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Archive for 2014

Retail Business Technology Expo 2014: SMAC and Awe!

April 4th, 2014

Within the vast expanse of Earls Court, West London, RBTE 2014 has been a roaring success, again, for Airtight. This is the second year Airtight has exhibited at RBTE. Following AirTight’s rapid growth within the UK and across Europe over the past year, we couldn’t miss out on this opportunity to discuss and demonstrate our “firepower” in the retail arena.

RBTE was a great showcase for AirTight’s ease of deployment, security capabilities for brand protection, the ability to allow our clients to engage with their customers and their friends (brand connection) and the analytics we derive from this. This is known as “SMAC” (Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud), a term which fits Airtight to a T. There doesn’t appear to be many similar events within Europe where international retailers can get an overview of the retail landscape and the technology available and there is obviously a huge appetite for an event of this nature.

From the conversations we had it appears that prospective clients were very receptive to the idea of social Wi-Fi. This is the ability to use your social credentials, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to authenticate to the guest WiFi in-store. Guest Wi-Fi is now expected by the consumer and they expect it for free. However free WiFi is not free for the provider, i.e the retailer, so how is this monetized? Airtight gives the retailer access to a whole host of analytics. The combined effect of social Wi-Fi and analytics gives a wealth of data to the marketing departments, allowing them to strategize, plan and do targeted marketing.

A key selling point on our stand and that of our partners’ was our security capabilities. Airtight was built upon security, the best security available. Security in retail comes in its own guise, PCI DSS. It doesn’t matter how it’s dressed up though, Airtight has the X factor, the “A list” credentials to give true security and, unlike other providers in the WiFi space, the ability to actually defend against attacks over the air and on the wire using AirTight’s unique Marker Packet technology. This has really shown us that this factor really sets us apart from the rest of the industry, while exercising the highly receptive slogan “If it ain’t secure, show it the door”. Why bother creating a guest WiFi network in it isn’t secure! Do you leave the doors and windows open at home? No.

Another key takeaway appreciated by visitors was the ease of deployment in the retail environment where hundreds or thousands of stores can have secure, PCI DSS complaint Wi-Fi, with comprehensive reporting and analytics deployed rapidly with AirTight’s cloud-managed, drop ship, plug and play access points. Combine the 3 elements of AirTight’s offering in this space – Social + Analytics, automated PCI reporting and true security – with ease of deployment and cloud management, then we have the winning formula!

It was great to see our partner presence at RBTE also, notably Hughes Europe, Aztec and Airwave, ready to drive our solution range into retail and hospitality.

The event was short but sweet, not on the feet, and definitely a show to remember! We will be ready to join the hustle and bustle of the show, so RBTE 2015 get ready!

 

PCI, Retail, WiFi Access, Wireless security

Management System Diversity: “Manage WLANs from Anywhere Using Anything!”

April 2nd, 2014

So much competitive marketing noise has been made over the last half dozen years about managing WLANs that vendors are now trying to manage WLANs from anywhere using everything. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear a vendor say that they can now manage a branch WLAN in France from the comfort of their kitchen’s refrigerator’s management widget. It has gotten downright silly. I thought I would recap just how diverse the WLAN management scene has become: first for a good laugh, and second as a reference for those newcomers to the Wi-Fi industry.

You may be thinking, “why are there so many ways to manage a Wi-Fi system?” There’s a variety of answers to that question, such as:

  • Cost
  • Differing use cases
  • Partner eco-system
  • User preference

Not every vendor provides each of the management methods described below, but rest assured that every vendor will tell you that you don’t need anything other than what they sell. Can I get an amen? Below, I have offered a visual reference of the seven prevalent methods of managing a Wi-Fi infrastructure. It’s important to note that I will not address Wi-Fi client management methodologies in this post.

WLAN-management-diversity

WNMS in a Virtual Machine (VM)

One of the most popular methods of deploying a true WNMS today is as a VM. It’s a low-cost, flexible, scalable option that is profitable, easily updated, and easily distributed for vendors (since it’s only software). Customers love it because almost every organization has a VM infrastructure these days. Those who don’t typically use…you guessed it…the cloud. VM-based WNMS systems are classified as true WNMS because they can manage multiple elements across multiple locations, they usually handle policy-based management, compliance/reporting, location services, configuration/monitoring, planning, and much more.

WNMS in an Appliance

A WNMS in an Appliance is simply WNMS software that has been installed onto an appropriately-chosen hardware platform by the vendor. A set of recommended specifications are then documented by the vendor that informs user about the maximum number of devices that should/can be managed with the platform. Sometimes the vendor security-hardens the platform as a value-add.

Wireless Network Management System (WNMS) in the Cloud

Cloud management is all the rage. In fact, if you’re a vendor and don’t offer it, I dare say that you’ve fallen dreadfully behind the times. Cloud management is especially appropriate for users with distributed environments, remote or home-based workers, and those who prefer an OPEX-based (subscription-based) payment strategy.

