Tuesday, February 11, 2014

WLPC Conference Day 1 Highlights

I'm here at the WLAN Professionals Conference (#WLPC if you're following on Twitter). This is the first of what hopefully will turn into an annual conference dedicated to the Wi-Fi industry. But this conference is a bit different than what you might think a typical conference is. First and foremost, it's got a grassroots, peer-to-peer focus. It's engineers talking about Wi-Fi and gathering for discussion. It's not overly promoted by vendors or full of presentations with marketing drivel. Instead, it's just people who are passionate about this technology coming together to share their knowledge and experiences with each other to better everyone! What a great concept!

There are over 100+ attendees, many of whom are also presenters. I hear there was more demand than seats available, so next year Keith Parsons, organizer of the event, should have a solid baseline to grow the conference and allow more of you (the community) to attend and get involved. What's also great is that many of the presentations have been interactive, with great questions and quality discussion fostering the entire group to share information. The focus on the technology instead of the marketing that so often surrounds the technology and products in this industry. That's refreshing!

Day one of the conference was full of great content. Since there are two tracks of presentations, I can't cover all of the great presentations that occurred, but all sessions are being recorded so I plan on going back and watching the ones that I missed. Here are the highlights that stuck out from day one for me.

First up, Matthew Gast presented on 802.11ac. In typical Matthew Gast fashion, "minds were blown!" Matthew mixes the technical geeky details along with practical implications of the technology on real-world networks and the motivations that IEEE standard developers considered when drafting the protocol amendment. At one point Matthew also entered The Matrix (no not that virtual world in which machines rule mankind, rather the steering matrix for RF beamforming), but luckily spared the audience by dumbing down the mathematics for normal engineers :) Attendees also received a copy of his 802.11ac book.

Matthew Gast presents on 802.11ac

After a much needed coffee (and brain) break, Chuck Lukaszewski presented on high-density WLAN design. Chuck's presentation highlighted the method he uses to gather a Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM) to scope customer expectations and frame the design and budget early on in the process. This included understanding the associated user capacity, active user capacity, AP layout requirements, infrastructure dimensioning, and developing the ROM quote. This serves as a great starting point to ensure all parties are on the same page early on in the project and to focus more detailed activities that will follow with on-site visits such as site surveying and design.

High Density Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM) Process

Chuck then turned to RF coverage design in stadiums, detailing the mounting options available and the preferred methods his team uses in different situations to minimize co-channel interference. One point that he highlighted was music to my ears... the fact that CCA Busy is triggered by the physical preamble and PLCP header (and NOT by the ability for a receiver to decode the MAC header and read the Duration/NAV value). This impacts the distance at which an AP or client causes CCI because the preamble and PLCP header is encoded at the minimum PHY Basic rate (e.g. 1, 2, or 6 Mbps) and can be decoded at great distances! I've been explaining this to anyone who will listen for several years and it has a HUGE impact on RF network design.

Interference (CCI) goes MUCH farther than you think!

Brad Crump from CWNP discussed certifications and your career. This was one of the most engaging and useful discussions that I've had at the conference so far. Brad posed several questions to the audience about learning methods (live class, online, self study, boot camp) which prompted some passionate debate in the room. Several members of the audience were current or former instructors and had some very good information to share about how they've been able to effectively train students. Additional discussion on vendor-neutral and vendor-specific training was lively as well. Brad framed the discussion by explaining that there is a trade-off between acquiring knowledge and attaining a certification that HR managers are looking for in employee candidates. In short, HR managers are looking for "Expertise" and they often recognize vendor brand certifications like Cisco more than vendor-neutral. But Brad and team (including Julia Baldini, marketing whiz) are working to build the CWNP into a globally recognized brand! Woohoo, I wish them great success in this endeavor. I'm a big fan of CWNP content and certifications. Go get some CWNP people!

What is expertise?

Charlie Clemmer talked in the afternoon about RF in warehouse environments. Since I used to be directly responsible for managing over 3 dozen large warehouses with varying sizes and product inventory, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. Charlie shared is insights on why warehouses are not as easy as most people think. Sure, the clients typically require low bandwidth for telnet/SSH and warehouse management applications. But the environment can be extremely challenging due to legacy client compatibility issues, very high ceilings, unique freezer environments, high availability requirements, and some interesting IDF and wired network restrictions. Once again, great discussion ensued with the audience. Several seasoned wireless engineers who deal with warehouses shared their experiences and how to solve for some of the unique challenges that can be encountered. One topic of large discussion was how to cost-effectively design WLANs by performing a hybrid site survey with predictive modeling that is grounded with real-world data from on-site surveying in select sample areas of the warehouse. Otherwise, performing a full site-survey for warehouses that can be thousands or millions of square feet in size is too time consuming and expensive.

