Saturday, December 31, 2016

Using Sensors for Client-side Wi-Fi Troubleshooting


Building wireless networks is something that, with the right amount of engineering and experience, can be simple to do for the right people. Choosing equipment, locations to mount that equipment, and choosing how that equipment operates are essential elements to wireless network design. They are also things that we can control. But what we can't control are our end users. We cannot control what type of device they use, when they use it, what they use it for, or how often they use it. 

When troubleshooting wireless networks there are essentially two sides to the process: one side is from the network equipment and the other side is from the client. 


While there are thousands of tools available to assist in monitoring, managing, and manipulating the way the wireless networks work from behind the access point there are very few good tools that are built for collecting data, analyzing data, and automating the troubleshooting process from in front of, or on the client side of, wireless networks. This is one of them.


Enter a New Breed of Tools: Wi-Fi Client Devices as Monitors

A few years ago a new set of equipment and tools started to make its way into the market that would help give a better holistic view of a wireless network to administrators and support staff monitoring in maintaining wireless networks. As sensors for all types of devices have become more common, they stand to change the way we interact with almost every aspect of our jobs. Now, wireless network engineering is no different. While some of the tools that tried to take this on have fizzled out, a few have made their way to the top of that marketplace.

One of the early groups with a viable product for the market, NetBeez, a graduate of Y Combinator, continues to provide a fantastic product that can operate on standard equipment, something as simple as a Raspberry Pi. It's dashboard is simple and straight forward and gives you great information about the networks the NetBeez sensors are connected to. You load the software on to the Pi or buy one of the devices pre-loaded, and fire it up. It connects back to the cloud data collection service, and you are set!


A benefit to the NetBeez product is that the Wi-Fi adapters are external to the Pi hardware which allows you to change out the adapters to work with new technology (assuming the drivers support it!) 

As a presenting product at Mobility Field Day 1, we got to learn all about what their product does, how it works, and why they built it. Watch more below:




As NetBeez continues to innovate their software, another entrant into this segment appeared, manufacturing it's own hardware and including a slew of new features as a result of self-manufacturing. 


One of the early innovators in that segment was a company called Asimmetric. Asimmetric gave you the ability to set up a client on an existing wireless network and that client would report back a number of different measurements and metrics to let you know how the wireless network was behaving from the client-side perspective. Founded by a group from Cape Town South Africa and funded by some North American VCs (including Bolt who seed funded one of my favorite products for non-profits - DipJar and Highway 1 who backed this year's must have Christmas gift - Loop) this product has now been re-branded Cape Networks. In late 2015, the first commercial production run of their sensors were sent out to a few very lucky people in the industry. I just happened to be one of 'em :-)

About the Cape Networks Client-side Wi-Fi Sensor 



At 6" x 6" and about 2 inches tall, the Cape Networks sensor looks like a small form factor access point. It is very low profile, statically pleasing, and ships with a number of different mounting types to allow for a simple installation. It supports up to 802.11a/b/n and both 2.4 & 5GHz frequencies. 

Installation and configuration 

There is not a lot to the installation of this product, you can either supply power over Ethernet, or a combination of power and Ethernet, or simply plug the device into a power source for it to get online. Wait, power only? Yup.



One of the key differentiators of this product is that it has a built-in chip set to support T-Mobile so that it does not need a network connection in order to transmit it's data back to the Cape networks cloud service for you to review. To me that's pretty awesome and also takes a very commonsense approach to a sensor like this: how is it supposed to monitor the network and report that the networks down if the network is down?


Once able to communicate with cape's cloud services, it uses its unique identifier that is assigned to your account to pull its configuration from the cloud and associate to the wireless network it's supposed to be looking for. It immediately starts monitoring and reporting that data in real-time back to the cloud dashboard.

What the Cape Networks Sensor Monitors & Measures


Simple measurements such as RSSI level, SNR, which frequency and channel the client is on, as well as which access point The client is associated with are obtained, stored, and graphed. Values like jitter are calculated while latency, round-trip time, and throughput to public sites like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Dropbox are measured from the client side.


All of this is reported back in a very easy to understand webpage complete with graphs, spark lines, and measurements that are synchronized as you move your mouse across the timeline of events. An event log on the left-hand side shows you what events are taking place and as your mouse over them it shows you where on the timeline that event took place, which usually coincides with the network event such as a channel change, frequency change, or an access point change. All in all, it makes seeing what's happening on your network very easy to see and understand as each event and it's related effect are captured and correlated in real-time. 

How Cape Networks Sensors Monitor Client Wi-Fi 

One of the things that I like the most about the platform is it's interface. I have been hoping for years that someone would come up with a wi-fi experience index; a way to have a number from 1-10 that would be an all-encompassing statistics letting you know what the client experience is like. This is almost like that, except it uses the traffic signal system: red for bad, yellow for functional but issues, green for good.