Do not confuse putting a hardware or software controller (or set of controllers) in a data center for cloud management. A cloud management system is a multi-tenant system whereby system resources can be allocated and provisioned to various customers leveraging economies of scale. A cloud system is flexible enough to grow when/where needed and is essentially unlimited in scale. Vendor marketing departments love to cause confusion around cloud offerings when their company does not offer cloud management as an option, so be sure to ask your vendor to explain what their cloud is and how it works.

The term Public Cloud means pretty much the same thing across all vendors who use the term, but the term Private Cloud has varying meanings across vendors. It’s for that reason that I wanted to clarify the two prevailing definitions for Private Cloud:

  • Definition #1: WNMS (Appliance or VM) in a private data center
  • Definition #2: Dedicated (versus the normal shared) server space within a cloud infrastructure

Customers should ask their vendors to clarify what they mean when they use the term Private Cloud.

Application-based Management

Some vendors have chosen to put their configuration interface into an application, and these applications are now beginning to show up on mobile platforms (e.g. iPad). Application-based management software for mobile platforms is often a subset of the desktop version or controller-based management interface and is meant to offer the user an exceptionally good experience. Mobile applications are renowned for their simplicity, beauty, and flexibility. These applications are heavily focused on configuration, and are likely to have very little in the way of monitoring, reporting, location services, planning, etc.

Such management applications tend to be element managers rather than policy-based management systems, and are often not sophisticated. Their benefit lies in their simplicity and flexibility.

Controller-based Management

The reason that I don’t give controller-based management the moniker of WNMS is that controllers were never designed for full-scale management. You can think of the CLI or GUI within a controller as being designed in the original likeness of an autonomous AP. Autonomous APs had (and still have) an integrated GUI (and some had a CLI) designed primarily for configuration. While configuration is part of management, autonomous AP GUIs/CLIs had few monitoring, reporting, planning, mapping, or other management functions within the interface. Likewise, when the industry moved to controllers and controller-based APs, the controller became the original point of configuration.

While a reasonable amount of monitoring sophistication has been added to controllers over the years, controller-based management is still element-based (meaning that it only monitors itself) and contains almost none of the common enterprise-class, large-scale WNMS features.

Controller-in-Software Management

Yes, vendors actually do this. The make a software controller and run it as an application or within a VM. Either way, it acts exactly like a controller appliance and has all of the management shortcomings thereof. However, it may be offered to customers at no charge, which is a strong benefit. You still have to consider the cost of the hardware that the software must be installed onto, but that could well be a sunk cost already or minimal because it’s a set of shared commodity hardware within your data center. A saving grace of this approach is that with it being a pure software play, it’s possible for such platforms to morph more quickly into a true WNMS.

Master Access Point (AP) based Management

We have seen systems come and go over the years that sported this feature. Some vendors have installed the feature and then taken it back out again because they felt like it took away from their ability to sell other types of management (e.g. cloud). Managing a set of APs via a single Master AP can be very simple, free, and yet is always scale-limited by design. Depending on the vendor, this choice can be feature-rich or feature-poor, but it’s often great for small mid-market customers who have a single location or have a qualified administrator at each location.

Like Controller-based Management, the interface found in Master APs is usually highly geared toward configuration. There may be some modest amount of monitoring capability, but it’s not comparable to a WNMS. Further, other WNMS important features such as reporting, location services, and planning are missing. It’s for these reasons that I do not call this form of management a WNMS.

Summary

There are just so many….take your pick(s). Some are free. Some are crazy-expensive. Some are CAPEX-based, and some are OPEX-based. Most vendors offer at least two methods of managing their Wi-Fi infrastructure, and some vendors purposefully don’t offer specific types of management interfaces out of fear that it will cannibalize certain others that they sell. Some vendors go all-out and provide everything with the hope that their flexibility will win out in the end. There’s probably no best approach, so you should decide for yourself.

When you get into today’s frequently-overheard conversation about unified wired/wireless management (among the large campus enterprise vendors) the proper choice of WNMS becomes even more important. Should you go with a single-vendor or multi-vendor system? Some vendors have used multi-vendor WNMSs to woo customers away from their competitors over the years, and the strategy has worked remarkably well in some cases.

I could go on and on about management systems, but I think that gives you a good primer. What are your thoughts? Want to share any insights?

Best practices, Cloud computing, WiFi Access, WLAN planning

Peek Inside 802.11ac Access Point Hardware Designs

March 25th, 2014

There is large and ever increasing assortment of enterprise access points offered by wireless vendors today.  APs have different number of radios, number of streams, 11n/11ac, POE compatibility, peripherals, price, etc. While this diversity is overwhelming, have you wondered what lies in the hardware guts of these APs? What are the hardware design concepts that are responsible for rendering feature personality to the AP? How does the hardware ecosystem work among chip vendors, ODMs and AP vendors? What are state of the art hardware architectures for the 802.11ac APs? This blog post discusses key hardware concepts, such as SoC, dedicated CPU and offload architectures that are commonly found inside the APs, along with the ODM sourcing model for the Wi-Fi APs and its implications for product offerings.

