Caffeinated thoughts about wi-fi and our world

What NetWare Taught Me About AirCheck Upgrades

I have learned a few tricks over the years to make my life a little easier by way of managing change. My pastor used to refer to the wisdom of "older players" who had learned to avoid making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves. One professional example of this (learned the hard way on a couple of occasions) is to be careful about when and how I apply firmware or software updates to critical systems and tools. I cut my teeth professionally as a server admin for a couple of big energy companies years ago, and learned all about change management in a very demanding environment. To this day, no matter how excited I am to try newly released code, experience has taught me to wait until I'm finished with the current project, report, or deadline before pressing the launch button. But good maintenance habits go beyond scheduled outage windows, and at times a relatively trivial procedure can remind us that best practices are best practiced with minimal exception.

What Happened

By the end of the week I was more than ready to check out the new features in the AirCheck G2 firmware version released a few days prior. I decided to wait until my usual Friday night window for personal device maintenance. This upgrade was a nice reminder why that patience is a good idea, and why even more patience almost always pays for itself.

To upgrade a NETSCOUT AirCheck G2, you connect the unit to a Windows computer running AirCheck G2 Manager software via the supplied USB cable, which in addition to facilitating device updates, allows you to download saved session files, backup device profiles, and offload screenshots. When I connected the AirCheck and clicked the Help button on the lower left, I browsed to the Device Info > Firmware Update section just to double-check the process. It's straightforward enough: Browse to http://www.netscout-f.com/downloads for the latest firmware download file and click the Update AirCheck G2 Firmware button in the Manager software's Device Info tab. Follow the instructions and don't do anything stupid like interrupt the process. Got it.

Latest Aircheck G2 downloads

Latest Aircheck G2 downloads

When I browsed to the download site, I also picked up a new copy of AirCheck G2 Manager (version 1.1.372), the release notes, and a copy of the latest Vendor MAC Prefix file. Insert ominous foreshadowing sound effect here.

Ummm... Something's up. There's ALWAYS a lot of Fi in my house!

Ummm... Something's up. There's ALWAYS a lot of Fi in my house!

The firmware update process seemed to go as planned with no indication of any problems. The instructions tell you to wait for the AirCheck to reboot, wait for it to update, let it reboot again, let it update a little more, and then wait for it to return to a connected status with the Manager software. After that you should be able to disconnect the AirCheck and move along your merry way. After my unit re-established its connection to Manager, I went ahead and transferred the new Vendor MAC Prefix file, which is nothing more than a plain text mapping of MACs to manufacturer organizationally unique identifiers. It never hurts to be up to date. When I disconnected from my laptop, however, something was immediately amiss.  The AirCheck didn't appear to be scanning, and the AutoTest and Ethernet Test buttons were grayed out.

Firmware updates being what they are, I reminded myself I had an entire weekend to roll back or find a fix. I referred to the release notes, which suggested that if those very two buttons were grayed out after an upgrade, a simple reboot would restore order to the AirCheck's world. Unfortunately, a couple of attempts later I found myself still scratching my head and wondering what my best, next options were. I re-downloaded the firmware file, reconnected the AirCheck, and tried again. Rinse and repeat; no luck. The Manager software showed the new firmware version applied, but my device seemed, for lack of a better term, hung or frozen. It was then I remembered that I'd violated one of my own principles of systems management: Whenever updating critical components, do one thing a time if at all possible. Nothing warned me against applying the new Vendor MAC Prefix file before disconnecting my unit after the firmware update, but "older players" should know better. 

“...the same principles apply as when I was doing Saturday morning patches and DSRepairs on Novell file servers at Conoco 15 years ago.”

Digging though my downloads, I also noticed that my Prefix file had been automatically renamed by my file system due to a duplicate file name. In the abundance of caution that inevitably prevails in the wake of a sideways upgrade, I saved the previous copies to another directory, re-downloaded the file (just in case), re-connected the AirCheck, and applied the update. A few seconds later everything was back to normal, and I could check out the cool new features in version 1.1.