With a quick glance you can see how your clients are viewing your network. 
What happens behind the scenes is the magic component that makes this solution some thing awesome. By combining the massive amounts of real-time data and crunching it together a score or indicator value is produced. I'm not sure what the exact formula is, but something like slow DHCP address assignment can make a user unhappy, therefore give you a yellow face. When combined with poor signal or low SNR, that's definitely a "red face" situation. 


So what happens when the power goes out? This is pretty cool: they call it last gasp power. 4 built-in supercapacitors maintain power to the device for about 40 seconds so it can figure out if power is down on the Cape monitor, the AP, or both to let you know why it lost a connection. Pretty smart.

What are the Benefits of client-side Wi-Fi Monitoring?

There are a few. From a VAR / Integrator / Managed Service Provider perspective it is blatantly apparent: you get to see the network you're monitoring from the end-user's perspective.
When a customer tells you "the Wi-Fi sucks", now you can quickly and easily understand why they say that. Even if it's not the Wi-Fi.
This helps you know where problems are by giving you a complete 360 degree view of your customer's deployment.  When there are issues that arise, even though everything looks good from the top down, this is a fantastic tool to give you the visibility you've been missing from the bottom up.



From the customer's perspective it helps you hold your MSP to the flame while giving you statistics about how your network is functioning in addition to validating all your crazy claims of "the Wi-Fi isn't working".  A tool like this can be an asset to an enterprise environment looking to streamline troubleshooting while being proactive about network issues. It's robust enough for the I.T. team and simple enough for management to see what's working and what isn't.

Final Thoughts


So, all in all I love where this space is headed. These devices are providing vital visibility into wireless networks that can impact the way networks are built, maintained and administrated.
The Cape Networks sensor is sleek, simple to use, and does exactly what it's supposed to do. It has saved me money, made me money, and made me look great all at the same time.

No matter which side of the fold you're on, customer or integrator, it can be a view into your network that you would be foolish not to take advantage of. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The HomeworkGap Shrinks. FCC Lifeline Reform & Internet for Everyone!

It's December 2016. Merry Christmas to everyone. Especially a whole bunch of Americans who now have a better way to connect and learn!

Something I have been following for a while is the Lifeline reform that the FCC had embarked on changing earlier in the year. I am a huge advocate for this, partially because I live in an area of the US that is deeply affected by the Homework Gap, inside the Digital Divide, and whatever other name you want to call our area.

Hidalgo county is one of the most economically challenged areas in the United States and our broadband adoption rates are ridiculously low compared to the rest of the US, coming in at right around 37%.

So, when Lifeline reform came around and one of my favorite FCC Commissioners Janet Rosenworcel spoke up and took the #HomeworkGap under her wing, I was all ears. After finding out the best way to get it done and pushing hard to make it happen, on March 31st 2016 it passed.

What do the new rules cover?

Stand-alone broadband, bundled voice-broadband packages - either fixed or mobile - and stand-alone voice service. The reform even covers text messages as part of lifeline communication. One of the neat things, I think, is that if a provider is offering a device, it has to include hotspot functionality. However, nothing I have seen yet covers the cost of the actual device, only the service.
For community organizations, "Aggregation projects" will allow for community-based organizations, housing associations, and institutions to aggregate benefits. Think about Boys & Girls Clubs coordinating this. It could be incredible.

But what does that mean, and what does it mean for places like Hidalgo County, Texas?

Well, check it out: $9.25 per month for eligible low-income subscribers.

How do you know if you're eligible?

Here's info from The FCC Lifeline program site:

To participate in the program, subscribers must either have an income that is at or below 135% of the federal Poverty Guidelines  or participate in certain assistance programs. You can see if you are eligible with the Lifeline Eligibility Pre-Screening Tool on the Universal Service Administrative website at www.lifelinesupport.org.
or:
Following is a list of assistance programs that qualify a participant for Lifeline:

Who is offering this service?

Here are a few that are offering the service as of the latest approvals. To see a full list of the applicants and their status, visit this website.


  • Spot On
    Available in:
    New York Only

    Details:
    Fixed wireless broadband offering with speeds of 20 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, with no usage limits at a price of $9.75 per month.

  • Boomerang Wireless
    Available in:
    Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, including the Tribal lands within Boomerang’s service territory.