At a high level, the AP hardware has to perform three types of processing: RF, baseband, MAC/L2/packet. The first two are mainly concerned with the signal modulation/demodulation related tasks; while the third takes care of the 802.11 MAC and L2 protocol implementation and provides the hooks into the packet processing to build various features like QoS, firewalls, bandwidth limiting, etc. The RF and baseband processing are done by the “radio module”. The radio module also performs certain time sensitive MAC/L2 functions such as ACKs, RTS/CTS, time stamping, etc.  The bulk of MAC/L2/packet processing is performed by the “host CPU module”.

SoC (System on Chip) Architecture

In this architecture, there is a single chip which can do the job of the host CPU module and also one radio module. A dual radio AP can be implemented with the SoC architecture with two chips: The main chip includes the host CPU (usually MIPS or ARM core) and one radio module (a/b/g/n), and the second separate chip is for the second radio module (a/b/g/n or ac/b/g/n). The second chip is fixed to the board or provided on a PCI Express (PCIe) card that plugs into the PCI slot on the board that interfaces with the CPU chip. The PCIe form factor for the radio module allows for changing the radio module to more easily launch the updated hardware versions of the AP at a later point in time. In the SoC designs, both the chips usually come from the Wi-Fi chip manufacturers such as Qualcomm (Atheros), Broadcom etc. The radio modules are usually dual band tunable, but locked to one band – usually the SoC radio is locked to 2.4 GHz and the separate radio is locked to 5 GHz.

SoC designs are cost efficient because of the reduced BoM of the board. They also draw less power making them attractive for designing APs meant to operate within the 802.3af power budget.

Sample layout of dual radio SoC design

Sample layout of dual radio SoC design

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedicated CPU Chip Architecture

Unlike the SoC design, in this architecture, there is a separate host CPU chip. So, a dual radio AP in this architecture requires three chips – one chip for the host CPU and two additional chips (fixed to the board or provided on the PCIe cards) for the two radio modules which can be 11n or 11ac. The CPU chip typically comes from the embedded microprocessor vendor such as Freescale, Cavium etc., while the radio chips come from the Wi-Fi chip vendor. However, this year we should see designs with the host CPU chip also coming from the Wi-Fi chip vendor since some of them possess powerful embedded microprocessor technology from their other product lines.

Due to the three-chip design, these APs usually cost more and can have difficulty operating at full function within the 802.3af power budget. On the flip side, dedicated CPU provides more processing capacity and may also provide hardware assist features for the IPSec encryption, DPI (deep packet inspection), etc.

Sample layout for dual radio dedicated CPU design

Sample layout for dual radio dedicated CPU design

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offload Architecture for 802.11ac APs (Second Microprocessor to Assist the Host CPU)

Until and including 11n, the de facto way of implementing bulk of MAC/L2/packet processing was entirely within the host CPU. With increasing speeds in 11ac, new concept of “offload processing” has emerged. In the offload processing concept, there is a second microprocessor (in addition to the host CPU) that is embedded in the radio chip (that is separate from the CPU chip). This second microprocessor handles close to 75% MAC/L2/packet processing tasks on the radio chip itself, leaving only about remaining 25% to be done inside the host CPU.

The offload architecture significantly reduces the load on the host CPU at high speeds as in 802.11ac and thus makes it possible to build full function 11ac AP using the SoC design. With the offload concept and SoC design, a dual radio 11ac AP can use one chip for the host CPU and the b/g/n radio module, and a second chip that includes both the ac radio module and the second microprocessor that handles the offload processing.

The flip side of the offload architecture is higher sophistication required for the software running on the host CPU to perform some special packet handling functions such as raw packet injection. This is because, in the offload design, lot of MAC/L2/packet processing happens in the radio chip itself. So, the host CPU needs to interact with the second microprocessor on the radio chip via API and communication calls to implement special processing tasks.

Original Design Manufacturer (ODM)

ODM vendors (which operate from the manufacturing hubs in East Asia) design AP hardware from the reference designs provided by the chip vendors based on the architectures described above and then offer these hardware platforms to the AP vendors. ODMs often also do some modifications of their own to the reference designs to improve their characteristics, such as fitting better antenna on the board.

The AP vendors choose hardware platforms from the ODM offerings for different products as appropriate for specific market verticals. AP vendors can choose enclosures designed by the ODMs and have then branded with their company logos. That is why, we sometimes see similar looking APs offered by different vendors. AP vendors can also have ODMs design special enclosures for them. In this case, even if the APs may not be similar looking, you can encounter common hardware layouts when you pry them open if they have the same ODM board genesis.

ODMs also assist vendors in platform certifications for the regulatory compliances. Due to easy availability of the validated hardware cores and maturity of the ODM model, AP vendors can now deliver new hardware platforms relatively quickly. Though ODM vendors typically accommodate some platform customization such as changing power amplifier rating or amplifier quality, adding extra Ethernet port(s), providing USB port, adding third radio etc., in general the core hardware differences between the APs will be marginal in the future (barring some highly specialized hardware designs). Couple that with the scenario that Wi-Fi application verticals and deployment use cases expand and become more diverse. Then, the bulk of value needs to come from the software that the AP vendors add on top of these cores in the areas of performance, network services, application enablement, security, manageability and others.

