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.

Backdoors By Design

I was listening to the new No Strings Attached Wireless podcast on my way to work and Andrew von Nagy (@revolutionwifi) and his guests were talking about the new exploit in WiFi Protected Setup (WPS).  Essentially, a hacker can brute force the 8-digit setup PIN in WPS, which was invented in the first place because people needed help figuring out how to setup more secure WiFi at home.  Of course, that got me to thinking about other types of hacks that involve ease-of-use features being exploited.  Ask Sarah Palin about how the password reset functionality in Yahoo mail could be exploited for nefarious purposes.  Talk to Paris Hilton about why not having a PIN on your cell phone’s voice mail account when calling from a known number (i.e. your own phone) is a bad idea when there  are so many caller ID spoofing tools in the wild today.

Security isn’t fun or glamorous.  In the IT world, the security people are pariahs.  We’re the mean people that make you have strong passwords or limit access to certain resources.  Everyone thinks were a bunch of wet blankets.  Why is that exactly?  Why do the security people insist on following procedures or protecting everything with an extra step or two of safety?  Wouldn’t it just be easier if we didn’t have to?

The truth is that security people act the way we do because users have been trying for years to make it easy on themselves.  The issues with WPS highlight how a relatively secure protocol like WPA can be affected by something minor like WPS because we had to make things easy for the users.  We spend an inordinate amount of time taking a carefully constructed security measure and eviscerating it so that users can understand it.  We spend almost zero time educating users about why we should follow these procedures.  At the end of the day, users circumvent them because they don’t understand why they should be followed and complain that they are forced to do so in the first place.

Kevin Mitnick had a great example of this kind of exploitation in his book The Art of Intrusion.  All of the carefully planned security for accessing a facility through the front doors was invalidated because there was a side door into the building for smokers that had no guard or even a secure entrance mechanism.  They even left it propped open most of the time!  Given the chance, people will circumvent security in a heartbeat if it means their jobs are easier to do.  Can you imagine if the US military decided during the Cold War to move the missile launch key systems closer together so that one man could operate them in case the other guy was in the bathroom?  Or what if RSA allowed developers to access the seed code for their token system from a non-secured terminal?  I mean, what would happen if someone accessed the code from a terminal that had been infected with an APT trojan horse?  Oh, wait…

We have been living in the information age for more than a generation now.  We can’t use ignorance as an excuse any longer.  There is no reason why people shouldn’t be educated about proper security and why it’s so important to prevent not only exposure of our information but possible exposure of the information of others as well.  In the same manner, it’s definitely time that was stop coddling users by creating hacking points in technology deemed “too complicated” for them to understand.  The average user has a good grasp of technology.  Why not give them the courtesy of explaining how WPA works and how to set it up on their router?  If we claim that it’s “too hard” to setup or the user interface is too difficult to navigate to setup a WPA key, isn’t that more an indictment of the user interface design than the user’s technical capabilities?

Tom’s Take

I resolve to spend more time educating people and less time making their lives easy.  I resolve to tell people why I’ve forced them to use a regular user account instead of giving them admin privileges.  I promise to spend as much time as it takes with my mom explaining how wireless security works and why she shouldn’t use WPS no matter how easy it seems to be. I look at it just like exercise.  Exercise shouldn’t be easy.  You have to spend time applying yourself to get results.  The same goes for users.  You need to spend some time applying yourself to learn about things in order to have true security.  Creating backdoors and workarounds does nothing but keep those that need to learn ignorant and make those that care spend more time fixing problems than creating solutions.

If you’d like to learn more about the WPS hack, check out Dan Cybulsike’s blog or follow him on twitter (@simplywifi)

Tech Field Day – HP Wireless

Day two of Wireless Tech Field Day started off with HP giving us a presentation at their Executive Briefing Center in Cupertino, CA.  As always, we arrived at the location and then immediately went to the Mighty Dirty Chai Machine to pay our respects.  There were even a few new converts to the the Dirty Chai goodness, and after we had all been properly caffeinated, we jumped into the HP briefing.

The first presenter was Rich Horsley, the Wireless Products and Solutions Manager for HP Networking.  He spoke a bit about HP and their move into the current generation of controller-based 802.11n wireless networks through the acquisition of Colubris Networks back in 2008.  They talked at length about some of the new technology they released that I talked about a couple of weeks ago over here.  Rather than have a large slide deck, they instead whiteboarded a good portion of their technology discussion, fielding a number of questions from the assembled delegates about the capabilities of their solutions.  Chris Rubyal, a Wireless Solutions Architect, helped fill in some of the more technical details.

