The Slippery Slope of Social Sign-In

FBTalons

At the recent Wireless Field Day 6, we got a chance to see a presentation from AirTight Networks about their foray into Social Wifi. The idea is that business can offer free guest wifi for customers in exchange for a Facebook Like or by following the business on Twitter. AirTight has made the process very seamless by allowing an integrated Facebook login button. Users can just click their way to free wifi.

I’m a bit guarded about this whole approach. It has nothing to do with AirTight’s implementation. In face, several other wireless companies are racing to have similar integration. It does have everything to do with the way that data is freely exchanged in today’s society. Sometimes more freely than it should.

Don’t Forget Me

Facebook knows a lot about me. They know where I live. They know who my friends are. They know my wife and how many kids we have. While I haven’t filled out the fields, there are others that have indicated things like political views and even more personal information like relationship status or sexual orientation. Facebook has become a social data dump for hundreds of millions of people.

For years, I’ve said that Facebook holds the holy grail of advertising – an searchable database of everything a given demographic “likes”. Facebook knows this, which is why they are so focused on growing their advertising arm. Every change to the timeline and every misguided attempt to “fix” their profile security has a single aim: convincing business to pay for access to your information.

Now, with social wifi, those business can get access to a large amount of data easily. When you create the API integration with Facebook, you can indicate a large number of discreet data points easily. It’s just a bunch of checkboxes. Having worked in IT before, I know the siren call that could cause a business owner to check every box he could with the idea that it’s better to collect more data rather than less. It’s just harmless, right?

Give It Away Now

People don’t safeguard their social media permissions and data like they should. If you’ve ever gotten DM spam from a follower or watched a Facebook wall swamped with “on behalf of” postings you know that people are willing to sign over the rights to their accounts for a 10% discount coupon or a silly analytics game. And that’s after the warning popup telling the user what permissions they are signing away. What if the data collection is more surreptitious?

The country came unglued when it was revealed that a government agency was collecting metadata and other discreet information about people that used online services. The uproar led to hearings and debate about how far reaching that program was. Yet many of those outraged people don’t think twice about letting a coffee shop have access to a wealth of data that would make the NSA salivate.

Providers are quick to say that there are ways to limit how much data is collected. It’s trivial to disable the ability to see how many children a user has. But what if that’s the data the business wants? Who is to say that Target or Walmart won’t collect that information for an innocent purpose today only to use it to target advertisements to users at a later date. That’s the exact kind of thing that people don’t think about.

Big data and our analytic integrations are allowing it to happen with ease today. The abundance of storage means we can collect everything and keep it forever without needing to worry about when we should throw things away. Ubiquitous wireless connectivity means we are never truly disconnected from the world. Services that we rely on to tell us about appointments or directions collect data they shouldn’t because it’s too difficult to decide how to dispose of it. It may sound a bit paranoid but you would be shocked to see what people are willing to trade without realizing.


Tom’s Take

Given the choice between paying a few dollars for wifi access or “liking” a company’s page on Facebook, I’ll gladly fork over the cash. I’d rather give up something of middling value (money) instead of giving up something more important to me (my identity). The key for vendors investigating social wifi is simple: transparency. Don’t just tell me that you can restrict the data that a business can collect. Show me exactly what data they are collecting. Don’t rely on the generalized permission prompts that Facebook and Twitter provide. If business really want to know how I voted in the last election then the wifi provider has a social responsibility to tell me that before I sign up. If shady businesses are forced to admit they are overstepping their data collection bounds then they might just change their tune. Let’s make technology work to protect our privacy for once.

Will Dell Buy Aerohive?

DELL-Aerohive-Logo

One rumor I keep hearing about in the industry involves a certain buzzing wireless vendor and the world’s largest startup.  Acquisitions happen all the time.  Rumors of them are even more frequent.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this may be good for everyone.

Dell wants to own the stack from top to bottom.  In the past, they have had to partner with printer companies (Lexmark) and networking companies (Brocade and Juniper) to deliver parts of the infrastructure they couldn’t provide themselves.  In the case of printers, Dell found a way to build them on their own.  That reduced their reliance on Lexmark.  In the networking world, Dell shocked everyone by going outside their OEM relationship and buying Force10.  I’ve talked before about why the Force10 pickup was a better deal in the long run than Brocade.

Dell’s Desires

Dell needs specific pieces of the puzzle.  They don’t want to be encumbered with ancillary products that will need to be jettisoned later.  Buying Brocade would have required unwinding a huge fibre channel business.  In much the same way, I don’t think Dell will end up buying their current wireless OEM, Aruba Networks.  Aruba has decided to branch out past the doing simple wireless and moved into wired network switches and security and identity management programs like ClearPass.  Dell doesn’t want any of that.  They already have an issue integrating the Force10 networking expertise into the PowerConnect line.  I’ve been told in the past the FTOS will eventually come to PowerConnect, but that has yet to happen.  Integrating purchased companies isn’t easier.  That becomes exponentially harder the more product lines you have to integrate.

Aruba is too expensive for Dell to buy outright.  Michael Dell spent a huge chunk of his cash to get his company back from the shareholders.  He’s going to put it on a diet pretty soon.  I would expect to see a few product lines slimmed down or outright dropped.  That makes it tough to justify buying so much from another company.  Dell needs a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

Aerohive’s Aspirations

Aerohive is the best target for Dell.  They are clearly fighting for third place in the wireless market behind Cisco and Aruba.  Aerohive has never been shy about punching above their weight.  They have the mentality of a scrappy terrier that won’t go down without a fight.  But, they are getting pressure to expand quickly across their product lines.  They took their time releasing an 802.11ac access point.  Their switching offering hasn’t caught on in the same way that of Aruba or Meraki (now a division of Cisco).

Aerohive is on the verge of going public.  I’m sure the infusion of cash would allow them to pay off some early investors as well as fund more development for 802.11ac Phase 2 gear and maybe a firewall offering.  The risk comes when you look at what happened to Ruckus Wireless shortly after their IPO.  While they did recover, it didn’t look very good for a company that supposedly did have a unique claim, their antenna design.  Aerohive is a cloud management platform like many others in the market.  You have to wonder how investors would view them.  Scrappy doesn’t sell stock.