/Images via openwrt wiki

802.11ac , , ,

Away from Corner Cases: High Density, Low Throughput Wi-Fi

March 19th, 2014

In my blog called Corner Cases, I mentioned that high density, high throughput (HDHT) cases are in the extreme minority (<1%). In this blog, I would like to discuss High Density, Low Throughput (HDLT), which I believe will be the situation that over half of the installed Wi-Fi infrastructures of the world will face at some point over the next 5-7 years. I want to clarify that that when I use the term “high density”, I’m referring to client density (lots of clients in a physical area), not AP density (lots of APs in a physical area).

Unless you’ve been camping out under a rock, you may have heard the term “Internet of Things” or IoT for short. This moniker refers to the movement toward connecting previously-unconnected devices onto the Internet. To clarify, things are being connected to the Internet, thus we get Internet of Things. So how many of these things are we talking about? Oh… a few I suppose. Gartner is saying there will be 26 billion IoT devices and an additional 7.3 billion smartphones/tablets/PCs by 2020. The vast majority of these devices will connect wirelessly, so we’re about to see a crazy explosion in device density. Obviously it doesn’t all grind to a stop in the year 2020, which is truly just around the corner.

The important point to make here is how device density affects: 1) network design, and 2) the type of equipment you purchase to appropriately support your customers (over the lifecycle of your next infrastructure upgrade/refresh). Most vendor marketing departments like to tightly bind high-density and high-throughput requirements together, but they are completely separate topics. You can have the following scenarios:

  • Low Density, Low Throughput (LDLT)
  • Low Density, High Throughput (LDHT)
  • High Density, Low Throughput (HDLT)
  • High Density, High Throughput (HDHT)

HDLT: the de facto standard

I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone. In the Corner Cases blog, I specifically addressed HDHT networks and pointed out that they are in the extreme minority today. HDLT networks are reasonably common today, but usually not to any extreme. When IoT bears its full weight on the market (which will be far sooner than you might realize), HDLT networks will be the de facto standard. In a nutshell, this means that APs will need to associate (connect) lots of devices (I foresee 100+ devices per radio becoming common fairly soon), but the traffic to/from each of those connected devices may often be sparse. APs will likely need good QoS, a good understanding of client behavior and needs, and of course security will be all-the-more important with the breadth of devices connecting to the network.

Let’s consider a specific scenario, the average branch office (perhaps real estate or insurance) with 20 employees, to make my point. Today, the branch could possibly have the following devices connected to the Wi-Fi infrastructure:

  • Laptops
  • Tablets
  • Smartphones
  • Printers (let’s hope not, but you never know)

Let’s fast-forward to the year 2020 and consider how that same branch office might look from a technology standpoint. What items within the office could feasibly be Internet-connected in addition to what they have today?

  • Security cameras
  • Printers (they definitely will)
  • Digital signage
  • Digital picture frames at workers’ desks
  • Appliances (e.g. refrigerator, water cooler, coffee maker)
  • Cars that are within range of the in-building (or outdoor) Wi-Fi
  • Wearable technology (watch computers, eyeglass computers, etc.)
  • Building controls (thermostats, security systems, fire systems, etc.)

I’m sure I could go on and on, but for the sake of time, I’ll stop listing things. I’m sure you got my point. It’ll be a ton of things for sure. Some will want some bandwidth (e.g. picture frames sucking down 3MB photos from a file share on a server at a pace of 1 new photo every 5 minutes times 10 picture frames in the office), and some will want very little (e.g. your digital watch updating you on the temperature outside). All-in-all, the bandwidth requirements will be modest at best, but the number of devices will be ridiculous.

Remember how BYOD started? Companies tried to stop it by creating company policies. Yeah, that worked out… NOT. It will be the same way for IoT. It will progress like this:

Users: We want our things on the Wi-Fi.
Admin: No.
Users: Yes, because if you don’t, _________.
Admin: OK, you win, but your devices will be firewalled, rate-limited, and highly controlled.
Users: I don’t care so long as they work properly. Hey wait, why doesn’t my picture frame work properly. It probably needs more bandwidth. Fix it.
Admin: No.
Users: We’ll tell.
Admin: Ugh! OK, it’s fixed, now leave me alone.

BYOD stands for Bring Your Own Device, and trust me, they will, but not just smartphones, tablets, and laptops. They’re going to bring Internet-enabled pens, shoes, and heart monitors. You, Mr. Admin, will be powerless to stop it. You thought all of this BYOD stuff had just about fizzled and was limited to just a few vertical markets didn’t you? Ha. It’s barely even begun, and you haven’t seen complexity yet… just wait. How will you manage those Internet-enabled pens again? No, I don’t mean just at Layer-2… that’s the first step. I mean at Layer-7 also. Sorry I had to break that news to you. Bumpy ride ahead.

There are companies today who are building cloud infrastructures that are specifically designed to manage all kinds of IoT devices for the manufacturers who make them. That’s good thinking. Not every company in the world wants to build a cloud to keep their Internet-enabled devices up-to-date and to push content to them.

In closing, I will reiterate that it will soon be the number of devices, not high throughput, that will become the more significant issue across a large section of the Wi-Fi market as a whole. Make a note, it’s coming.