HP has moved to a model where some of the functions previously handled exclusively by the controller have been moved back into the APs themselves.  While not as “big boned” as a solution from Aerohive, this does give the HP access points the ability to segment traffic, such as the case where you want local user traffic to hop off at the AP level to reach a local server, but you want the guest network traffic to flow back to the controller to be sent to a guest access VLAN.  HP has managed to do this by really increasing the processor power in the new APs.  They also have increased antenna coverage on both the send and receive side for much better reception.  However, HP was able to keep the power budget under 15.4 watts to allow for the use of 802.3af standard power over Ethernet (PoE).  I wonder if they might begin to enable features on the APs at a later date that might require the use of 802.3at PoE+ in order to fully utilize everything.  Another curious fact was that if you want to enable layer 3 roaming on the HP controller, you need to purchase an additional license.  Given the number of times I’ve been asked about the ability to roam across networks, I would think this would be an included feature across all models.  I suppose the thinking is that the customer will mention their desire to have the feature up front, so the license can be included in the initial costs, or the customer will bring it up later and the license can be purchased for a small additional cost after the fact.  Either way, this is an issue that probably needs some more visiting down the road as HP begins to get deeper into the wireless market.

After some more discussion about vertical markets and positioning, it was time for a demo from Andres Chavez, a Wireless Solutions Tester.  Andres spends most of his time in the lab, setting up APs and pushing traffic across them.  He did the same for us, using an HP E-MSM460 and iPerf.  The setup worked rather well at first, pushing 300Mbits of data across the AP while playing a trailer for the Star Wars movie on Blu-Ray at full screen in the background.  However, as he increased the stream to 450Mbits per second, Mr. Murphy reared his ugly head and the demo went less smooth at that point.  There were a few chuckles in the audience about this, but you can’t fault HP for showing us in real time what kinds of things their APs are capable of, especially when the demo person wasn’t used to being in front of a live video stream.  One thing that did make me pause was the fact that the 300Mbit video stream pushed the AP’s processor to 99% utilization.  That worried me from the aspect that we were only pushing traffic across one SSID and had no real policies turned on at the AP level.  I wonder what might happen if we enable QoS and some other software things when the AP is already taxed from a processor perspective, not to mention putting 4-clients on at the same time.  When I questioned them about this, they said that there were actually two processor cores in the AP, but one was disabled right now and would be enabled in future updates.  Why disable one processor core instead of letting it kick in and offload some of the traffic?  I guess that’s something that we’ll have to see in the future.

After a break, the guys from HP sat down with the delegates and had a round table discussion about challenges in wireless networking today and future directions.  It was nice to sit down for once and have a discussion with the vendors about these kinds of topics.  Normally, we would have a round table like this if a session ended early, but having it scheduled into our regular briefing time really gave us a chance to explore some topics in greater depth than we might have been able to with only a 5-10 minute window.  Andrew vonNagy brought up an interesting topic about needed better management of user end-node devices.  The idea that we could restrict what a user could access based on their client device is intriguing.  I’d love to be able to set a policy that restricted my iPhone and iPad users to specific applications such as the web or internal web apps.  I could also ensure that my laptop clients had full access even with the same credentials.

Tom’s Take

HP is getting much better with their Field Day presentations.  I felt this one was a lot better than the previous one, both from a content perspective and from the interaction level.  Live demos are always welcome, even if they don’t work 100%.  Add to that the ability to sit down and brainstorm about the future of wireless and you have a great morning.  I think HP’s direction in the wireless space is going to be interesting to watch in the coming months.  They seem to be attempting to push more and more of the functions of the APs back into the APs themselves.  This will allow for more decisions to be made at the edge of the network and keep traffic from needing to traverse all the way to the core.  I think that HP’s transition to the “fatter” AP at the edge will take some time, both from a technology deployment perspective and to ensure that they don’t alienate any of their current customers by reducing the effectiveness of their currently deployed equipment.  I’m going to be paying attention in the near future to see how these things proceed.

If you’d like to learn more about HP Wireless Networking, you can check them out at http://h17007.www1.hp.com/us/en/products/wireless/index.aspx.  You can also find them on Twitter as @HP_Networking.