Aerohive is now fighting in the new Gartner “Wired and Wireless Access” magic quadrant, which is an absolute disaster for everyone.  An analyst firm thinks that wireless is just like wired, so naturally it makes sense for AP vendors to start making switches, right?  Except the people who are really brilliant when it comes to wireless, like Matthew Gast and Victor Shtrom couldn’t care less about bits on copper.  They’ve spent the better part of their careers solving the RF problems in the world.  And now someone tells them that interference problems aren’t that much different than spanning tree?  I would have long since planted my head permanently onto my desk if I’d been told that in their position.

Aerohive gains a huge backer in the fight if Dell acquires them.  They get the name to go up against Cisco/Meraki.  The gain R&D from Dell with expertise around cloud management.  They can start developing integration with HiveManager and Dell’s SMB extensive product line.  Switch supply becomes a thing of the past.  Their entire software offering fits well with what Dell is trying to accomplish from a device independence perspective with regards to customers.

Tom’s Take

I don’t put much stock in random rumors.  But I’ve heard this one come up enough to make me ask some tough questions.  There are people in both camps that think it will happen sometime in 2014.  Dell has to get the books sorted out and figure out who’s in charge of buying things.  Aerohive has to see if there’s enough juice left in the market to IPO and not look foolish.  Maybe Dell needs to run the numbers and find out what it would take to cash out Aerohive’s investors and add the company to the growing Empire of Round Rock.  A little buzz for the World’s Largest Startup couldn’t hurt.

Cisco CMX – Marketing Magic? Or Big Brother?

Cisco Logo

The first roundtable presenter at Interop New York was Cisco. Their Enterprise group always brings interesting technology to the table. This time, the one that caught my eye was the Connected Mobile Experience (CMX). CMX is a wireless mobility technology that allows a company to do some advanced marketing wizardry.

CMX uses your Cisco wireless network to monitor devices coming into the air space. They don’t necessarily have to connect to your wireless network for CMX to work. They just have to be beaconing for a network, which all devices do. CMX can then push a message to the device. This message can be a simple “thank you” for coming or something more advanced like a coupon or notification to download a store specific app. CMX can then store the information about that device, such as whether or not they joined the network, where they went, and how long they were there. This gives the company to pull some interesting statistics about their customer base. Even if they never hop on the wireless network.

I have to be honest here. This kind of technology gives me the bit of the creeps. I understand that user tracking is the hot new thing in retail. Stores want to know where you went, how long you stayed there, and whether or not you saw an advertisement or a featured item. They want to know your habits so as to better sell to you. The accumulation of that data over time allows for some patterns to emerge that can drive a retail operation’s decision making process.

A Thought Exercise

Think about an average person. We’ll call him Mike. Mike walks four blocks from his office to the subway station every day after work. He stops at the corner about halfway between to cross a street. On that street just happens to be a coffee shop using something like CMX. Mike has a brand new phone that uses wifi and bluetooth and Mike keeps them on all the time. CMX can detect when the device comes into range. It knows that Mike stays there for about 2 minutes but never joins the network. It then moves out of the WLAN area. The data cruncher for the store wants to drive new customers to the store. They analyze the data and find that lots of people stay in the area for a couple of minutes. They equate this to people stopping to decide if they want to have a cup of coffee from the shop. They decide to create a CMX coupon push notification that pops up after one minute on devices that have been seen in the database for the last month. Mike will see a coupon for $1 off a cup of coffee the next time he waits for the light in front of the coffee shop.

That kind of reach is crazy. I keep thinking back to the scenes in Minority Report where the eye scanners would detect you looking at an advertisement and then target a specific ad based on your retina scan. You may say that’s science fiction. But with products like CMX, I can build a pretty complete profile of your behavior even if I don’t have a retina scan. Correlating information provides a clear picture of who you are without any real identity information. Knowing that someone likes to spend their time in the supermarket in the snack aisles and frozen food aisles and less time in the infants section says a lot. Knowing the route a given device takes through the store can help designers place high volume items in the back and force shoppers to take longer routes past featured items.


Tom’s Take

I’m not saying that CMX is a bad product. It’s providing functionality that can be of great use to retail companies. But, just like VHS recorders and Bittorrent, good ideas can often be used to facilitate things that aren’t as noble. I suggested to the CMX developers that they could implement some kind of “opt out” message that popped up if I hadn’t joined the wireless network in a certain period of time. I look at that as a way of saying to shoppers “We know you aren’t going to join. Press the button and we’ll wipe our your device info.” It puts people at ease to know they aren’t being tracked. Even just showing them what you’re collecting is a good start. With the future of advertising and marketing focusing on instant delivery and data gathering for better targeting, I think the products like CMX will be powerful additions. But, great power requires even greater responsibility.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Cisco was a presenter at the Tech Field Day Interop Roundtable.  They did not ask for any consideration in the writing of this review nor were they promised any.  The conclusions and analysis contained in this post are mine and mine alone.

Why Do We Tolerate Bad Wireless?

HotelSpeedConnection

If there is one black eye on the hospitality industry, it has to be wireless.  I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone that is truly happy with the wireless connectivity they found in a hotel.  The above picture from an unnamed hotel in Silicon Valley just serves to underscore that point.  When I was on a recent speaking trip in New England, I even commented about the best hotel wireless I’d ever seen:

Granted, that was due to a secluded hotel on MIT‘s university network, but the fact remains that this shouldn’t be the exception.  This should be the rule.

Thanks to advances in mobile technology like LTE, we have a new benchmark for what a mobile device is capable of producing.  My LTE tablet and phone outrun my home cable connection.  That’s fine for browsing on a picture frame.  However, when it’s time to get real work done I still need to fire up my laptop.  And since there isn’t an integrated LTE/4G hotspot in my MacBook, I have to rely on wireless.