BYOD, mobile device management, smartphones, WiFi Access, WLAN planning

Education Technology at BETT 2014: Wireless as a Service, 802.11ac and Social Wi-Fi

March 14th, 2014

This is the first post is from Zara Marklew, EMEA channel manager, who is the newest addition to the AirTight team in Europe. Connect with Zara on LinkedIn and Twitter.  Welcome, Zara!

BETT 2014, UK’s learning technology show, has been and gone, but it certainly won’t be forgotten! For those in the educational technology sector, be it primary school teachers all the way to network managers of colleges and large secondary schools, this was THE event and is memorable for new technology and aching feet from over 4 days of the conference.

Wireless as as Service for Education

So what was all the fuss about and why was #BETT2014 trending on the social feeds? There were a few noticeable trends this year noted by attendees and exhibitors alike. Firstly came “XXX as a service”! As educational funding changes, so does the need to adapt and service the new legislation whilst still enabling the educational IT needs in what is a constantly evolving technology landscape.

Cloud Wi-Fi as a service

Cloud Wi-Fi as a service

One that stuck out was North Pallant Cloud and their WISE (Wireless as a Service for education). Using secure cloud managed Wi-Fi provided by the Airtight Networks, they are offering an OPEX model that fits the new financial structures of schools and enables secure Wi-Fi to be deployed. This allows school administrators to deliver all the new applications to their teachers and students whilst getting the assurance that they are securing the network and enabling simple management and deployment for the heads of IT.

Verdict on 802.11ac in Education Is Still Out

There wasn’t as much talk of the new Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac, from attendees, which was a complete opposite from most Wi-Fi vendors at the show. General opinion was that schools don’t have the money to invest in .ac devices as yet and that in reality, a robust, well designed, deployed .n network will still allowing streaming video to all students. Most of those I spoke to saw 802.11ac as a shrewd plan by Wi-Fi vendors’ marketers to increase sales as opposed to being offered groundbreaking technology.

I’m pretty sure that this opinion will be more divided come BETT 2015 as most schools appear to be first or second generation Wi-Fi users and the realization that security and management of what has now become the primary application delivery network in education, Wi-Fi, is actually pretty important! To that extent, the newer breed of Wi-Fi vendors, those who are cloud managed, were the vendors to see, with the common message that the controller is dead. Its not often you see vendors “buddying up” but that was the common messaging.

Social Wi-Fi: Fit for Education?

The advent of social Wi-Fi seems to have split opinion in terms of its value to the educational sector. The majority of IT people saw no value, whereby a sizable number of principals I spoke with saw it as an invaluable way of promoting the school and being seen as technically “with it.” Competition is fierce amongst schools and social Wi-Fi is a way of engaging with the students, who according to several people “go zombie” as soon as the class is done and lurch around hallways, seemingly sucked into their mobile device. What better way to tell them of events, news and the like then by communicating on the students preferred platforms, Twitter and Facebook. We’ll see over the coming months which way this goes, but it is here to stay in one format or another.

With Wi-Fi now running smart boards, tablets, laptops, desktops, telephony, cameras, entry systems, in fact pretty much everything, 2014 looks like being memorable for those in the business and those looking to utilize the technology.

A gold star and a certificate of merit for all exhibitors and attendees and roll on BETT 2015, my lanyard is ready!

802.11ac, 802.11n, Education

HIMSS 2014 – Big on Wireless

March 6th, 2014

This year’s show was huge. According to the events organizers, there were 1,200 exhibitors and 38,000 healthcare professionals in attendance and there were more nurses, physicians, IT staff and executives in attendance at this year’s HIMSS than ever before.

Connecting Right People to the Right Information in the Right Time

Some of the main areas of focus this year were patient safety, care quality, patient engagement, access to quality care and affordability, but the overarching main theme of the show seemed to be along the lines of enabling the right people to get access to the right information at the right time.

Of special note was the Interoperability Showcase with its one acre of space. This is where over 100 diverse systems demonstrated interoperability for typical patient workflows under different healthcare settings. One of the main objectives of the Interoperability Showcase is to improve overall patient care. This area of the show garnered a lot of attention and interest, and it is understandable that it would as ultimately the quality of care delivered is very much contingent of how well all of the various devices and applications work together. Hopefully the Interop Showcase will be part of future HIMSS conferences.

New Wi-Fi enabled devices and applications at HIMSS14

Wi-Fi helps disabled people walk

Wi-Fi helps disabled people walk

One of the most interesting Wi-Fi capable devices at this year’s HIMSS was a Wi-Fi enabled bionic exoskeleton. The Ekso Bionics unit (pictured above) was featured in the Lockheed Martin booth. This device is for patients with lower extremity paralysis or weakness. It enables patients to stand, walk and it can assist them with their rehabilitation. The unit is equipped with a single Wi-Fi radio. The radio supports two data streams currently. One stream allows engineers to see real-time telemetry data to determine how the unit is performing. The other stream is for the unit’s user, where information such as steps taken, distance traveled, etc., are sent over the air to an application that the user can access later.