Disclaimer

HP was a sponsor of Wireless Tech Field Day, and as such they were responsible for a portion of my travel expenses and hotel accommodations.  In addition, they provided lunch for the delegates, as well as a pen and notepad set and a travel cooler with integrated speakers.  At no time did they ask for nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review.  The analysis and opinions presented here are given freely and represent my own thoughts.

Tech Field Day – Aerohive

Our third presentation at Wireless Tech Field Day was from Aerohive.  We arrived at their office in the afternoon to round out day one.  Once at the front door, we were greeted by Devin Akin.  He warmly greeted everyone and shook our hands as we walked in.  Once inside our meeting room, we were presented with a package containing an Aerohive polo shirt, notebook, chocolate bar, and a plastic shamrock necklace to wear in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.  As soon as we all were seated and settled, Devin jumped right into a special presentation before we got started properly.  In honor of Andrew von Nagy’s recent success on the CCIE Wireless lab exam, Devin and the Aerohive crew presented him with a sash in Aerohive gold bearing his CCIE number in glitter.  Andrew was a great sport and accepted his special gift proudly.

After the very special presentation, we dove headlong into Aerohive.  I’d like to mention a few words about Devin.  His energy during our visit was off the charts.  He seems to enjoy the world of wireless networking, and based on conversations I’ve had with the other delegates, his name carries quite a bit of weight in the wireless world.  I read some of his blog posts before I left for Tech Field Day, and he strikes me as a person who isn’t afraid to put his opinion out there for the world to see.  He also “gets” Tech Field Day.  When we walked into the room, he had the Twitter stream for the #TechFieldDay hashtag projected on the wall of the room for everyone to see.  That way, the presenters could glance over and get instant feedback about how things were going.  They could also get immediate feedback from the audience not directly in front of them.  These kinds of little touches go a long way toward making a successful presentation at Tech Field Day.

We got to hear from Bob O’Hara, who is a legend in the wireless area.  He is the founder of Airespace, which was snatched up by Cisco and he is generally credited with creating the whole movement behind controller-based access points (APs).  Bob talked for a few minutes about some of the history he helped create, as well as why he has worked with Aerohive to move away from the controller-based AP model and into something different.

After Bob, Mr. Energy Devin Akin jumped in and sped through the perfunctory intro/framing slides.  He talked about the market position of Aerohive and what differentiates them from the competition in the market.  While the other vendors in the market are using relatively “dumb” radios that send traffic back toward the controller for processing, Aerohive has taken a very different approach.  Using merchant silicon, they have made their APs much smarter while keeping their price reasonable.  This means that there is no need for a controller to direct the APs.  Instead, the management software can be loaded on a small appliance, a virtual machine (VM) or even…the cloud.  The APs themselves have a great feature set to allow things like mesh operation, fast layer 3 roaming across subnets, and even some layer 2 MAC routing.  The management software for the APs allows for some additional interesting features, such as private pre-shared keys (PPSK) which give you the ability to issue a PSK per user that has an expiration date and allows a certain number of devices per AP.  That way, your laptop, iPhone, and iPad can all join from a single key.  There is also support for a teacher based view that allows instructors to lock out all or a portion of access to network and Internet resources.  This is a great feature for the K-12 education environment, as it ensures the teacher determines exactly where the students can go, and due to the granularity of the controls, even allowing students a reward of some additional Internet surfing after their work is completed.

One of the more impressive features involved a full setup demo.  All of the APs were set back to defaults and removed from the manager.  Then, in front of the delegates, a new highly secure network was built in about 15 minutes.  It was very straight forward, and once the details of the network were provisioned the configurations were pushed out the members of the “hive”, which is the Aerohive term for the collection of APs in the network.

After the demos were over, it was time for a delegate demo.  Devin informed us that there was an AP somewhere in the building broadcasting an SSID of “Find Me” at 1 mW, which made it practically invisible.  Under that AP was an “Oprah Moment” for the delegates.  Devin suggested we use our newly-acquired MetaGeek Wi-Spy scanners to see if we could find the AP.  This again was a great touch.  Devin had been paying attention and knew what we were now capable of doing, so he decided to build on it and make us work for it.  Having only brought lightweight devices like my ChromeOS CR-48 and my iPad, I couldn’t participate in this little Easter egg hunt, but after a few minutes the delegates located the prize – an Aerohive HiveAP110 and 3 years of access to the cloud-based Hive Manager software to provision it.