    Details:
    500 MB of mobile broadband internet access services (BIAS) at 3G speeds and 100 units for voice or text services to Lifeline subscribers on non-Tribal lands, and 750 MB of mobile BIAS with unlimited voice and text, to Lifeline subscribers on Tribal lands, at no cost to the consumer after applying the Lifeline discount. Uses the Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile networks.
  • FreedomPop
    Available In:
    Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, , Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia. Additionally, FreedomPop seeks to serve Tribal Lands in Oklahoma and Hawaii.

    Details:
    A selection of mobile BIAS plans at 3G speeds, the basic offerings include 500 MB at no cost after applying the Lifeline discount. Uses the Sprint network.

  • KonaTel
    Available In:
    Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas including the Tribal lands within KonaTel’s service territory.

    Details:
    Two non-Tribal mobile BIAS plans: (1) 500 MB of data at 4G or 3G speeds, unlimited voice, and unlimited texting at a cost of $9.95 per month after the Lifeline discount; (2) 2 GB of data at 4G speeds with unlimited 3G/2G access after usage allotment, unlimited voice, and unlimited texting at a cost of $19.95 per month after applying the Lifeline discount. KonaTel will also offer an unlimited data at 4G speeds, unlimited voice, and unlimited texting plan to eligible Tribal consumers at $19.95 per month after applying the Lifeline discount.

So, how do you sign-up?

It's not clear yet as each company will have their own ways of getting setup.

What about AT&T, Spectrum, etc?

Well, they've been doing it for a while! It's not free, but it's very low-cost and will probably be a part of this larger program at some point.

  • AT&T Access
    Eligibility:
    at least 1 person in the household has to qualify for SNAP benefits.

    Details:
    $5 per month, 3 Mbps. $10 per month 5 Mbps & 10 Mbps
    Limited to 600GB transfer per month (nice!)
    No activation fees and includes a free wireless router
    Qualifying families can get a computer for $149.99

    Sign-up:
     https://accessatt.solixcs.com/#/home
  • Spectrum Internet AssistNews Release
    Eligibility:
    A student in the School Lunch Program and/or Seniors 65+ who receive Supplemental Security Income.

    Details:
    $15 per month, up to 30Mbps down / 4 Mbps up
    No data caps
    Wired service
    You must not have had an account within 60 days of enrolling or owe them any money.
    Not available everywhere (unfortunately not in South Texas yet)

    Sign-up:
    https://www.charter.com/browse/content/spectrum-internet-assist
    844 525-1574

Those are the two that affect the area that I live in. For a great and comprehensive list, the folks over at cheapinternet.com have been doing a tremendous job keeping up with this:
http://www.cheapinternet.com/low-income-internet

For more information 


Keep up to date with the USAC page:
https://usac.org/li/tools/rules-orders/2016-lifeline-order.aspx

Follow the list of providers who are petitioning to be a part of this:
https://www.fcc.gov/lifeline-broadband-provider-petitions-public-comment-periods



Friday, September 2, 2016

Update on Wi-Fi Stand: Looking Forward & Looking Back

I just wanted to post a quick update to the Wi-Fi Stand project. We've shipped to half a dozen countries, worked with a handful of different manufacturers, been spotted in the wild and a few awesome places, and have been able to stay on top of our orders keeping our customer smiling! We launched the painter's pole adapter for legacy APoAS (Access Points On A Stick) survey kits, and kept our costs down by producing 'em ourselves!

Since we launched in July it has been a really fun ride and we're looking forward to what the future of this can bring! Thinking about the future got me thinking about the past and I wanted to take a second to say thanks for all the hard work and creativity that got us up to this point by everyone on our team and everyone who has helped along the way.

A photo posted by Wireless Nerd (@wirelessnerd) on


When I first saw this bracket at Interop, it was the all the buzz of all the wireless guys at the show. When we found out that Shawn (@GotWickedWifi) had made these in his garage specifically for the show, it represented a great moment where we could take something that was being done by hand and figure out a way to put a process behind it, while creating something of our own out of a great idea. After reaching out to him and moving forward on our own, we still hope to collaborate on future projects.

Knowing how much time I have invested in the details of this to make it fit what I needed it to do, and what I hope the industry needed it to do, I truly appreciate Shawn in his garage trying to figure out the right configuration for it. I imagine it's like the person who made the first shelf or coat hanger; something simple yet powerful. Picking up where he left off and figuring out how to make something unique out of a great concept, although difficult in and of itself, all started with his labor trying to tweak it. 


Early size comparisons of our design of the WiFi Stand
Since then, we've enlisted the help of people across the industry to help us figure out what the best way to produce this thing. After trying so many different configurations with all kinds of shapes, sizes, weights, and materials, we finally solidified our design. I can't thank everyone enough for the feedback, the attempts to break it, the drop tests, and the hours in laptop bags to make this what it is today.