WLAN: a necessity in today’s healthcare delivery

HIMSS14 saw all of the enterprise class WLAN equipment manufactures in attendance. And while there have not been any major publicized security breaches in healthcare lately like there have been in retail, Wi-Fi equipment companies were talking about security and protecting patient records again at this year’s show. Enabling BYOD is still front and center. Doctors and other care providers apparently really like using their tablets… So onboarding and mobile device management (MDM) solutions were the topics of many conversions between WLAN equipment manufactures and HIMSS14 attendees.

Another topic of discussion at WLAN booths was real-time location systems (RTLS) enhancements. A couple of WLAN solution providers were discussing 11ac’s impact on high definition video conferencing and moving large diagnostic images around via Wi-Fi. Another popular topic was high availability and uninterrupted care.

Were HIMSS attendees excited about catching 11ac Wave 1?

A number of IT executives in attendance stated that they are looking forward to 11ac solving density and capacity challenges; however, they will likely need to be a bit patient as there were more execs looking forward to 11ac than there were 11ac capable client devices at the show.

While there may have been 11ac capable devices at the show there were not easy to find. Checking in with manufacturers of all types of Wi-Fi enabled medical and communication devices, such as makers of infusion pumps, patient monitoring devices, RTLS systems, voice handsets and video conferencing systems, etc. did not uncover a single 11ac capable device. One vendor of workstations on wheels (WOW), equipped with a high definition video conferencing system, stated that they are in the process of retrofitting their WOW systems with 11ac radios. Their stated main reason for doing so is for scalability as they have discovered that HD video conferencing can easily overwhelm 11n, even at relatively low client densities. (But that is a subject for another blog…)

For more healthcare topics, please see our earlier posts:

802.11ac, Healthcare, WiFi Access ,

Restaurant Wi-Fi Primer – On-demand Webinar from Hospitality Technology Magazine

March 3rd, 2014

Last week we participated in the Restaurant Wi-Fi Primer webinar with Hospitality Technology Magazine, Boston Market and Spartan Computer Services.

Kevin McCauley presented on best practices in retail Wi-Fi analytics and social media integration. To view the webinar on demand, go to Hospitality Technology (free registration required).

You can also view AirTight’s slides on SlideShare.

HT’s latest research indicates that restaurants are planning to increase their IT budgets in 2014, and investments in networks and telecom are one category that’s steadily on the rise. A well-designed Wi-Fi network, such as the one Boston Market is currently deploying, can allow restaurants to roll out a variety of enterprise applications, ranging from mobile POS to networked kitchen tools, and can also draw in customer traffic.

View the webinar to learn about:

  • Leveraging the network for analytics and social engagement
  • Network design tips and considerations
  • Common installation pitfalls to avoid
  • Controlling customer traffic
  • Measuring ROI for your install

Best practices, PCI, Retail, WLAN networks

Corner Cases

February 26th, 2014

Most Wi-Fi manufacturer’s marketing departments would have you believe that 99% of all deployments are what I’d call “corner cases.” I call B.S. (as usual).

Here are the high-density/high-throughput (HDHT) corner cases that so many manufacturers would have you believe are so prevalent:

  • Large K-12 and University libraries, cafeterias, lecture halls, and auditoriums
  • Stadium or gymnasium bowls
  • Large entertainment venues (e.g. music and theater halls, night clubs)
  • Trade shows
  • Urban hotspots
  • Airports

Combined, these use cases comprise less than 1% of all Wi-Fi installations.  In other words, the opposite of what many marketing departments would have you believe. Let’s look at this from another angle. Here’s a list of use cases that do NOT fall into the category of HDHT, but may have other technical challenges or requirements, yet these same marketing departments want customers to believe they are HDHT environments.

  • K-12 classrooms*
  • Malls
  • Majority of airports

* Note: Some folks believe that one AP per classroom (or even one AP per two classrooms) is a bad idea due to adjacent channel interference (ACI) or co-channel interference (CCI), but that’s a design matter based on a long list of design criteria that can include wall construction materials, AP output power, client device type, client device output power, and MUCH more. I assert that one AP per one (or two) classrooms is a good network design in many K-12 environments, and this usually means less than 35 devices per classroom, worst case. 35-70 devices per AP (2 radios) does not constitute high-density, but may necessitate good L1, L2 QoS, and L7 handling.

Consider all of the common deployments that constitute the majority of WLAN environments:

  • Office environments
  • Warehouses
  • Manufacturing
  • Hospitals
  • Distributed healthcare facilities
  • Cafes
  • Bookstores
  • Hotels

So if HDHT handling isn’t a big deal in 99% of the use cases, what is important? If you ask that question to those same vendor’s marketing departments, they would say Performance! Once again, I call B.S.

After speaking with a variety of network administrators and managers, I’ve found it very difficult to find anyone who can produce statistics showing an AP sustaining more than 10Mbps over the course of an 8-hour business day. Even the peak throughput on the busiest APs aren’t all that high (a couple of hundred Mbps sustained only for a couple of minutes while large files are being transferred). It’s been my experience that busy branch offices, with a single AP serving 50-60 people, is where you find the most sustained WLAN traffic over a single AP.