Wireless access has gone from being a kitschy offering at specialized places to being an everpresent part of our daily lives.  When I find myself in need of working outside the office, I can think of at least five different local establishments that offer me free wireless access.  Signing up for mobile hotspot services easily doubles that number.  There are very few places that I go any more that don’t give me the ability to use WiFI.  However, there is a difference between having availability and having “good” availability.

Good Enough Wireless

I would never upload video at a coffee shop or an airport.  The sheer number of folks using the network causes massive latency and throughput issues.  Connections are spotty and it’s not uncommon to see folks throw their hands up in the air because something just randomly stopped working.  However, the most telling statistic is how often we will go back to that same location to use the free wifi again.

Hotels have a captive audience.  You’re there to attend a conference during the day or spend the night.  You are geographically isolated.  You get what you get when it comes to connectivity.  Newer hotel chains that focus on business travelers understand the need for wireless connectivity.  They usually offer it for free with your room.  That’s because they usually have the infrastructure to support wireless coverage from large numbers of guests.  Older hotels that aren’t quite up to snuff or don’t understand why travelers need Internet access usually charge exorbitant fees or bundle the wireless into a “resort” package that gives you a whole bunch of high-margin useless services to get what you want.  Sometimes they use those fees to upgrade the infrastructure.  Or they just pocket the money and go on with their day.

Internet In My Pocket

As much as we complain about terrible wireless at hotels, it’s not like we have an alternative.  Wireless hotspot devices, commonly called “MiFis” after the Verizon branding, are popular with real road warriors.  Why hunt for a coffee shop when you can fire up a wireless network in your pocket?  Most current mobile devices even come with hotspot functionality built in.  But the carriers haven’t gotten the message yet.  For every one that allows hotspot usage (Verizon), you have those that don’t believe in hotspot and want to gouge you with higher fees or data plan changes to revamp bad mobile data decisions in the past.  Yes, I’m looking right at you AT&T.

Mobile hotspots can fix wireless problems in isolated cases, but loading a hotel full of people on MiFis will inevitably end in disaster.  Each of them uses a portion of the LTE/4G spectrum.  Think about a large gathering where everyone’s mobile phones cause spotty reception.  Not because they are all in use, but because they just happen to be occupying the same space.  Towers get overloaded, backhaul networks slow down, and service suffers for everyone.  If you don’t believe me, try making a phone call at Cisco Live some time.  It’s not pretty.

As long as there are no options for solving the problem, hospitality will go right on offering the same terrible coverage they do now.  As far as they are concerned, wireless is best effort.  Best effort should never be acceptable.  You can fix this problem by going to the front desk and telling them all about it.  No, don’t yell at the desk attendant.  They have zero control over what’s going on.  There’s a better way.

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

Ask for a satisfaction survey.  Fill it out and be brutally honest when you get to the “Are You Pleased” section.  Those surveys go right up the chain into the chain satisfaction ratings.  If they start getting disgruntled comments about bad wireless coverage, I can promise that some Quality Champion somewhere is going to look into things.  Hotels hate black eyes on their satisfaction ratings.  Bad reviews keep people from staying at a hotel.  If you want to get the wireless fixed, tell them how important it is.  Tell them you’ll stay somewhere else next time because you can accomplish anything.  Voting with your wallet is a sure fire way to make an impact.

Tom’s Take

I remember the old Cingular/AT&T Wireless commercials with the cell phones cutting out during calls.  I laughed and thought about all the times it had happened to me.  It because such a sticking point that every carrier worked to upgrade their network and provide better call quality.  No one would stand for spotty service any more as they began to rely on their mobile phones as their primary communications devices.

Wireless is the same now as cell phones were then.  We need a concerted effort to upgrade the experience for everyone to make it usable for things like Hotspot 2.0, which will offload traffic from LTE to WiFI seemlessly.  We can’t let terrible wireless rule us like spotty cell phone coverage did years ago.  Do everything you can to make wireless useful for everyone.

A Complicated World Without Wires

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Another Field Day is in the books. Wireless Field Day 5 was the first that I’d been to in almost two years. I think that had more to do with the great amount of talent that exists in the wireless space. Of course, it does help that now I’m behind the scenes and not doing my best to drink from the firehose of 802.11ac transitions and channel architecture discussions. That’s not to say that a few things didn’t absorb into my head.

Analysis is King

I’ve seen talks from companies like Fluke and Metageek before at Wireless Field Day. It was a joy to see them back again for more discussion about new topics. For Fluke, that involved plans to include 802.11ac in their planning and analysis tools. This is going to be important going forward to help figure out the best way to setup new high-speed deployments. For Metageek, it was all about showing us how they are quickly becoming the go-to folks for packet analysis and visual diagramming. Cisco has tapped them to provide analysis for CleanAir. That’s pretty high praise indeed. Their EyePA tool is an amazing peek into what’s possible when you take the torrent of data provided by wireless connections and visualize it.

Speaking of analytics, I was very impressed to see what 7signal and WildPackets were pulling out of the air. WildPackets is also using a tool to capture 802.11ac traffic, OmniPeek. A lot of the delegates were happy to see that 11ac had been added in the most recent release. 7signal has some crazy sensors that they can deploy into your environment to give you a very accurate picture of what’s going on. As the CTO, Veli-Pekka Ketonen told me, “You can hope for about 5% assurance when you just walk around and measure manually. We can give you 95% consistently.”

It’s Not Your AP, It’s How You Use It

The other thing that impressed me from the Wireless Field Day 5 sponsors was the ways in which APs were being used. Aerohive took their existing AP infrastructure and started adding features like self-registration guest portals. I loved that you could follow a Twitter account and get your guest PPSK password via DM. It just shows the power of social media when it interacts with wireless. AirTight took the social integration to an entirely different level. They are leveraging social accounts through Facebook and Twitter to offer free guest wifi access. In a world where free wifi is assumed to be a given, it’s nice to see vendors figuring out how to make social work for them with likes and follows in exchange for access.

