Academia To Apple: Fix Your AirPlay Wireless Protocol

College campus users are increasingly looking to use Apple TV and AirPlay in the classroom, but to really embrace the products, they'll need to bid adieu to the Bonjour protocol.

July 12, 2012

5 Min Read
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BYOD hype tends to center on the likes of smartphones and tablets. These self-owned devices usually do just fine on the network from the technical perspective, while causing a policy ruckus that has spawned new product markets. But Apple has a family of popular devices and protocols that are decidedly sub-par enterprise network clients, and higher education network administrators want Apple to provide some relief.

College and university wireless networks are among the biggest out there. The WLAN I manage at Syracuse University currently has more than 3,200 access points and continues to grow. Our daily peak concurrent wireless client counts top 12,000, and during special events can get much higher. Like others in academia, a significant investment in budget, policy, infrastructure, engineering and training has made our wireless network one of Syracuse University's most valuable IT assets.

As wireless has matured on this campus, we've managed to grow a pretty successful culture of "no self-installed access points and routers, and all clients must play by campus wireless standards to be supported." Like most of our peer institutions, we strive for a healthy network with fairly low barriers to entry while still adhering to campus security policies. In other words, we're a business network that also tries to be extremely accommodating to the various curve balls that get thrown at us, but sometimes we have little choice but to say "no" to certain devices on the wireless network.

Before the current BYOD wave swept over the land, we'd occasionally get requests to use a wireless projector or printer on the network. If they would support WPA2 and PEAP with MS-CHAPv2, they were certainly welcome. If not, as a rule we'd have to work with the requester to find an alternate device because building and administering a specific network for one-offs is time- and cost-prohibitive.

Alas, now we're in The Age of Apple, and things have never been more complicated.

iPad and iPhones tend to do fairly well on the typical university or business wireless network (aside from fairly well-document quirkiness that seems to ebb and flow with each software update). But today's users also want to drag the likes of Apple TV and other AirPlay/Bonjour-enabled toys into the classroom and conference room. Indeed, Apple promotes it; "AirPlay Mirroring is made for an audience. Because with a click, what's on your Mac is also on your HDTV. It's easy to set up with Apple TV. Show web pages and videos to friends on the couch, share lessons with a classroom, or present to a conference room." The problem is, these Apple device are far from being good network citizens.

Apple TV does not support enterprise security protocols, which is usually a show stopper on most campuses. And for those schools willing to stand up a less secure network for the likes of Apple TVs, the issue of the underlying protocols can be even tougher to crack. Apple has built this market niche on the extremely limited Bonjour protocol, which is non-routable and extremely difficult to scale and administer on large wireless networks. Users want to make use of these very slick living-room-oriented devices at work, as they have a lot of potential cool uses. Network admins want to help, but not at the expense of wholesale network redesign.

So what's Apple's answer thus far to individual pleas for a change in paradigm? Find a workaround. To meet the Bonjour challenge, wireless vendors like Aerohive, Aruba, and Cisco are developing hardware and fairly complex network configurations that may or may not be suitable for particular network environments. It's not the job of the wireless vendors to fix Apple's oversight. It's time that Apple stepped up and put some development into making its toys more standards-based and enterprise-friendly--for everyone's benefit.

With growing user demands, higher education network managers are attempting to unify their voices and ask for Apple to step up to the plate. Kludgy workarounds and dedicated networks for a handful of devices are not sustainable solutions. If Apple can get it right, it will have the potential to make Apple TV and other Apple applications and products mainstays in a tremendous number of settings that its limited network support keeps them out of today.

That's why the wireless-interested members of Educause, a community of IT leaders from over 1,800 schools, are currently working on a petition to present to Apple that details the pain points and asks for specific solutions. What we're asking for is relatively simple, in that a variety of other consumer-grade products already do what the Apple TV can't.

Will Apple respond in any meaningful way? Even many members of Educause are speculating that the chances are pretty slim. Apple tends to be purposefully indifferent to the problems its products pose. The problem is, the convenience doesn't port well out of the home to the large network, and all the Educause group wants is for Apple to acknowledge that fact and go just a little bit further with its feature sets. (You gotta try.)

The dialogue on the topic is pretty interesting and can be monitored on Educause's Wireless Lan Mailing list. A companion Facebook group has also been set up. Interested parties are hashing out the issues in near real-time. They are expressing their frustrations with the situation in collegial, very technical exchanges among a diverse group of folks in the wireless network trenches.

Disclosure: No mentions of the vendors or services in this blog should be construed as endorsements.

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