If 10Mbps is considered “a very busy AP”, and decent 2×2:2 802.11n APs can sustain 200+Mbps of throughput across two radios given the right RF and client environment, then why is everyone talking about performance? I hear vendors bragging about their 3×3:3 11ac APs being capable of 900+Mbps of throughput under optimal conditions. While that kind of throughput is sexy to IT geeks who think that “too much is never enough”, most customers just want it to work. At 200-400 Mbps of throughput for 802.11n APs, why do we care so much about buying premium-priced 11ac APs again?

What do we get out of those 11ac APs anyway? 256QAM is useful only at short range and only for 11ac clients. TxBF is only good at mid-range, and only for thoses client that support it, which is basically none. Rate-over-range is better for uplink transmissions, but if you’re designing for capacity, voice, or RTLS, then this is of no consequence. There may be slightly fewer retransmissions due to better radio quality, but that’s mostly “who cares” also. Bottom line: don’t upgrade your 11n infrastructure for the purpose of speed. If speed (e.g. rate-over-range and raw throughput) is your goal, spend your budget on refreshing your 11ac clients first.

Customers who rush out to buy the latest, greatest, fastest AP end up paying a big price premium for a performance gain that they’ll never, ever, ever, ever use. It’s just silly. They get duped by the marketing message that HDHT handling and ultra high-performance matter in 99% of use cases, when in fact it matters in <1% of the real world use cases. Wi-Fi infrastructure technology is progressing quickly, and the PHY/MAC layers are so far ahead of typical use cases that customers should be focused on correct Layer-2 design and receiving value above Layer-2:

  • Robust, global, cloud management and services option
  • Strong security, compliance and reporting
  • Device tracking / location services
  • Social media integration (i.e. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter)
  • Guest and retail analytics
  • Managed services enablement

If you’re going to buy (or upgrade to) an 11ac infrastructure, there’s a very important reason to do it that is unrelated to the speed at which you move frames across the air: intelligence. Some APs don’t have the horsepower to do any significant local processing, and that leaves three options related to infrastructure intelligence:

1) don’t have any
2) send everything to the cloud
3) send everything to a controller

I prefer that APs have enough oomph to get the job done if that’s the optimal place to do the work. There are times when using the cloud makes sense (distributed, analytics), there are times when using the AP makes sense (application visibility/control), and there are times when using a controller makes sense (2008-2009). #CouldntResist

I’ll summarize all of this by asking that prospective customers of Wi-Fi infrastructure remember that they will likely never use even a small fraction of the throughput capabilities of an AP. What will have a significant impact is Wi-Fi system cost, Wi-Fi system architecture, and network design. Don’t get duped by the loud, obnoxious marketing hype around the speed/throughput. Think twice, buy once.

 

802.11ac, 802.11n, Best practices, WLAN planning

Distributed Healthcare Needs Wi-Fi That Works at Scale

February 18th, 2014

The growth and adoption of mobile technologies is impacting businesses in multiple industries, and we can see strong evidence of this by looking at the healthcare industry. I just returned from the WLAN Professionals Conference in Austin, TX where I heard first-hand evidence of this in a presentation on Continuous Wireless for Medical Devices. A strong emphasis was placed on improving patient safety through the use of mobile technologies that enabled doctors, nurses, and assistants to effectively handle their ever-increasing workload.

A reliable, stable, cost-effective, and simple to manage WLAN is required that enables healthcare professionals without causing undue distraction from their primary objective to provide high-quality patient care. The question then becomes, “how can WLANs provide these qualities for distributed healthcare organizations?”

Cloud Architecture

Network stability and availability is of primary importance for healthcare professionals relying on mobile devices to provide patient care. What’s more, this network stability must be provided in a cost-effective and simple to manage manner. Rather than relying on expensive wireless LAN controllers that are complex to manage and represent a large risk to the organization as a single point of failure, AirTight has developed a mature cloud architecture over the past 7 years that simplifies the network and is resilient to outages – the network continues to function even if cloud access is disrupted.

AirTight's datacenter locations

AirTight’s datacenter locations

Centralized Management

Distributed healthcare organizations have hundreds or thousands of locations that all require Wi-Fi access. With traditional Wi-Fi solutions, this represents a massive amount of effort to stage, configure, deploy, and manage each site individually. Even with centralized management, most Wi-Fi solutions still fail to effectively deliver simplified network management for a large number of locations.

AirTight solves this problem with hierarchical location-based administration. This allows administrators to configure one policy that is inherited across all locations. If a subset of locations require a deviation from the central policy, it is simple to override the inheritance for only the settings that deviate while still adopting the remainder of the policy. Inheritance and configuration policy can be applied at any level of the location hierarchy, thus providing both the simplified management of a large number of locations while allowing for variations.