That’s not to say that software was king of the hill. Xirrus stepped up to the the stage for a first-time appearance at Wireless Field Day. They have a very unique architecture, to say the least. Their CEO weathered the questions from the delegates and live viewers quite well compared to some of the heat that I’ve seen put on Xirrus in the past. I think the delegates came away from the event with a greater respect for what Xirrus is trying to do with their array architecture. Meru also presenter for the first time and talked about their unique perspective with an architecture based on using single-channel APs to alleviate issues in the airspace. I think their story has a lot to do with specific verticals and challenging environments, as outlined by Chris Carey from Bellarmine College, who spoke about his experiences.

If you’d like to watch the videos from Wireless Field Day 5, you can see them on Youtube or Vimeo.  You can also read through the delegates thoughts at the Wireless Field Day 5 page.


Tom’s Take

Wireless growing by leaps and bounds. It’s no longer just throwing up a couple of radio bridges and offering a network to a person or two with laptops in your environment. The interaction of mobility and security have led to dense deployments with the need to keep tabs on what the users are doing through analytics like those provided by Meru and Motorola. We’ve now moved past focusing on protocols like 802.11ac and instead on how to improve the lives of the users via guest registration portals and self enrollment like Aerohive and AirTight. And we can’t forget that the explosion of wireless means we need to be able to see what’s going on, whether it be packet capture or airspace monitoring. I think the group at Wireless Field Day 5 did an amazing job of showing how mature the wireless space has become in such as short time. I am really looking forward to what Wireless Field Day 6 will bring in 2014.

Disclaimer

Wireless Field Day 5 doesn’t happen without the help of the sponsors. They each cover a portion of the travel and lodging costs of the delegates. Some even choose to provide takeaways like pens, coffee mugs, and even evaluation equipment. That doesn’t mean that they are “buying” a review. No Wireless Field Day delegate is required to write about what they see. If they do choose to write, they don’t have to write a positive review. Independence means no restrictions. No sponsor every asks for consideration in a review and they are never promised anything. What you read from myself and the delegates is their honest and uninfluenced opinion.

Accelerating E-Rate

ERateSpeed

Right after I left my job working for a VAR that focused on K-12 education and the federal E-Rate program a funny thing happened.  The president gave a speech where he talked about the need for schools to get higher speed links to the Internet in order to take advantage of new technology shifts like cloud computing.  He called for the FCC and the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) to overhaul the E-Rate program to fix deficiencies that have cropped up in the last few years.  In the last couple of weeks a fact sheet was released by the FCC to outline some of the proposed changes.  It was like a breath of fresh air.

Getting Up To Speed

The largest shift in E-Rate funding in the last two years has been in applying for faster Internet circuits.  Schools are realizing that it’s cheaper to host servers offsite either with software vendors or in clouds like AWS than it is to apply for funding that may never come and buy equipment that will be outdated before it ships.  The limiting factor has been with the Internet connection of these schools.  Many of them are running serial T-1 circuits even today.  They are cheap and easy to install.  Enterprising ISPs have even started creating multilink PPP connections with several T-1 links to create aggregate bandwidth approaching that of fiber connections.

Fiber is the future of connectivity for schools.  By running a buried fiber to a school district, the ISP can gradually increase the circuit bandwidth as a school increases needs.  For many schools around the country that could include online testing mandates, flipped classrooms, and even remote learning via technologies like Telepresence.  Fiber runs from ISPs aren’t cheap.  They are so expensive right now that the majority of funding for the current year’s E-Rate is going to go to faster ISP connections under Priority 1 funding.  That leaves precious little money left over to fund Priority 2 equipment.  A former customer of mine spent the Priority 1 money to get a 10Gbit Internet circuit and then couldn’t afford a router to hook up to it because of the lack of money leftover for Priority 2.

The proposed E-Rate changes will hopefully fix some of those issues.  The changes call for  simplification of the rules regarding deployments that will hopefully drive new fiber construction.  I’m hoping this means that they will do away with the “dark fiber” rule that has been in place for so many years.  Previously, you could only run fiber between sites if it was lit on both ends and in use.  This discouraged the use of spare fiber, or dark fiber, because it couldn’t be claimed under E-Rate if it wasn’t passing traffic.  This has led to a large amount of ISP-owned circuits being used for managed WAN connections.  A very few schools that were on the cutting edge years ago managed to get dedicated point-to-point fiber runs.  In addition, the order calls for prioritizing funding for fiber deployments that will drive higher speeds and long-term efficiency.  This should enable schools to do away with running multimode fiber simply because it is cheap and instead give preferential treatment to single mode fiber that is capable of running gigabit and 10gig over long distances.  It should also be helpful to VARs that are poised to replace aging multimode fiber plants.

Classroom Mobility

WAN circuits aren’t the only technology that will benefit from these E-Rate changes.  The order calls for a focus on ensuring that schools and libraries gain access to high speed wireless networks for users.  This has a lot to do with the explosion of personal tablet and laptop devices as opposed to desktop labs.  When I first started working with schools more than a decade ago it was considered cutting edge to have a teacher computer and a student desktop in the classroom.  Today, tablet carts and one-to-one programs ensure that almost every student has access to some sort of device for research and learning.  That means that schools are going to need real enterprise wireless networks.  Sadly, many of them that either don’t qualify for E-Rate or can’t get enough funding settle for SMB/SOHO wireless devices that have been purchase for office supply stores simply because they are inexpensive.  It causes the IT admins to spend entirely too much time troubleshooting these connections and distracting them from other, more important issues. It think this focus on wireless will go a long way to helping alleviate connectivity issues for schools of all sizes.

Finally, the FCC has ordered that the document submission process be modernized to include electronic filing options and that older technologies be phased out of the program. This should lead to fewer mistakes in the filing process as well as more rapid decisions for appropriate technology responses.  No longer do schools need to concern themselves with whether or not they need directory assistance on their Priority 1 phone lines.  Instead, they can focus on their problem areas and get what they need quickly.  There is also talk of fixing the audit and appeals process as well as speeding the deployment of funds.  As anyone that has worked with E-Rate will attest, the bureaucracy surrounding the program is difficult for anyone but the most seasoned professionals.  Even the E-Rate wizards have problems from year to year figuring out when an application will be approved or whether or not an audit will take place.  Making these processes easier and more transparent will be good for everyone involved in the program.