Tom’s Take

I was quite impressed with Aerohive.  They have a great product and a wonderful staff developing it.  While it appears that their primary vertical right now is in the education space, I have no doubt that their feature set has appeal to medical and other verticals as well.  I think they with the industry focusing right now on the controller-based architecture, Aerohive can carve itself a very comfortable niche for the controller-less technology they have created.  Other information that I’ve encountered leads me to believe that some vendors are beginning to look at locating more intelligence in the AP/edge once again, which means that when they finally move back toward that strategy they will no doubt find Aerohive staring back at them as a leader in that particular space.  I’m going to spend some more time evaluating the HiveAP capabilities thanks to Devin and his team.  I hope to have more to write about it in the near future.

If you would like to learn more about Aerohive, you can check out their website at http://www.aerohive.com.  You can also follow them on Twitter as @Aerohive

Disclaimer

Aerohive was a sponsor of Wireless Tech Field Day, and as such they were responsible for paying a portion of my travel expenses and hotel accommodations.  In addition, they provided the delegates a package including an Aerohive polo shirt, note book, candy bar (which was consumed during the writing of this review and was delicious), and St. Patrick’s Day themed button and necklace.  The delegates were also provided with an Aerohive HiveAP 110 and 3 years access to the cloud-based Hive Manager software for evaluation.  At the conclusion of the session, Aerohive provided all attendees a selection of beers with Irish themes, such as Guinness, Harp, and Smithwick’s.  At no time did they ask for nor were they granted any kind of consideration in this review.  The analysis and conclusions outlined here are mine and mine alone.  They are offered freely and willingly.

Tech Field Day – Cisco

The second company to present at Tech Field Day was Cisco.  This is the company that I’ve had the most experience with in my wireless career, so getting to hear from them in this setting held some wonderful appeal.  While I was fairly familiar with the product line, I hoped that Cisco would give me some insight into things.

Upon arrival at the Cisco campus on Tasman Drive, we started walking through the building to our meeting room.  The wireless people were taking pictures of all the antennas in the area and geeking out about all the equipment around the building.  After we reached our briefing room, we got seated and started listening to our first presenter, Jim Florwick, who was remote and presenting over Webex.  As he went over the basic outline of Cisco wireless strategy and philosophy, it started to dawn on me that I’d seen much of this material before.  I followed along as we talked about the congestion in the 2.4 GHz spectrum and the need to start moving clients into the 5GHz range for additional throughput gains.  We got a quick overview of Cisco’s CleanAir technology, which is the technology acquired from the Cognio purchase embedded into the 3502 access point (AP) line.  This overview felt a little more like marketing, which is not necessarily the thing to bring to a Field Day.

Around about the time the first presenter started wrapping up, there were murmurs amongst the wireless delegates.  I asked Jennifer Huber what all the fuss was about, and she told me, “Do you know where we are?  This is THE Building 14!” The importance of our location was quickly apparent when someone pulled up a screenshot of the Wireless Control Server from Cisco’s website and just as plain as day, there was the third floor of the building we were currently occupying.  Since building 14 is where the bulk of the wireless development and testing occurs, it makes total sense the the majority of the example screenshots on Cisco’s website would be of that building.  For the wireless nerds, I suppose it was really like returning home.

The next presentation was from David Stiff, who is the Senior Product Manager for the Wireless Networking Business Unit for Cisco.  He went over a lot of the same material that we had just discussed, only more in depth.  He talked about technologies such as Client Link and CleanAir.  The only problem with this type of presentation is that it loses the delegates attention.  Compared to the MetaGeek or Aerohive presentations, this one felt more like a lecture.  I don’t doubt the that the information was great and wonderful to know, but since it was a lot of the same as what I’ve seen before, it didn’t hold as much appeal as the MetaGeek demo or the Aerohive show-and-tell.  In some ways, it felt more like a presentation that would be given to people less familiar with the ins and outs of wireless networking.  As Jennifer remarked to me later, “Not only have I heard that presentation before several times, I’ve given it several times as well.”

After lunch, we got to hear about the in-building cellular technology that Cisco is partnering to bring to the market.  This presentation felt a little out of place for this crowd.  A couple of the delegates mentioned that they had looked at it before, but the need for it was spotty at best and the market was pretty thin.  To me, this is the explanation for why Cisco is partnering to bring it to the market rather than developing it in house or buying the developer outright.  The idea behind in-building cellular is using the existing category 5/6 cabling in the building to help amplify cellular signals in areas where there is severe signal degradation.  I’m betting that this technology is designed to be marketed to healthcare, where the wireless spectrum is congested and cell phones barely work as it is.  Another possible option is a rural areas where cell coverage is spotty at best, like the second floor of my house only on a larger scale.  All in all, I think in-building cellular is a little too much of a niche product to be useful to me in the near future.