Once we had our design, thanks to Eric and his mastery of Solid Works and relationships in manufacturing, we had to get the materials right, round out all the edges so it would travel well, and finally carve our name into it.




Now, with the adapter and a few great ideas to move forward with, we hope to help everyone in the industry find some simple ways to help hang some great equipment in an easy to use and quick way! Mario definitely has his hands full taking care of orders!!




If you'd like to help us out, please order today and let us know what we can do to change it to make it better serve you! Thank you so much for all of your support!

Also, this just proves that shows like Interop are way cooler than just the exhibits, sessions, or people you meet. You'll never know what you'll find at industry events! See ya there!



Monday, July 11, 2016

Launching the Wi-Fi Stand and wifistand.com



Having been involved in the tech industry for my entire career, with a stint of going full time in the entertainment industry, I have a huge appreciation for simple products that create solutions for common problems. I recently saw such a unicorn in the form of a bracket to suspend and place wireless access points at Interop 2016. There were a series of brackets placed throughout the Mandalay Bay convention area that Shawn Lucas, @GotWickedWifi, had built in his garage and provided for public display at the show. Inspired by this and with a goal of creating something different (i.e. lighter, more transportable, and out of a different material, etc) we set out to see if we could bring a product to market that could be what we wanted.

This basic product serves to provide a simple solution for a common problem that can be an Achilles heal for the Wi-Fi industry: Mounting temporary Wi-Fi Access Points.


Reaching out to the community

In an effort to make the best product possible and to create a combined effort, I made sure that I identified and reached out to anyone and everyone that I could find who was currently producing a bracket like this. After some research and determining that there was no existing, cost-effective, way to take it to market, I jumped on the challenge to make it better, cheaper, easier to transport, and widely available. 

I consulted with friends and other professionals in the wireless industry to tweak and tune the design. Today, I'm pleased to announce that  we are launching the website and the product for our Wi-Fi Stand.



The Wi-Fi Stand is an easy and quick way to deploy wireless access points and other equipment specifically when and where you need it. Typically when you're in an environment that requires additional or temporary access points, it also requires someone with a spool of cable, a ladder, and a map to choose where to mount those Wi-Fi access points.



With the Wi-Fi Stand product, you simply attach the bracket to the top of a standard pole or tripod that supports the standard 1/4" #20 connection, run a length of Ethernet down the pole secured with a fastener, raise the pole to the desired height, and you're done! 






There have been many attempts to create a bracket for hanging wireless access points. At every show, at every event, and everywhere one of these devices goes up, the pictures are posted to Twitter and Instagram applauding the effort of that bracket. The problem with most of them, at least the way I see it, is that they are big and bulky and seem to cost a little too much time and material to produce.

When we set out to make our Wi-Fi Stand, we looked at the problems with every other bracket on the market today, whether it was for wireless or not. We took what they were all good, which was a small list, and then looked at what they were all bad at, which was a much larger list. We focused on creating a product that was good at all the bad things while remaining great at all the good things.



The result is an 8 x 10" molded and machined piece of industrial grade PVC, reinforced and accented with pure aluminum materials and stainless steel fasteners. It's 1/4 inch thick and gives you a clearance window of 6" x 10" for even the bulkiest access points, Wi-Fi, and BLE products. 



We tested out the thickness of the product starting with 1 inch and working our way down to an eighth of an inch. We threw it up in the air as high as we could and watched it crash down on the concrete, dropped it off balconies, and twisted it until it broke. We ultimately chose a thickness that made it easily transportable, lightweight, and still resilient and sturdy enough to hold even the heaviest of access points.



I hope that you will enjoy using our product and help us find new and exciting opportunities to make it better. If you have ideas, please reach out. 

ReseIllers and Distributors

If you're interested in reselling or distributing the product, we'll make you some money. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A look at the Mist Systems Wi-Fi & BLE solutions



I had the fantastic opportunity to get a walk-through of one of the latest wireless technology companies to come onto the scene. Mist systems, founded by a handful of well-respected industry vets and some fantastic data scientists, offers a new take on big data and analytics in the Wi-Fi space. The goal: to create a proactive medium for personalized mobile user experience. Sound cool yet?



It's not so much about the hardware. 

Instead of focusing on the hardware aspect of a wireless access points, Mist puts all of the features up in the cloud through a $250 per year premium package that gives you not only access to all of your metrics and analytics, but a really impressive way of how to gauge client satisfaction.
That isn't to say that they are not manufacturing hardware, their hardware is as equally as curious and impressive. The board that I saw contains eight BLE beams with matching antenna elements to provide a virtual BLE beacon service. There wireless access point hardware has the BLE radios built-in and they offer a BLE only version of the hardware. Pretty cool for existing Wi-Fi deployments that you want to start to transition over.