Tom’s Take

I posted previously that the cloud would kill the E-Rate program as we know it.  It appears I was right from a certain point of view.  Mobility and the cloud have both caused the E-Rate program to be evaluated and overhauled to address the changes in technology that are now filtering into schools from the corporate sector.  Someone was finally paying attention and figured out that we need to address faster Internet circuits and wireless connectivity instead of DNS servers and more cabling for nonexistent desktops.  Taking these steps shows that there is still life left in the E-Rate program and its ability to help schools.  I still say that USAC needs to boost the funding considerably to help more schools all over the country.  I’m hoping that once the changes in the FCC order go through that more money will be poured into the program and our children can reap the benefits for years to come.

Disclaimer

I used to work for a VAR that did a great deal of E-Rate business.  I don’t work for them any longer.  This post is my work and does not reflect the opinion of any education VAR that I have talked to or have been previously affiliated with.  I say this because the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of USAC, which is the enforcement and auditing arm, can be a bit vindictive at times when it comes to criticism.  I don’t want anyone at my previous employer to suffer because I decided to speak my mind.

Causing A Network Ruckus

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The second presentation of day 2 of Network Field Day was from Ruckus wireless. Yes, a wireless company at a non-wireless Field Day event. I had known for a while that Ruckus wanted to present at Network Field Day and I was excited to see what they would bring. My previous experience with Ruckus was very enlightening. I wanted to see how they would do outside the comfort zone of a wireless event. Add in the fact that most networks are now becoming converged from the perspective of offering both wired and wireless access and you can see the appeal of being the only wireless company on the slate.

We started off with a talk from GT Hill (@GTHill). GT is one of those guys that started out very technical before jumping into the dark side of marketing. I think his presentation should be required viewing for those that think they may want to talk to any Tech Field Day group. GT had a lot of energy that he poured into his talk.  I especially loved how he took a few minutes at the beginning to ask the delegates about their familiarity with wireless.  That’s not something you typically see from a vertical-focused field day like NFD, but it does get back to the cross discipline aspect that makes the greater Tech Field Day events so great.  Once GT had an idea of what we all knew he kept each and every one of the delegates engaged as he discussed why wireless was so hard to do compared to the “simplicity” of wired networking. Being a fan of explaining technical subjects with easy-to-understand examples, I loved GT using archery as a way to explain the relative difficulty of 802.11 broadcasts in 802.11n and 802.11ac.

The second part of the discussion from Sandip Patel about 802.11ac was great. I didn’t get a chance to hear the presentations from the other wireless vendors at Wireless Field Day 3 & 4. Picking up all the new information regarding things like channel bandwidth and multi-user spatial streams was very nice for me.  There’s a lot of new technology being poured into 802.11ac right now.  There’s also a lot that’s being prepped for the future as well.  While I knew that 160 MHz channels were going to be necessary to get the full bandwidth rates out of 802.11ac, I was unaware that you could have two 80 MHz channels simultaneously working together to provide that.  You learn something awesome at every Field Day event.  I think 802.11ac is going to push a lot of lesser vendors out of the market before all is said and done.  The huge leap forward for throughput comes with a great cost insofar as making sure that your wireless radios work correctly while at the same time accommodating noise and interference.  Companies like Cisco and Aruba are going to come out okay just by virtue of being so large.  Aerohive should come out fine as well.  I think Ruckus has taken a unique approach with their antenna technology.  That shows in these presentations, as Ruckus will be the first to tell you that their superior transmitting technology means that the signal will be cleaner between client and AP.  I want to see a real 802.11ac from every wireless company put together in a room with various noise producers to see what happens.  Maybe something for Wireless Field Day 5?

After we shut off the cameras, we got to take tour of the Ruckus testing facilities.  Since Ruckus had moved buildings since Wireless Field Day 2 it was a brand new room.  There was a lot more room than the previous testing area that we’d seen before.  They still had a lot of the same strange containers and rooms designed to subject access point radios to the strangest RF environments imaginable.  In the new building, there was just a lot more elbow room to walk around along with more tables to spread out and get down to the nuts and bolts of testing.

If you’d like to learn more about Ruckus Wireless and their solutions, you can check them out at http://www.ruckuswireless.com.  You can also follow them on Twitter as @ruckuswireless.


Tom’s Take

While the Ruckus presentation was geared more toward people who weren’t that familiar with the wireless space, I loved it nonetheless.  GT Hill related to a group of non-wireless people in the best way I could imagine.  Sandip brought a lot of info about 802.11ac to the table now that the vendors are starting to ramp up towards putting out enterprise APs.  Ruckus wanted to show everyone that wireless is an important part of the conversation when it comes to the larger networking story.  While we spend a lot of time at NFD talking about SDN or data centers or other lofty things, it’s important to remember that our tweets and discussion and even our video coverage is coming over a wireless network of some kind.  Going to a vendor without some form of wireless access is a demerit in their case.  I’ve always made a point of paying attention once I see that something is everywhere I go.  Thankfully, Ruckus made the right kind of noise to make the delegates sit up and pay attention.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Ruckus was a sponsor of Network Field Day 5.  As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 5.  In addition, Ruckus provided me with lunch at their offices.  They also provided a custom nameplate and a gift package containing a wireless access point and controller.  At no time did they ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review.  The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.

Additional Network Field Day 5 Coverage

Terry Slattery – Network Field Day 5: Ruckus Wireless

Pete Welcher – Network Field Day 5: Ruckus Wireless Comments

Pete Welcher – Testing WLAN and Network Management Products

Cisco Borderless Idol

Cisco Logo

Day one of Network Field Day 5 (NFD5) included presentations from the Cisco Borderless team. You probably remember their “speed dating” approach at NFD4 which gave us a wealth of information in 15 minute snippets. The only drawback to that lineup is when you find a product or a technology that interests you there really isn’t any time to quiz the presenter before they are ushered off stage. Someone must have listened when I said that before, because this time they brought us 20 minute segments – 10 minutes of presentation, 10 minutes of demo. With the switching team, we even got to vote on our favorite to bring the back for the next round (hence the title of the post). More on that in a bit.