Next up was David Stephenson talking about next generation hotspots.  David was one of the people responsible for the 802.11u amendment, and it was apparent that he knew his stuff.  802.11u deals with scenarios where the user isn’t necessarily authorized for access to a given wireless network.  Think about being at the airport and seeing that there are tons of wireless networks to join, but you don’t know any of the keys to join them.  This is where the free hotspot idea comes in.  But since free hotspots are not necessarily available everywhere, a different idea must be considered.  802.11u addresses this by creating what looks to me like a hotspot federation or roaming agreement.  Similar to the agreements that allow cellular coverage across different provider towers, 802.11u would allow users to log in using credentials for the networks they are authorized for, and in return gain the ability to access certain services on a given network.  For instance, a user authorized to use AT&T hotspots may be able to use some internet services on a Boingo network.  For those that wish to restrict things much more, you can limit access to very basic things like emergency services.  One of the use cases that David talked about was using this next generation hotspot to allow users to log into wireless networks in a retail environment and receive coupons on their smartphones based on their login credentials.  Exciting stuff to hear about, and lots to look forward in the future.

The last presenter was Jameson Blandford, a Cisco TME who is somewhat famous for a competitive analysis video on Youtube:

Jameson’s portion of the presentation was NDA’d due to a lot of restricted competitive analysis.  Based on what he said and things that I observed later during Tech Field Day, I’ve got a lot of thinking and analysis to do about the current state of the arms race amongst the various wireless vendors.

Tom’s Take

As a Cisco partner engineer, I get to hear from Cisco quite a bit.  Their presentation methodology is polished and crisp.  However, in the case of Tech Field Day I think they were just a bit off the mark.  As I’ve said before , Tech Field Day delegates aren’t your usual group of decision makers and slightly technical people.  We’re nerds and geeks.  We like seeing how things work and hearing about the gory details.  Cisco has always presented good opportunities in the past to get into the nuts and bolts of how things work.  Maybe a demo of CleanAir healing a network, similar to the video above.  Or perhaps an opportunity for us to see even a canned demo of a next generation hotspot.  Something to keep our attention rather than the endless parade of Powerpoint slides.  I never want presenters at Tech Field Day to have a bad outing, so I’m hoping that my words here will help encourage Cisco to step up next time and hit one out of the park.  Most of the info was great, but knowing how to reach your captive Tech Field Day audience is just as key.

If you’d like to learn more about Cisco and their wireless technology, head on over to http://www.cisco.com/go/wireless.  In addition, you can follow their wireless information on Twitter at @cisco_mobility

Disclaimer

Cisco was a sponsor of Tech Field Day, and as such was responsible for a portion of my travel expenses and hotel accommodations.  In addition, they provided lunch for the delegates on Thursday afternoon.  They were not promised, nor were they offered any consideration in the writing of this review.  All of the opinions and analysis offered here are mine and mine alone and are given freely and without reservation.

Tech Field Day – MetaGeek

The first Tech Field Day presenter that we heard from was MetaGeek.  I’ve been a fan of their free InSSIDer product for a while now.  At the time, my needs were fairly simple when it came to wireless spectrum scanning.  I simply looked for the SSID network names and used a little interpolation to help me find access points.  However, the 2.4 GHz spectrum where most client devices now operate has become congested with devices and sources of non-WiFi interference, so little tricks aren’t going to cut it any longer.  You need a serious tool to help you make sense of things.  MetaGeek offers a solution to help you find out a little more about the space around you.

The presentation started out with a quick recap about the founding of the company.  Once nice thing that I saw was that the head geek and founder, Ryan Woodings, saw a need and capitalized on it.  His original device was designed to scan wireless mice for interference.  He expanded it to include more and more sources of wireless transmission.  Much like any geek or nerd I know, he started peeling back the layers and diving deeper into the problem.  A couple of fun pictures about the first MetaGeek offices and their exposure on Engadget leading to their success today had me feeling a little nostalgic.  It’s always nice to see a company come from humble beginnings and enjoy great success.

Once the short and fun history lesson was out of the way, it was time for the real payoff – a demonstration of the flagship Wi-Spy DBx analyzer tool and the associated Chanalyzer Pro analysis software.  The Tech Field Day delegates also recieved a Wi-Spy and copy of Chanalyzer Pro so that we could follow along with the geeks as they laid out their program and it’s capabilities.