My immediate impression of Mist is that it has finally done what so many different devices have strived to do. Namely, managing the wireless experience from the end-user's perspective.  Gauging the end-user experience has always been difficult, but absolutely the most important thing on any wireless network. To most customers, it doesn't matter what hardware you have, what cable you use, what technology is in the access point, or how many spatial streams it can support. When it all comes down to it, the only thing that people purchasing equipment care about is the user experience. 

Once the equipment purchase is complete, the majority of the time spent by wireless nerds like me has us in reactive mode. We're called up to fix existing problems, troubleshoot bad or improperly deployed networks, and find problems with someone else's work. Tools like this give MSPs and Network Admins the ability to be proactive in their wireless services. The ability to have the visibility into the network and user performance analyzed give us unparalleled ways to perform troubleshooting before the user even knows what's happening. 

A Packet Capture Black Box?

A great feature I saw identifies when events happen and starts a packet capture when those events occur. You can then go back to that event and have the packet capture ready for download, specifically at the time of the issue. This saves time by eliminating the need to duplicate the issue, setup the packet capture, and then wait for someone bad to happen. It's like having an audio recorder in your car that's always on, so when it makes "that noise" you can play it for the mechanic instead of trying to explain it. 

One of my buddies, Lee Badman, wrote an article for Network Computing that discussed a little bit about his experience with Mist as well. Everything that he said was right on, but I wanted to give a little bit more detail into one of the components that I thought was truly fantastic: the ability to measure the client experience.

Calculating the Client Experience

Part of the Mist secret sauce lies in how the client experience is calculated. What is defined as “user minutes” seems to be a concoction of signal level, throughput, and connection quality, averaged over time. For example, if I have a signal level of -68 and SNR of 29, and I am pushing a large amount of throughput through my connection, that could be perceived as a good signal. However, if those statistics only happened for 10 seconds out of a 30 minute span, then I have a terrible connection quality. 

I'm not sure how accurate of a description that is to how it actually works, but that's at least how I thought about it, and how it made sense to me. 


Basically, instead of looking at snapshots of how well a client is connected, it's spans it over the length of time that the user is connected to truly determine if they are having a decent user experience or not. With an easy-to-read color-coded metric, you can see what percentage of users are having a good or bad user experience.



Once a determination is made if a client is having a good experience or a bad experience, then you can start to drill down into what factors may be negatively affecting their communications. DHCP or DNS server response time, captive portal response time, active directory authentication time, so on and so forth. By looking at the complete communication conversation from start to finish all the way through from association to DNS probe request, it gives you a good and accurate view of how what steps are taken in order for a client to get online. 

Understanding More Than Just the Wi-Fi

After sitting through mobility field day earlier this year, we got to learn a lot about companies like Nyansa and NetBeez that give you different views of the network and the transactions that take place in order for clients to get online. There seems to be this trend that people are finally realizing where the client and user experience is the most important thing. This technology allows you to monitor and understand those transactions and that experience through a more simplistic and absolutely fun to look at interface.

vBLE? Say Bye to Physical Beacons

The second part of my walk-through dealt with their use of virtual Bluetooth low-energy, or BLE, beacons. I've been watching the space for a little while now and after having done a successful deployment with Aruba Meridian, I love to think about where it can go and the applications that it can serve. 

The thing that sets the Mist experience apart is that it does not use any physical beacons. Instead it uses an array inside the access point, or available as a separate BLE only device, that allows you to draw multiple zones as “beacon zones" across the property. 

For example you could have one AP with an integrated BLE inside of a convenience store. You could draw polygons to define the beer section, the candy section, the soft drink section, and the restroom, on the floor plan. You can name them and have them set up as their own independent zones. 
The statistics and analytics that you can glean from each one of the zones is second to none. How many devices entered, how many devices left, how long they stayed, who went from one zone to another, so on and so forth. The power in this isn't just in the ability to rapidly deploy beacons, but in the effort and time reprogramming them, changing their batteries, repositioning them, or trying to find lost beacon devices. If the floorplan is reconfigured, all you have to do is use the AP management feature and rename or redraw the zone. Another added benefit? It completely eliminates the need for expensive and time consuming BLE site surveys!


I will admit that I was a bit skeptical about the technology before it was discussed. Thankfully a large amount of the time I spent on the webinar today was in live demo mode. It really hits home when you can see the different RSSI levels that the BLE AP sees each one of the client devices at, and see who the device “sees” the client.

This type of transformational product gives you the ability to deploy as many beacons as you wish without actually ever having to deploy any equipment other than the AP. For those of you that are interested in location-based services, this takes that game to a whole new level.