6500 Quad Supervisor Redundancy

First up on the block was the Catalyst 6500 team. I swear this switch is the Clint Howard of networking, because I see it everywhere. The team wanted to tell us about a new feature available in the ((verify code release)) code on the Supervisor 2T (Sup2T). Previously, the supervisor was capable of performing a couple of very unique functions. The first of these was Stateful Switch Over (SSO). During SSO, the redundant supervisor in the chassis can pick up where the primary left off in the event of a failure. All of the traffic sessions can keep on trucking even if the active sup module is rebooting. This gives the switch a tremendous uptime, as well as allowing for things like hitless upgrades in production. The other existing feature of the Sup2T is Virtual Switching System (VSS). VSS allows two Sup2Ts to appear as one giant switch. This is helpful for applications where you don’t want to trust your traffic to just one chassis. VSS allows for two different chassis to terminate Multi-Chassis EtherChannel (MLAG) connections so that distribution layer switches don’t have a single point of failure. Traffic looks like it’s flowing to one switch when in actuality it may be flowing to one or the other. In the event that a Supervisor goes down, the other one can keep forwarding traffic.

Enter the Quad Sup SSO ability. Now, instead of having an RPR-only failover on the members of a VSS cluster, you can setup the redundant Sup2T modules to be ready and waiting in the event of a failure. This is great because you can lose up to three Sup2Ts at once and still keep forwarding while they reboot or get replaced. Granted, anything that can take out 3 Sup2Ts at once is probably going to take down the fourth (like power failure or power surge), but it’s still nice to know that you have a fair amount of redundancy now. This only works on the Sup2T, so you can’t get this if you are still running the older Sup720. You also need to make sure that your linecards support the newer Distributed Forwarding Card 3 (DFC3), which means you aren’t going to want to do this with anything less than a 6700-series line card. In fact, you really want to be using the 6800 series or better just to be on the safe side. As Josh O’brien (@joshobrien77) commented, this is a great feature to have. But it should have been there already. I know that there are a lot of technical reasons why this wasn’t available earlier, and I’m sure the increase fabric speeds in the Sup2T, not to mention the increased capability of the DFC3, are the necessary component for the solution. Still, I think this is something that probably should have shipped in the Sup2T on the first day. I suppose that given the long road the Sup2T took to get to us that “better late than never” is applicable here.

UCS-E

Next up was the Cisco UCS-E series server for the ISR G2 platform. This was something that we saw at NFD4 as well. The demo was a bit different this time, but for the most part this is similar info to what we saw previously.


Catalyst 3850 Unified Access Switch

The Catalyst 3800 is Cisco’s new entry into the fixed-configuration switch arena. They are touting this a “Unified Access” solution for clients. That’s because the 3850 is capable of terminating up to 50 access points (APs) per stack of four. This think can basically function as a wiring closet wireless controller. That’s because it’s using the new IOS wireless controller functionality that’s also featured in the new 5760 controller. This gets away from the old Airespace-like CLI that was so prominent on the 2100, 2500, 4400, and 5500 series controllers. The 3850, which is based on the 3750X, also sports a new 480Gbps Stackwise connector, appropriately called Stackwise480. This means that a stack of 3850s can move some serious bits. All that power does come at a cost – Stackwise480 isn’t backwards compatible with the older Stackwise v1 and v2 from the 3750 line. This is only an issue if you are trying to deploy 3850s into existing 3750X stacks, because Cisco has announced the End of Sale (EOS) and End of Life (EOL) information for those older 3750s. I’m sure the idea is that when you go to rip them out, you’ll be more than happy to replace them with 3850s.

The 3850 wireless setup is a bit different from the old 3750 Access Controller that had a 4400 controller bolted on to it. The 3850 uses Cisco’s IOS-XE model of virtualizing IOS into a sort of VM state that can run on one core of a dual-core processor, leaving the second core available to do other things. Previously at NFD4, we’d seen the Catalyst 4500 team using that other processor core for doing inline Wireshark captures. Here, the 3850 team is using it to run the wireless controller. That’s a pretty awesome idea when you think about it. Since I no longer have to worry about IOS taking up all my processor and I know that I have another one to use, I can start thinking about some interesting ideas.

The 3850 does have a couple of drawbacks. Aside from the above Stackwise limitations, you have to terminate the APs on the 3850 stack itself. Unlike the CAPWAP connections that tunnel all the way back to the Airespace-style controllers, the 3850 needs to have the APs directly connected in order to decapsulate the tunnel. That does provide for some interesting QoS implications and applications, but it doesn’t provide much flexibility from a wiring standpoint. I think the primary use case is to have one 3850 switch (or stack) per wiring closet, which would be supported by the current 50 AP limitation. the othe drawback is that the 3850 is currently limited to a stack of four switches, as opposed to the increased six switch limit on the 3750X. Aside from that, it’s a switch that you probably want to take a look at in your wiring closets now. You can buy it with an IP Base license today and then add on the AP licenses down the road as you want to bring them online. You can even use the 3850s to terminate CAPWAP connections and manage the APs from a central controller without adding the AP license.

Here is the deep dive video that covers a lot of what Cisco is trying to do from a unified wired and wireless access policy standpoint. Also, keep an eye out for the cute Unifed Access video in the middle.

Private Data Center Mobility

I found it interesting this this demo was in the Borderless section and not the Data Center presentation. This presentation dives into the world of Overlay Transport Virtualization (OTV). Think of OTV like an extra layer of 802.1 q-in-q tunneling with some IS-IS routing mixed in. OTV is Cisco’s answer to extending the layer 2 boundary between data centers to allow VMs to be moved to other sites without breaking their networking. Layer 2 everywhere isn’t the most optimal solution, but it’s the best thing we’ve got to work with the current state of VM networking (until Nicira figures out what they’re going to do).

