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. 

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