I'm pretty excited. 

Overall the product, platform, and user experience via the cloud dashboard are exceptionally well done. I think this speaks volumes as to where the industry is going. The trends are there and in retrospect they stand out remarkably. I'm excited to see what this product can do and how the industry will transform based on this push to user-centric solutions.

As usual I had a few comments here and there about how I would change it, what I would add, and how to tailor it specifically to my use cases. But overall it is extremely good. I am excited to see something creative and innovative in a space that is starving for unique innovation. Radios do what they are supposed to do on the ground; the cloud is doing what it’s supposed to be doing above that; it looks like it’s time for the Mist to introduce some great new tools in an undefined but definitely welcomed area. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Interop @ 30: It's Still About Working Together


Interop 2016 has hit the halfway point. We have a couple more days left of sessions but I wanted to jot down some thoughts on the show.

The one thing that is undeniable is that Interop has changed. Tom Hollingsworth wrote an article questioning if Interop was dead or if there was still life in it. Does the notion of interoperability still exist in the networking world and is it something that needs to be addressed with a conference? Has the show become just a place for a bunch of nerds to get together and look at some cool tech? What is the point of Interop in 2016?

I think Interop has transformed from being about device interoperability to people interoperability. 
Let me explain. 

This show has its roots in getting things to communicate with each other and having those things operate by using fluid communication. While nothing has changed with the fundamental thought of that, everything has changed with the things that are communicating.

What used to be a show that staged how devices communicated and operated together and in concert is now a show that represents how people communicate with those devices, with each other, and with the world around them. From the sessions discussing how to build and secure those devices, from IoT to wireless, to the tradeshow floor that has everything from wireless sensors, video surveillance, and video conferencing systems, this show is about getting things, and people, to work together. 

As we all know, the workplace has changed from people sitting behind terminals plugged into Ethernet or coax connections, to people being able to freely roam and work no matter where or when they choose. This has shown a boost in performance, productivity, creativity, and changed our idea of a workplace forever.

Under the thought of interoperability, we have to be able to use devices, networks, and software for the services they provide, not for the functionality of the device itself. We have to interoperate with the technology. 

In Tom's article he argues that there still a great amount of interoperability that needs to be sorted out at a hardware level. I agree with that, but I see that as a small factor in the overall picture. For the most part, equipment does work well together, it does play nicely. Look at the NBASET plug fest and demo table in the middle of the show floor. They've brought together a number of disparate vendors to all connect up and show them working together in a 20 x 20 space. The ability to interoperate is there at the hardware level. 

On the connectivity level, we have companies like Cisco, Extreme, and Ruckus / Brocade who are at the show. They are showing off full connectivity solutions from wired to wireless. Well there is still some hardware differentiation between the access point hardware, one of the key things is how they get people on and off the network. How they allow people to interoperate between wired and wireless. The management, the on-boarding, security, and overall usability of these devices is the point all the vendors are driving home. 

It’s not about what’s on the network, it’s about what’s happening because of the network.

So the conference has shrunk a little, I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. Yeah, I'm disappointed in the lack of representation from the wireless industry at the show, but are standalone wireless companies that important anymore? If they’re not part of the forward progress that we are making as an industry, do they matter? Companies offering single solutions may be cogs in the big machine of business, and some might be really good at their specific solution, but unless people know that those companies or products exist when they're shopping for a full solution, where does that leave them? At Interop, it leaves them in the dust. 

In my opinion, this is the new Interop. It’s about connecting people, not about connecting devices.

The devices are our means to get our jobs done and offer services. We’ve proven they can work together for the last 30 years, now let’s figure out how to make the network vanish and use this technology to really connect to each other.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mobility Field Day 1 and the Future of Our Industry

Mobility Field Day 1: Exploring the Future of Wireless & Mobility


Mobility Field Day 1 wrapped this past week and gave us all some great perspective on our industry. More than just focusing in on products and what makes them unique, MFD1 had us take a broader look at the industry in general to help us understand more about where it is, where it’s going, and how we can be a part of it.

Overall Impression of WFD1

Through vendor presentations, roundtables, and great discussions, we got to do what the Tech Field Day series of events is notorious for: in your face meetings with the people who are helping make decisions that drive our industry. What made MFD1 different than past events was that we had a great blend of traditional presentations and amazing dialog, new and innovative products, as well as different perspectives on what we work with day to day. We got to see where we are going from the vendors perspective as well as two of the upcoming working groups: 802.11ax and NBASET. We also got to see some different perspective on the industry from startups as well as industry giants who are getting involved in residential Wi-Fi. 