WiSpy DBx (Image courtesy of MetaGeek)

The Wi-Spy DBx is a very unassuming piece of hardware, a USB adapter with an RP-SMA connector on the end.  The small form factor allows it to be plugged in just about anywhere quickly and easily.  The DBx model allows you to scan both the 2.4 GHz spectrum where 802.11b and 802.11g networks operate and the 5 GHz spectrum where 802.11a networks are prevalent.  Note that the Wi-Spy can’t scan both network simultaneously, so if you want to do captures on both at the same time you’ll need two DBx units, or one DBx and one 2.4GHz-only unit like the Wi-Spy 2.4x.  There is also a patch antenna option that allows you to be a little more specific about the direction of the signal detection.

Chanalyzer Pro (Image courtesy of MetaGeek)

The Chanalyzer Pro application is where you are going to spend most of your time.  It gives you a great visual representation of the information the Wi-Spy will be passing along to you.  The application packs a lot of information into a small space.  The line graph at the top center shows you the utilization for the spectrum currently being scanned.  There are options to turn on/off the average and peak utilization, as well as the intensity of signals in color.  This is where you will notice the utilization of a given frequency or channel.  The middle pane show the ‘waterfall’ view, which is the representation of the top pane over time.  This gives you the opportunity to see any sources of interference as they appear and persist.  The bottom pane gives you more specific detail to drill into, such as SSID overlay or duty cycle information.  This is painted in both a specific graph on the bottom and in the case of the SSID, overlaid on the top graph to allow you to see that there are too many access points (APs) on the same channel in your vicinity.  The large graph on the left side of the window extends the waterfall view over time, but also allows you to move the graph to any point during the time of the packet capture.  This is a great feature for sources of interference that are transient.  You can rewind and fast forward much like a DVR.  This is great if you were preoccupied when the interference happened or you need to review it again to profile the specifics for later classification.

During our great demo, Ryan and Trent Cutler were showing us some of the more interesting interference sources they have seen and classified.  Much like any good investigator, they can recognize things like the difference between 802.11b and 802.11g APs on sight, as well as being able to tell you the difference between a microwave and a cordless phone.  For those of us not as gifted in the art of interference profiling, the Chanalyzer application includes preset waveforms that allow you to overlay them on the graph to tell you the difference between your cordless phone and a wireless video camera.  Very handy for nerds like me that need a little more time in the saddle before we can spot the trouble from the line graph itself.  You can also take captures of interference sources and send them to Trent and he’ll help identify them if it’s something that hasn’t been seen before.  He keeps a collection of the odd and interesting captures he’s gotten, like a fun version of a stamp collection.  I think my favorite was the ceiling fan mounted audio system.

Tom’s Take

The MetaGeeks really knocked it out of the park for the first batter up at the plate.  They looked a little nervous at first, but once into their element, they really shined at showing the delegates what their tool was capable of doing.  I was very impressed by the power of their software along with the ease of use.  So much so that after I returned from Tech Field Day, I spent a whole evening running around my house with my Wi-Spy turning on microwaves and cordless phones and being amazed at what I saw.  The other spectrum analyzers I’ve seen run in the thousands of dollars, which makes the Wi-Spy an incredible value for those wanting to jump into the spectrum analysis arena without needed to sacrifice a kidney in the process.  I plan on giving the Wi-Spy a real run for it’s money in the near future to see how well I can integrate it into what I do every day.  I even plan on getting some interesting spectrum captures to see if I can stump Ryan and Trent.

If you’d like to learn more about MetaGeek and their product lines, you can check them out at http://www.metageek.net.  You can also follow them on twitter as @metageek.

Disclaimer

MetaGeek was a sponsor of Tech Field Day, and as such they were responsible for paying a portion of my travel costs and hotel expenses.  In addition, they provided a package to the delegates containing a Wi-Spy DBx with Chanalyzer Pro as well as Chanalyzer Lab and a Device Finder patch antenna option.  There was also a WiFi Interference Detection Kit (a bag of microwave popcorn) included in the black lunchbox that housed the rest of the equipment.  This package was provided to the delegates for evaluation purposes and was in no way intended to curry favor.  They did not ask for, nor were they promised any consideration in any review.  Any and all opinions and conclusions in this review were provided freely and clearly and reflect my own thoughts on the product.