The 802dotKey

The real point of this post isn't about the firmware and Vendor MAC Prefix file updates of NETSCOUT's AirCheck G2. I can't even say for certain whether I uncovered the true root cause--it may have just been a fluke (no pun intended). I only included all that detail in case it does help others if they find themselves in a similar situation. My true motivation was a quick reminder to myself and others to practice good system management and maintenance habits at all times. This may have been just an update for a personally owned wireless analysis tool, but the same principles apply as when I was doing Saturday morning patches and DSRepairs on Novell file servers at Conoco 15 years ago. Be deliberate. Be precise. Give yourself recovery options. And don't make things more complicated than they need to be. Not only does this reduce the likelihood of encountering problems along the way, it significantly simplifies the troubleshooting process when something unexpected does take place. All these years later I still occasionally need that reminder, but I'm thankful this time it was gentle and confined to the scope of my own anxiety. One of these days maybe I'll carry the more permanent wisdom of an older player.

Frontera's Wi-Fi Stand Reframes Temporary WLAN Deployments

It seems like I could begin every blog post by referring to the growing demand for ubiquitous access to Wi-Fi, and every day there seems to be less hesitation to ask for wireless access everywhere a few people might gather. At times, wireless professionals are tasked with deploying a network in a temporary location for conferences, large public meetings, outdoor festivals, etc., and very few good solutions to properly securing and orienting an access point have existed until now. Based on some hands-on time with the this product, that changes with the introduction of the Wi-Fi Stand by Frontera Consulting

What Exactly Is It?

Wi-Fi Stand is actually not a full, adjustable height stand. Rather, it's all the "hard parts" about temporarily mounting an AP assembled into an easy to store and deploy solution that you can attach to the style and size of stand of your choosing.

The frame consists of 1/4-inch industrial-grade PVC plastic, cut to outer dimensions of 12 inches by 8 inches, with an inner opening of 10 inches by 6 inches. On the inside-top, they've attached and aluminum 24mm rail designed to replicate the most common acoustical ceiling grid rail sizes. This clever design allows easy attachment of most enterprise-grade access points with minimal effort, as nearly all of them include either built-in clips or a simple add-on bracket to facilitate such installation. The bottom of the frame includes a vertically, oriented, female-threaded cylinder that allows for quick attachment to a 1/4-inch #20 male thread found on a wide-range of collapsable tripod stands

I happen to own a couple of 12-foot tripod stands that were designed for photography lighting, but would be well-suited for an indoor or outdoor WLAN setup for a day or three. For my hands-on review, I opted to just use a common, 60-inch camera tripod, to which the Wi-Fi Stand attaches in seconds. Keep that in mind for smaller, lower-density scenarios when suspension of an access point well-above head-level isn't required. One Wi-Fi Stand and a lightweight tripod may be all you need.

How Does It Hold Up?

In short, it holds up very well. When I first heard about the Wi-Fi Stand I knew I was immediately interested, but I was also anxious to get my hands on one to check out its stability and durability. This had nothing to do with any suspicion of manufacturing quality. I was curious to see how Frontera Principal and Solutions Architect Drew Lentz and his team balanced an RF friendly design with sufficient strength and stability under a real-world load. Let me explain a bit further: The Frontera team clearly knows a thing or two about successful RF design and implementation, and one thing wireless professionals are very careful about is keeping foreign metal objects away from an access point whenever possible to avoid attenuation, scatter, and reflection problems. By choosing a rigid frame of PVC plastic, and using aluminum only for the mounting rail and tripod connector, the Wi-Fi Stand takes great care to avoid any such potential issues. 

I tested the Wi-Fi Stand using two enterprise-grade access points that would be considered well-suited for temporary wireless deployments: Aerohive's AP130, and Cisco's AP-1832i. At one end of the size and weight spectrum, the relatively diminutive AP130 is an 802.11ac 2x2 access point that measures a mere 4.5x4.5x1 inches, and weighs in at 1.14 pounds. It's built-in grid-ceiling mounting clips fit nearly perfectly on Wi-Fi Stand's 24mm mounting rail, which allows for easy attachment and removal without any sense that the AP could accidentally come loose and fall.  By contrast, the 3x3 MU-MIMO Cisco model checks in at 8.3x8.3x2.6 inches, and a hefty 3.69 pounds (including the required ceiling grid mounting bracket). The larger AP1832i still attached and removed without much trouble, although the most secure attachment will require adding an additional screw to the Cisco grid ceiling bracket after it's affixed to the Wi-Fi Stand rail. Neither access point exhibited an unexpected amount of wobble--either at the attachment rail or the tripod stand connector. 

I carried the full assembly with each access point around a large room to get a feel for how everything holds together when everything isn't standing perfectly still and upright. With the smaller Aerohive AP130 this was no problem, but I recommend a little more care with heavier equipment. While the Cisco 1832i never came free, bent, or broke anything, over time I can foresee lateral stress on the mounting screws between the 24mm mail and the PVC frame becoming loose if carelessly moved around with a large AP attached.