We loved this session so much that we asked Mostafa to come back and talk about it more in depth.

The most exciting part of this deep dive to me was the introduction of LISP. To be honest, I haven’t really been able to wrap my head around LISP the first couple of times that I saw it. Now, thanks to the Borderless team and Omar Sultan (@omarsultan), I’m going to dig into a lot more in the coming months. I think there are some very interesting issues that LISP can solve, including my IPv6 Gordian Knot.


Tom’s Take

I have to say that I liked Cisco’s approach to the presentations this time.  Giving us discussion time along with a demo allowed us to understand things before we saw them in action.  The extra five minutes did help quite a bit, as it felt like the presenters weren’t as rushed this time.  The “Borderless Idol” style of voting for a presentation to get more info out of was brilliant.  We got to hear about something we wanted to go into depth about, and I even learned something that I plan on blogging about later down the line.  Sure, there was a bit of repetition in a couple of areas, most notably UCS-E, but I can understand how those product managers have invested time and effort into their wares and want to give them as much exposure as possible.  Borderless hits all over the spectrum, so keeping the discussion focused in a specific area can be difficult.  Overall, I would say that Cisco did a good job, even without Ryan Secrest hosting.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Cisco was a sponsor of Network Field Day 5.  As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 5.  In addition, Cisco provided me with a breakfast and lunch at their offices.  They also provided a Moleskine notebook, a t-shirt, and a flashlight toy.  At no time did they ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review.  The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.

Aerohive Is Switching Things Up

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 12.01.20 PM

I’ve had the good fortune to be involved with Aerohive Networks ever since Wireless Field Day 1.  Since then, I’ve been present for their launch of branch routing.  I’ve also convinced the VAR that I work for to become a partner with them, as I believe that their solutions in the wireless space are of great benefit to my customer base.  It wasn’t long ago that some interesting rumors started popping up.  I noticed that Aerohive started putting out feelers to hire a routing and switching engineer.  There was also a routing and switching class that appeared in the partner training list.  All of these signs pointed to something abuzz on the horizon.

Today, Aerohive is launching a couple of new products.  The first of these is the aforementioned switching line.  Aerohive is taking their expertise in HiveOS and HiveManager and placing it into a rack with 24 cables coming out of it.  The idea behind this came when they analyzed their branch office BR100 and BR200 models and found that a large majority of their remote/branch office customers needed more than the 4 switch ports offered in those models.  Aerohive had a “ah ha” moment and decided that it was time to start making enterprise-grade switches.  The beauty of having a switch offering from a company like Aerohive is that the great management software that is already available for their existing products is now available for wired ports as well.  All of the existing polices that you can create through HiveManager can now be attached to an Aerohive switch port.  The GUI for port role configuration is equally nice:

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 4.14.11 PM

In addition, the management dashboard has been extended and expanded to allow for all kinds of information to be pulled out of the network thanks to the visibility that HiveManager has.  You can also customize these views to your heart’s content.  If you frequently find yourself needing to figure out who is monopolizing your precious bandwidth, you’ll be happy with the options available to you.

The first of three switch models, the SR2024, is available today.  It has 24 GigE ports, 8 PoE+ ports, 4 GigE uplinks, and a single power supply.  In the coming months, there will be two additional switches that have full PoE+ capability across 24 and 48 ports, redundant power supplies, and 10 GigE SFP+ uplinks.  For those that might be curious, I asked Abby Strong about the SFPs, and Aerohive will allow you to use just about anyone’s SFPs.  I think that’s a pretty awesome idea.

The other announcement from Aerohive is software based.  One of the common things that is seen in today’s wireless networks is containment of application traffic via multiple SSIDs. If you’ve got management users as well as end users and guests accessing your network all at once, you’ve undoubtedly created policies that allow them to access information differently.  Perhaps management has unfettered access to sites like Facebook while end users can only access it during break hours.  Guests are able to go where they want but are subject to bandwidth restrictions to prevent them from monopolizing resources.  In the past you would need three different SSIDs to accomplish something like this.  Having a lot of broadcasted SSIDs causes a lot of wireless congestion as well as user confusion and increased attack surface.  If only there was a way to have visibility into the applications that the users are accessing and create policies and actions based on that visibility.

Aerohive is also announcing application visibility in the newest HiveOS and HiveManager updates.  This allows administrators to peer deeply into the applications being used by users on the network and create policies on a per-user basis to allow or restrict them based on various criteria.  These policies follow the user through the network up to and including the branch office.  Later in the year, Aerohive will port these policies to their switching line.  However, when you consider that the majority of the users today are using mobile devices first and foremost, this is where the majority of the visibility needs to be.  Administrators can provide user-based controls and reporting to identify bandwidth hogs and take appropriate action to increase bandwidth for critical applications on the fly.  This allows for the most flexibility for both users and administrators.  In truth, it’s all the nice things about creating site-wide QoS policies without all the ugly wrench turning involved with QoS.  How could you not want that?


Tom’s Take

Aerohive’s dip into the enterprise switching market isn’t all that shocking.  They seem to be taking a page from Meraki and offering their software platform on a variety of hardware.  This is great for most administrators because once you’ve learned the software interface and policy creation, porting it between wired switch ports and wireless APs is seemless.  That creates an environment focused on solving problems with business decisions, not on problems with configuration guides.  The Aerohive switches are never going to outperform a Nexus 7000 or a Catalyst 4500.  For what they’ve been designed to accomplish in the branch office, however, I think they’ll fit the bill just fine.  And that’s something to be buzzing about.

Disclaimer

Aerohive provided a briefing about the release of these products.  I spoke with Jenni Adair and Abby Strong.  At no time did Aerohive or their representatives ask for any consideration in the writing of this post, nor were they assured of any of the same.  All of the analysis and opinions represented herein are mine and mine alone.

Are We Living In A Culture Of Beta?