Charlie Clemmer presents on RF in warehouse environments

Finally, I'd like to give a quick shout out to all of the old friends that I've seen this week and new friends that I've met in person for the first time. These types of events are absolutely great to meet fellow peers in the industry! Also, a shout out to Prime Image Video who are recording all of the sessions and working their magic to make this content available for everyone online who couldn't attend in person. Ben and Andrea are awesome people and they are outstanding media professionals! If I haven't met you in person at the conference yet, don't be shy, come up and say 'Hi'!

Andrew von Nagy

P.S. If you're at the conference, I'll be speaking about capacity planning for every WLAN on Wednesday morning. I hope you'll swing on in!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mind The Gap in Your WLAN Design

Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to travel for work, a lot. I'm always navigating airports large and small, and trekking out and about around urban areas finding my way from airport to hotel to meeting venue or just plain exploring the local scene in my free time. I've got a bit of an "adventure seeker" flair as well, so sometimes I just head out on my own without a map, guide, or itinerary just to soak up the local culture and find the backroads that really embody the travel destination that I find myself in.

In urban areas, this invariably involves navigating the local railway or subway system. In many places all the signs are posted in both the local language as well as English, but I always try to force myself to gather the meaning of the signs without resorting to reading the English version. One sign that is almost universal among these train systems is the warning to "Mind The Gap" between the railcar and the platform. With trains barreling down the tracks at significant speeds, railway architects need to leave a buffer of space to ensure the cars don't hit the platform.

It occurs to me that with greater velocity or momentum comes the need for more flexibility in design at the sacrifice of a small amount of precision. However, there is a fine balance to this design that must be maintained. Make the gap too large and passengers are at greater risk of injury. Make the gap too small and the rail design is too inflexible, causing damages and the system ends up breaking down quickly requiring replacement.

This serves as a fairly good analogy, in my estimation, for the wireless LAN industry. The WLAN market is like the railway car, picking up velocity and traveling at a fairly fast speed down the tracks. No one can deny the pace of change in the WLAN world, where users are adopting Wi-Fi mobile devices in record-breaking numbers, the Internet of Things (IoT) is on the horizon, and businesses are finding that Wi-Fi can actually enable new services and insights that help them differentiate. Users, meanwhile, are standing on the platforms trying to hop onto this fast-moving train, all-the-while expecting an effortless and satisfactory experience that they have been accustomed to for the past decade. WLAN administrators are caught in the middle, trying to design these systems to be flexible enough to accommodate the increased velocity and change in the industry while trying to minimize the "gap" between the railway car (WLAN services) and the platform (Users). A tough job indeed!

If WLAN administrators have any hope of succeeding in minimizing the gap, they need to place proper focus on understanding market direction and be armed with the proper tools and resources to effectively design a solution that not only meets the current needs but future needs as well. With every new advancement that comes along, the industry is challenged to identify and develop tools that enable administrators to effectively design the WLAN system based on these new capabilities and changes user demand. If the gap widens too far (product advancements or user demands outpace the ability for administrators to effectively design the WLAN) then users are at risk of falling through and suffering a poor user experience and dissatisfaction.

Therefore, a constant ebb and flow exists in the industry where the gap widens as advancements are made and user demands change, only to shrink as the technology matures, deployment experiences reveal what works and what doesn't, and administrators gain the resources to design and plan for the new requirements.

One of the major "gaps" that has arisen over the course of the last several years is the overwhelming increase in demand for Wi-Fi capacity but the lack of quality resources and tools for network administrators to design for capacity requirements. Instead, WLAN admins are forced to twist RF coverage design tools into what they need using crude rule-of-thumb estimates on the number of APs per square meter / feet based on an ambiguous (at best) concept of the network type they are planning for such as data, voice, or location-services.

I say enough is enough! We need:
  • Solid Understanding - Administrators need to understand what factors determine capacity in a WLAN, including AP and client capabilities, applications in use on the network, and the unique mix of devices on their network.
  • Holistic Planning - Administrators need to fill the gaps in the WLAN design process to adequately perform capacity forecasting. This includes proper research and requirements gathering as well as integration of capacity planning alongside RF coverage planning.
  • Design Approach - Administrators need an approach to WLAN capacity planning is purpose-built for the job. Relying on RF coverage tools, not designed to account for user density, device capabilities, and application demands is simply not good enough.
  • Quality Resources - Administrators need quality tools and resources that are built specifically to aid in the task of WLAN capacity planning. The lack of quality WLAN capacity planning tools in the industry is glaringly apparent. 
Do you have gaps in your WLAN design process?

I'll be speaking about WLAN capacity planning and presenting a methodology and approach that can be used for every WLAN, big or small, at the Wireless LAN Professionals Conference next week in Austin, TX. If you're attending, please join me on Wednesday, Feb. 12th at 9am CST in Ballroom B of the Hilton Austin Airport Hotel. If you are unable to attend, a recorded video of the presentation will be made available after the event.