Should I Own One?

Overall, I found the Wi-Fi Stand  to be a very usable solution for most temporary Wi-Fi deployment scenarios. It's ability to securely accommodate a wide range of enterprise access points at an affordable price, without a large halo of signal-mangling metal, offers a great option for wireless pros needing to provide access where permanent mounting solutions are not possible or practical. If this describes you, go ahead a purchase one (or as many as makes sense). 

Wi-Fi Stand ★★★★
Frontera Consulting

This was an unsolicited review of a product I purchased. I was not compensated in any way, and have no business relationship with Frontera Consulting. That said, Drew Lentz is a pretty good dude, and you should get to know him.

Video Blog: ESS Quick Tip - Easy Single-Image Exports

Occasionally, I will post video-blogs when I have something on my mind and (as is often the case) a lot of time staring out my windshield. Today I offer some thoughts on an easy way to quickly export higher-quality heat maps of large area drawings from Ekahau Site Survey while driving to southwest Colorado for the weekend.

How to easily get high-quality single-image exports of large drawing areas from Ekahau Site Survey .

WLAN Professionals Conference Awards

In this newbie's opinion, they represent something bigger than glass plaques

In case you missed the announcement by Keith Parsons at the conclusion of the Wireless LAN Professionals Conference, two awards were presented. Andrew VonNagy was named WLPC Person of the Year, and Devin Akin was given the WLPC Lifetime Achievement Award. Both were met great applause, and both are far more than merely deserving of the honor. 

In a way, I feel a bit awkward writing this post, as most of the people in the wireless community have known Devin and Andrew on a more personal level, and for much longer, than me. In another way, however, I think it's okay, and in trying to explain why I hope I'll drive home my point about why a couple of hundred people were so happy to see them recognized. 

Devin may be the very reason I decided to focus my career on Wi-Fi. A few years ago, while he still worked with Aerohive, I reached out to him via Twitter in sort of a Hail Mary attempt to help a customer. My company, a VAR in Oklahoma City, had recently become an Aerohive partner and our team was... Let's just say we were all trying to "get up to speed" as fast as we could with a new wireless product line. Internal red tape kept us from getting lab gear in a timely manner, and we were trying our best to implement for customers while figuring things out on their gear as we went along. I was feeling pretty frustrated, and knew if we could just get some better hands-on time with our own equipment we'd be miles ahead.

I don't remember what exactly I asked Devin, and he probably doesn't even remember this interaction. But I do remember to this day exactly what he said back in a direct message: "Hey, Josh. Send me your home address. Expect a box at your house in a couple of days." Like clockwork, I arrived home about 50 hours later to a box on my porch with three access points, a USB stick, and a license key to HiveManager. The equipment and licensing did the trick. We labbed some APs, and figured out some things in short order. Much more significantly (for me, anyway), I discovered in that moment of generosity a community of people unlike anything I have encountered in my 20 years in technology. 

Andrew, to me, is sort of a wireless prodigy who has forgotten more about 802.11 than many of us will ever know. I do know that I enjoyed meeting in person this week someone I've seen over and again share mountains of information about how this stuff works, and isn't afraid to equally encourage and admonish people in the WLAN community for the sake of moving everyone forward. I have no idea how many hours/days/weeks he's spent developing capacity planners and writing whitepapers, but he didn't have to do any of it. It would have surely been easier to keep it all to himself and cash big checks for being a Wi-Fi wunderkind.

Most importantly, Andrew and Devin represent perfectly what makes the WLAN community so special. That dozens of engineers from around the world regularly go out of their way to inquire, contribute, brainstorm, debate, and collaborate for the good of an industry (and each other) is not only remarkable, it's almost mythical. You just don't see it other places. The best part is, it's self-perpetuating because of its openness. Long before I ever met most of these people in person, they were answering my questions and encouraging me to contribute what I could as well. This not only ensures the long-term success of the community, but for many of us inspires us to do more to develop our craft and push our own boundaries. (And thanks, Lee Badman, for talking about this at the conference.)

My place as a relative newcomer (I sat in the shadows on Twitter for a couple of years before I ever engaged, and this was my first WLPC) doesn't qualify me have an opinion on the merits of either honoree. But I think it does speak directly to the larger theme: The WLAN community is great because of the word "Community," and not "WLAN."

Much thanks to all of you, who I look forward to learning from and helping where I can. And hats off to Devin and Andrew for all that you represent.