Cisco released a new wireless LAN controller last week, the 5760.  Blake and Sam have a great discussion about it over at the NSA Show.  It’s the next generation of connection speeds and AP support.  It also runs a new version of the WLAN controller code that unifies development with the IOS code team.  That last point generated a bit of conversation between wireless rock stars Scott Stapleton (@scottpstapleton) and George Stefanick (@wirelesssguru) earlier this week.  In particular, a couple of tweets stood out to me:

Overall, the amount of features missing from this new IOS-style code release is bordering on the point of concern.  I understand that porting code to a new development base is never easy.  Being a fan of video games, I’ve had to endure the pain of watching features be removed because they needed to be recoded the “right way” in a code base instead of being hacked together.  Cisco isn’t the only culprit in this whole mess.  Software quality has been going downhill for quite a while now.

Our culture is living in a perpetual state of beta testing.  There’s lot of blame to go around on this.  We as consumers and users want cutting edge technology.  We’re willing to sacrifice things like stability or usability for a little peak at future awesomeness.  Companies are rushing to be the first-to-market on new technologies.  Being the first at anything is an edge when it comes to marketing and, now, patent litigation.  Producers just want to ship stuff.  They don’t really care if it’s finished or not.

Stability can be patched.  Bugs can be coded out in the next release.  What’s important is that we hit our release date.  Who cares if it’s an unrealistic arbitrary day on the calendar picked by the marketing launch team?  We have to be ready otherwise Vendor B will have their widget out and our investors will get mad and sell off the stock!  The users will all leave us for the Next Big Thing and we’ll go out of business!!!  

Okay, maybe not every conversation goes like that, but you can see the reasoning behind it.

Google is probably the worst offender of the bunch here.  How long was GMail in beta?  As it turns out…five years.  I think they probably worked out most of the bugs of getting electronic communications from one location to another after the first nine months or so.   Why keep it in beta for so long?  I think it was a combination of laziness and legality.  Google didn’t really want to support GMail beyond cursory forum discussion or basic troubleshooting steps.  By keeping it “beta” for so long, they could always fall back to the excuse that it wasn’t quite finished so it wasn’t supposed to be in production.  That also protected them from the early adopters that moved their entire enterprise mail system into GMail.  If you lost messages it wasn’t a big deal to Google.  After all, it’s still in beta, right?  Google’s reasoning for finally dropping the beta tag after five years was that it didn’t fit the enterprise model that Google was going after.  Turns out that the risk analysts really didn’t like having all their critical communication infrastructure running through a project with a “beta” tag on it, even if GMail had ceased being beta years before.

Software companies thrive off of getting code into consumer’s hands.  Because we’ve effectively become an unpaid quality assurance (QA) platform for them.  Apple beta code for iOS gets leaked onto the web hours after it’s posted to the developer site.  There’s even a cottage industry of sites that will upload your device’s UDID to a developer account so you can use the beta code.  You actually pay money to someone for the right to use code that will be released for free in a few months time.  In essence, you are paying money for a free product in order to find out how broken it is.  Silly, isn’t it?  Think about Microsoft.  They’ve started offering free Developer Preview versions of new Windows releases to the public.  In previous iterations, the hardy beta testers of yore would get a free license for the new version as a way of saying thanks for enduring a long string of incremental builds and constant reloading of the OS only to hit a work-stopping bug that erased your critical data. Nowadays, MS releases those buggy builds with a new name and people happily download them and use them on their hardware with no promise of any compensation.  Who cares if it breaks things?  People will complain about it and it will get fixed.  No fuss, no muss.  How many times have your heard someone say “Don’t install a new version of Windows until the first service pack comes out”?  It’s become such a huge deal that MS never even released a Service Pack for Windows 7, just an update rollup.  Even Cisco’s flagship NX-OS on the Nexus 7000 series switches has been accused of being a beta in progress by bloggers such as Greg Ferro (@etherealmind) in this Network Computing article (comment replies).  If the core of our data center is running on buggy unreliable code, what hope have we for the desktop OS or mobile platform?

That’s not to say that every company rushes products out the door.  Two of the most stalwart defenders of full proper releases are Blizzard and Valve.  Blizzard is notorious for letting release dates slip in order to ensure code quality.  Diablo 2 was delayed several times between the original projected date of December 1998 and its eventual release in 2000 and went on to become one of the best selling computer games of all time.  Missing an unrealistic milestone didn’t hurt them one bit.  Valve has one of the most famous release strategies in recent memory.  Every time someone asks found Gabe Newell when Valve will release their next big title, his response is almost always the same – “When it’s done.”  Their apparent hesitance to ship unfinished software hasn’t run them out of business yet.  By most accounts, they are one of the most respected and successful software companies out there.  Just goes to show that you don’t have to be a slave to a release date to make it big.

Tom’s Take

The culture of beta is something I’m all too familiar with.  My iDevices run beta code most of the time.  My laptop runs developer preview software quite often.  I’m always clamoring for the newest nightly build or engineering special.  I’ve mellowed a bit over the years as my needs have gone from bleeding edge functionality to rock solid stability.  I still jump the gun from time to time and break things in the name of being the first kid on my block to play with something new.  However, I often find that when the final stable release comes out to much fanfare in the press, I’m disappointed.  After all, I’ve already been using this stuff for months.  All you did was make it stable?  Therein lies the rub in the whole process.  I’ve survived months of buggy builds, bad battery life, and driver incompatibility only to see the software finally pushed out the door and hear my mom or my wife complain that it changed the fonts on an application or the maps look funny now.  I want to scream and shout and complain that my pain was more than you could imagine.  That’s when I usually realize what’s really going on.  I’m an unpaid employee fixing problems that should never even be in the build in the first place.  I’ve joked before about software release names, but it’s sadly more true than funny.  We spend too much time troubleshooting prerelease software.  Sometimes the trouble is of our own doing.  Other times it’s because the company has outsourced or fired their whole QA department.  In the end, my productivity is wasted fixing problems I should never see.  All because our culture now seems to care more about how shiny something is and less about how well it works.