Automatic and Reliable Security

The increase of digital information requires solutions that secure patient data and privacy. Most Wi-Fi security solutions focus solely on protecting only the infrastructure, require tedious manual configuration and tuning, and result in error-prone detection and alarming that swamp the user with false alerts.

hipaa

AirTight solves these challenges with integrated wireless intrusion prevention (WIPS) that secures both the infrastructure and mobile devices from attack. Our industry leading wireless intrusion prevention system addresses the physical and technical safeguards defined for protecting Electronic Protected Health Information (EPHI), preventing unauthorized wireless access to online medical records as well as securing the network from wireless security breaches. AirTight wireless security solutions stop wireless threats in their tracks, protect patient privacy and ease the IT burden for maintaining a robust wireless network. AirTight automatically detects, classifies, and remediates wireless threats to protect patient confidentiality, ensuring a robust wireless infrastructure that is performing well and meets HIPAA compliance. (See also our earlier post: Wi-Fi and HIPAA – A Tricky Combination).

Healthcare organizations require a WLAN that enables staff to provide high-quality patient care in a cost-effective, scalable, and highly secure manner. Be sure to visit the AirTight booth at HIMSS to find out more about our solutions for distributed healthcare.

Compliance, Healthcare, WiFi Access ,

Healthcare, Wi-Fi and HIPAA – A Tricky Combination

February 12th, 2014

What a great start to year on the industry events front – we started with NRF in January, looking forward to HIMSS and our ACTS event in February, and MURTEC in March. In NRF, high points of discussion were around Social Wi-Fi and analytics. That said, topics of security and PCI compliance were also high on the agenda prompted by the Target credit card breach that occurred just before NRF. I expect to there will be a lot of security discussions at HIMSS too.

Healthcare, Wi-Fi and HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed by Congress in 1996. It is enforced by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and implemented by regulations of 45 CFR. Among other provisions it has rules mandating that healthcare organizations safeguard the privacy and security of patient health information. These privacy rules apply to patient information in all forms and the security rules apply to patient information in electronic form called as Electronic Protected Health Information (EPHI). EPHI is any patient information transmitted over a network and stored on a computer.

HIPAA states privacy and security guidelines at high level. They do not require specific technology solutions, but are clear that reasonable and appropriate security measures must be implemented. For example, Section 164.312 has clauses requiring technical policies and procedures to allow access to EPHI only to authorized persons or software programs, to prevent improper alteration or destruction of EPHI and to protect health information transmitted over electronic communication network. Section 164.308 requires among other things identifying, responding, mitigating and documenting suspected or known security incidents.

AirTight WIPS

Protection from vulnerabilities for wireless access layer

What does all this mean to Wi-Fi? Today, healthcare is seeing a flood of wireless enabled devices in day to day operation.  Hospitals are increasingly providing Wi-Fi for doctors to access medical records and VoIP for staff communication. Healthcare facilities are increasingly using Wi-Fi-enabled medical devices. This makes Wi-Fi a dominant EPHI access layer in the healthcare environment. Hence, Wi-Fi security controls built into access points (APs) and covered by intrusion prevention system (WIPS) become relevant to satisfy HIPAA security rules as applied to the access to EPHI over Wi-Fi. For example, just as it is important to enforce strong authentication and encryption on managed APs and to control BYOD, it is important to ensure that unmanaged rogue APs do not open holes into healthcare networks that store and transmit EPHI or to ensure that doctors’ tablets do not connect to Evil Twins or neighborhood APs. Comprehensive reporting and forensic capabilities are also required to satisfy the auditing requirements of HIPAA.

How our customers are addressing security and compliance for EPHI

Over last many years, we have worked with several healthcare organizations to satisfy HIPAA requirements pertaining to Wi-Fi using AirTight’s overlay WIPS and using AirTight’s software configured access point/WIPS combos. Below are some examples.

  • Overlay WIPS in large hospital complex – Maine Medical Center (MMC) is 10-building, 68-floor, 2-million square feet healthcare complex in Portland, Maine. As an early adopter of Wi-Fi technology in healthcare information systems, the MMC has large deployment of Cisco WLC Wi-Fi. However, MMC is also security conscious and performed deep down analysis of security offered by various wireless security solutions. MMC chose to overlay AirTight WIPS on top of Cisco WLC.

AirTight has integration APIs for an easy overlay on Cisco WLC Wi-Fi. Moreover, AirTight WIPS comes out to be more cost efficient from both Capex (as it does not require controllers and MSE) and Opex perspective (due to freedom from false alarms and configuration overhead) than Cisco wireless security.

  • Access Points/WIPS for distributed clinics – CHS Health Services operates onsite clinics delivering full-service solutions for a broad spectrum of industries. Due to highly distributed nature, CHS is concerned about security as well as management of it Wi-Fi infrastructure. Faced with those challenges, AirTight cloud managed Wi-Fi which has WIPS built into it at no extra cost fit the bill. In addition, AirTight’s software configurable dual radio APs provide CHS the flexibility of choosing the right balance of access and security scanning radios to fit nature of each facility.

Overall, Wi-Fi can contribute greatly to enhance the quality of healthcare by providing easy access to information and mobility of healthcare staff. With Wi-Fi however comes risk of new and evolving security threats and compliance violations. As a result, choosing right security solution becomes imperative to be able to reap full benefits of Wi-Fi for the betterment of patient care! Visit AirTight booth at HIMSS to find out more.

Compliance, Healthcare, WiFi Access