All in all, it was exciting, educational, fun, and different. I loved every minute of it! Here’s what we did:

A Run Down of What We Did

Cisco

We started out day 1 with a trip to trusty Cisco who had all of the latest and greatest wares ready for us to take a look at. From an introduction to the cloud version of their CMX service to new hardware and enhancements to help networks run better, it was a great trip.



CMX Cloud offers a way to get Cisco customers a way to start measuring analytics about visitors without having to get a 3rd party device or service involved. It had a great layout, a seemingly easy to use interface, and access to data that helps a number of markets. While there was some dialog about the pricing structure, I still see it as a great benefit at about 1/3 the cost of some of the competition.



Following that presentation we got a look at the IW3702 hardened Access Point. IP66 rated, solid aluminum goodness for harsh environments. -50 to +75C was an impressive state, as was the use of M12 connectors for ethernet. Another pitch to get people to buy more hardware from Cisco? Not necessarily. By talking about the shock and vibration that some of this equipment was subject to in the field (e.g. mining, hauling, industrial, and more) it makes sense when you might have an RJ45 that jiggles out of a connector. Fantastic statistics about 100 MPH roaming in bridge mode made it great, but I don’t recall seeing a GPS chip on it which would’ve made it a slam dunk if you asked me. Especially at $3k per ap.


A photo posted by Wireless Nerd (@wirelessnerd) on

The new 2800 and 3800 APs were next up and presented Cisco’s latest hardware in the wireless industry. While the 2800 is impressive in its own right, the 3800 radio and Flexible Radio Assignment stole the show. Simply, FRA enhances your radio automation (read, RRM) so that instead of just choosing channels, bandwidths, and polarities to best auto-manage your network, now you have a radio that can flip between 2.4GHz and 5GHz to take on instances of congestion. 



The example that drove it home for me? Instead of having to run down a hall with a ladder, an ap, and a spool of cable at an event, the radio automagically enables a new Micro cell in 5GHz and shifts users over to it to double-down on the spectrum.

There were some great graphics to point out what this did and the magic behind it, but at the end of the day, it’s a quite simple idea that I am sure took a lot of time and thought into making possible. 

A photo posted by Wireless Nerd (@wirelessnerd) on

Nyansa

After a quick run past the amazing coffee machine and a quick raid of the snack shelves at building 18, we were in the limo and off to the next presentation: A secret new company that had yet to launch.



While we all had our ideas of who it would be, we were greeted in the conference room by some old familiar faces: GT Hill, David Callisch, and a warm handshake and smile from our new buddy Abe. It was nice to see some old trusted blood in the room with someone as friendly as Abe.

They were there to introduce the startup Nyansa. Nyansa is a cloud based platform that collects data from various APIs and taps throughout your network to let you know where problems existing, why they exists, and how to fix them. 



Essentially it takes hours of troubleshooting, automates it with some creative tasking to gather and interpret data, and presents you with any issues it discovers. Nyansa Voyance then offers you remediation to those issues, based on what it found out, and shows you in an instantly readable format how to get your network working. 


A photo posted by Wireless Nerd (@wirelessnerd) on

By combining data from devices, such as controllers, via API with data from your network, via freely available virtual machines, Nyansa is able to see the big picture when it comes to your network. This level of automated visibility does what it would normally take hours of technical time to accomplish, and presents it in a way that all levels of an enterprise are able to clearly understand. 

The power in the Voyance product multiplies by allowing it to grow with support of deeper hooks into existing equipment, while still having full visibility into your network, ensuring that you can scale this service to event the most complicated scenarios. In short, the more you feed it data, the smarter and more methodic in can become in finding problems and giving you steps to fix them. 

Ventev

After our minds were effectively blown with the new offering and the possibilities to it, we got a great visit from Ventev Infrastructure. What started off with what we thought was going to be a simple presentation about enclosures, antennas, mounts, and power systems, ended up being a tour of the places that wireless service is needed the most, but usually the hardest to reach.



With specialized enclosures built for creative and demanding locations, Ventev specializes in making sure you can get wireless signals where they need to be with ease. 



Floor tiles with embedded wireless antennas, ruggedized enclosures for APs and antennas for stadium handrails, spring-loaded antenna mounts for heavy-equipment trafficked areas, and more. I think the lean-ins really came as the product line dove deeper into the creativity of the equipment combined with the amount of engineering that went into it. This equipment isn’t just thrown together to see if it will work, it is studied and calibrated to effectively support the services required while still giving you the flexibility you need to deploy.


A video posted by Wireless Nerd (@wirelessnerd) on

The power systems covered at the end of the Ventev presentation were, again, meant to be able to provide you with an easy deployment of your solutions in difficult environments. 

