wi-Fi Sense, I get the vibe that neither the Wi-Fi Alliance nor Microsoft could give two figs about the operational frameworks of enterprise Wi-Fi. In the case of Wi-Fi Aware, you have all sorts of device-to-device communications that happen before client devices get on my WLAN, and when something in the mechanism breaks down for whatever reason, it’s going to result in “your WiFi sucks” type trouble tickets regardless of whether my WLAN was in play or not.

With Wi-Fi Sense, administrators have to grapple with pre-shared key (PSK) strings being shared with client devices that have no business getting them. This is a problem in light of the continued need for pre-shared security since the Wi-Fi Alliance won’t hasten wide-scale support for 802.1X-based security, and the fact that all laptops typically can’t be managed. Kiss your carefully guarded pre-shares goodbye, folks -- Wi-Fi Sense is going to spread them like fertilizer; it’s just a matter of time. Plus, Wi-Fi sense is one more non-standard technology that can impact WLAN connectivity when it acts up, so it's everyone’s potential problem.

Even as the WLAN industry continues the hard push for WiFi as the ubiquitous access method of choice, technologies like Wi-Fi Aware and Wi-Fi Sense could wind up hindering the orderly advance of business wireless. The device and OS makers (all part of the profit-driven Wi-Fi Alliance membership) simply refuse to acknowledge the consumer/enterprise WLAN functional divide.

These two technologies are just the latest in a long procession  -- think lack of ubiquitous 802.1X support, single-band client devices, and embarrassingly outdated drivers and chipsets --  that leaves enterprise network administrators holding the bag.