An Ugly Week In My Wireless And Mobile Broadband Worlds

Wake me up when March is over, will ya? Of late, I'm getting a wee bit exhausted from dealing with the unpretty side of my chosen vocation. Yes, wireless of all sorts is cool and sexy. Not everyone really "gets" the magic behind devices that combine radios with networking protocols, and it's a wonderful fraternity to be in for those of us who do.

March 15, 2011

6 Min Read
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Wake me up when March is over, will ya? Of late, I'm getting a wee bit exhausted from dealing with the unpretty side of my chosen vocation. Yes, wireless of all sorts is cool and sexy. Not everyone really "gets" the magic behind devices that combine radios with networking protocols, and it's a wonderful fraternity to be in for those of us who do.

The proliferation of all sorts of crazy new Wi-Fi and mobile devices means that every day is a new adventure for those in the network game. But adventures aren't always of the preferred kind, and even though the mobile world is being consumerized, the complexity that makes it work doesn't get any simpler. (Shut up, cloud people.) There are still rough edges lurking just below the network surface, and when those rough edges get exposed, a growing base of mobile users means that there is more confusion and frustration to go around. This means that those of us considered wireless professionals are often left holding the bag. Let's talk about some of the imperfections that accompany the amazing world of wireless, and see if any of these sound familiar.

I recently found myself at a remote site, doing some crisis management for an executive team who perceived that network problems were hindering their productivity. After gathering what information I could, I caught a plane and soon dug into diagnosing the very same network that I myself installed a few years back. Since many of the reported problems seemed to focus on the iPad, I made sure I had one along with my trusted AirMagnet analyzer software, Cisco Spectrum Expert card and a goodly mix of test devices.

Since no one was immediately available to work with directly, I canvassed the facility, checking various locations and finding no issues. No issues, that is, until I pulled out the iPad and attempted to do a throughput test to one of my own servers. Can you say "no Java support"? Grr. But that got me thinking--what about my beloved Droid? Again, grr. Two of the hottest devices on the planet can't do a simple speed test, using one of the most common Web applications in existence. Lovely.

In reality, there are many speed test utilities out there, as well as some darn nice apps for throughput testing. But they are not on my preferred server on my own network, and now I'm scrambling to find another utility I can run locally for portable devices.On to the next rant. It turns out that the frustration with the iPads was two-fold. First, as users moved throughout the building with their iPads, they would sometimes jump from our secure production network to a dead-end configuration SSID. The effect is quite disruptive, but, thankfully, easy to replicate with my own iPad. The short version: The iPads were being "sticky clients," not letting go of the AP they started on in favor of the next one they should go to.

This behavior is strictly client-driven, and was sometimes compounded by the device selecting the first network listed in its "available networks" list, which is our dead-end configuration WLAN. To the frustrated user, the WLAN itself was "pushing" them to the wrong network. In reality, the devices just weren't roaming well, despite pretty much every other wireless platform doing just fine changing access points in the same environment. It's no fun explaining the theory of operation of the 802.11 standard to executives who just want things to work. But there's only so much you can do on a standards-based WLAN.

The second iPad problem also affected iPhone users. The devices were randomly rebooting throughout the course of the day, and at very inopportune times. For one exec, it happened when checking e-mail on the iPad; for another, it happened during voice calls on the iPhone. Both devices also happened to be on AT&T, and there are plenty of Web gripes about this same condition. But again, to the users, the WLAN is suspect, because one misinterpreted issue is easy to attach to another when you don't know better. A support ticket to Apple resulted in, "...uh, yeah--you should probably upgrade your code for that problem on those devices."

Back home after the road trip, a student employee who was testing the new iPhone Personal Hotspot came into my office, looking a bit pained. His concern? The Hotspot came up nicely, but on Channel 2. Anyone who knows wireless knows that any channel in the 2.4GHz band other than 1, 6 and 11 is cause for alarm.

It very much appears that the Personal Hotspot channel cannot be changed in the iPhone settings, resulting in degraded performance for Channels 1 and 6 that may overlap with this cell. (I did find in research that the the Verizon Mi-Fi has a selectable channel). In my environment, we have policy that disallows the use of these portable hotspots, but whether by intent or ignorance the policy will be violated on occasion, and our dense Wi-Fi deployment will suffer a bit because of this "feature." I have no idea whether all iPhone Personal Hotspots go to different channels, but I know that the lack of manual channel selection means that there is no regard for impact on an enterprise WLAN.On the topic of the Personal Hotspot, we got to share the thrill that so many others have enjoyed that comes in newly paying more for less of a data plan. To enable the Hotspot feature, we had to commit to $20 more for the feature itself, and also had to downgrade our data plan from unlimited to something far less generous that costs more. Gotta love the promise of a faster network that enables you to run up to limits of your newly smaller data plan, with impressive swiftness. I'm still trying to figure out how this is supposed to make me want to use my mobile broadband over competing services.

Finally, as I kick the tires on various cloud-based wireless solutions, I was floored by how stripped down one of the latest and greatest interfaces is. And I don't mean floored in a good way. As I have more analysis to do, I won't yet name names.

But as more infrastructure offerings move to the cloud, I can't think of too many enterprise features that I have in my current Cisco WLAN that I'd be willing to give up, even if I was keeping up an SME environment instead of a large enterprise. The current cloud control dashboard I'm evaluating is so lacking in everyday WLAN functionality that all I can surmise is that "the cloud must think I'm stupid."  (Thankfully, I have seen more robust competitors, so my skepticism here is not a blanket indictment against cloud wireless vendors.)

At the risk of sounding surly, it takes more than shiny devices to make for a quality wireless experience, whether on Wi-Fi or mobile broadband. Here's hoping that "consumerization" doesn't continue to come at the expense of high-performing wireless networks, that sanity eventually settles in for data plan costs, and that there will actually be a feature set waiting for us there if we all end up in the cloud.

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