An all-in-one solar kit, with a single part number, to provide 5 days of autonomy with POE+ was discussed. Simple, effective, and easy. Now, don’t ask me about the mounting procedures, but all in all, having ordered solar before, this make is way simpler to understand than traditional options. List price at $3k is right in the ballpark of a custom configuration I had worked on, so even the price is on point!



For temporary or emergency events, the Ventev rechargeable, battery-powered, power bank is a slam dunk. Plug it in and charge it over night for 10 hours of runtime at POE+. Includes the pole and all the accessories needed. Totally awesome.

Roundtables

Before heading out to dinner, we had some time for some fantastic roundtable discussions. Here's what we covered:

An overall view of Day 1

Why or why not to use RRM and the automatic functions of wireless

Dinner and Some Facetime

We broke for the day after getting a killer goody bag from Ventev and proceeded to walk up the street to dinner. After some chicken in molè and a few cold ones we got to network with participating vendors, friends, and other wireless enthusiast that were there.

I gravitated towards two conversations in particular to find out more about these newer types of services and what their differentiators are. 

I spent about an hour with Fouad from Asimmetric discussing RF Planning, LTE, TVWS in South Africa, and the birth of his network monitoring and services validation company. From a perspective of monitoring services for operators in South Africa to enterprises in North America, Asimmetric makes a product that can easily be fit into any network and instantly start to give you real-world results about usability and functionality. 

Combined with my conversation with Panos and Stefano from Y Combinator start-up NetBeez, and the amazingness we saw from Nyansa, and you start to build this whole other industry of machines watching machines to simplify daunting tasks.

While NetBeez and Asimmetric serve a similar market, the approach is a little different from each other. Asimmetric is building their own hardware, NetBeez uses Raspberry Pis. Asimmetric can be adapted for other technologies like LTE and TVWS, NetBeez is focused on Wi-Fi. 

All in all, I think they are both on to something great and complimentary not just to each other, but to a great good served by someone like Nyansa, who can combine and merge all of this data into a single pane of visibility and management.

Day 2

Day 2 was a symposium day where we had a number of great talks cycle through the conference room we were stationed in. With no specific theme to the day other than to see some great stuff and talk about the industry holistically, it gave us a relaxed way to open our minds to where we are headed. 

From a fantastic talk about the work the NBASET group is doing and the future of Ethernet to advancements in residential Wi-Fi, day 2 was filled with great stuff.

NBASET, 2.5 & 5gbps Ethernet

Peter Jones of Cisco and the Chairman of the NBASET Alliance laid out where we started, where we have been, and what to expect for the future of Ethernet. With a great chat about 2.5 & 5 gobs technology it painted the importance of a middle-ground product, at least for now, in the Ethernet space.




A photo posted by Wireless Nerd (@wirelessnerd) on

Getting Started in Wifi and Running Cisco's WiFi Lab

We had a fun chat after this with Wes who runs the Cisco wireless testing facility in Ohio about getting started in the industry. From his start by differentiating himself among his peers to the perks of working for a large company and getting his hands on all the latest toys, it was a fun and light hearted chat. I hope that it finds its way into the browsers of people who are wondering how to make inroads into our beloved wireless industry!



Google OnHub and Residential WiFi

After lunch, Trond Wuellner from Google’s OnHub project stopped by to give us a glimpse of the residential Wi-Fi space from Google’s perspective. As they have moved into the rest space with their product, Trond explained why they did it, what it means to Google, and how they see the space transforming. It was a great break from what we are used to seeing in the corporate and enterprise environments! The presentation was as informative as it was fun and I encourage you to check it out!


Distributed WiFi Monitoring

Stefano from NetBeez knocked out a talk about distributed network monitoring and how it can be leveraged to automate simple tasks. Proof of service and application functionality aside, it went with that overall common theme that we had of using tools and services to make our lives easier and get more data from our network.



Chuck doing Chuck and 802.11ax

A roundtable with Chuck from Aruba wrapped our day as we dove head first into 802.11ax and the future of Wi-Fi. Without a single question left on the table or unapproahced, Chuck did what Chuck does best and explained the hows and whys of where the working group was, how it is coming along, and what the differentiators are between ac and ax. There are so many fantastic things happening in the space, but yet so much work to still be done, it will be exciting to see what the final products look like from this!



Concluded.

All in all MFD1 was a great break from the normal TFD stuff by giving us great sessions centered around the industry, without sticking to the standard format of vendor presentations followed by roundtables.

The group we had was thoroughly engaged, participatory, and delighted to be there; a testament to the Gestalt IT staff for pairing up the right people with the right presentations.

I personally had a blast and can’t wait to see everyone at Interop to have a sit down about what we are seeing there!

Thanks for reading!