Managed Services and the Intractable WLAN

I have in the last few years done some intensive WLAN bootcamps. My clients included administrators, technicians, engineers, sales personnel and hobbyists. My observations along the way included the sometimes aberrant theory involved in wireless networking. The immense sometimes seemingly insignificant knowledge base demands a dedication to RF theory that stymied both seasoned networkers and beginners. Many a time I was challenged as to the relevance of the dispensed information to the job requirement. As the student migrated to the advanced subject areas like wireless security, it all starts coming together. Confluence after confusion I call it.

As a student pursuing the Certified Wireless Networking Engineer qualification I am once again climbing that steep hill of WiFi knowledge. One only has to attempt to study the IEEE 802.11 drafts to quickly conclude that managing WLANs requires exceptional knowledge and forebearance. The almost blur like improvements and manufacturer race to capture market share has to some extent created a conundrum of acronyms. In a very short time from the very first wireless CWNA exam to the the fourth I have seen removals and add ons in the subject content. The standards have evolved to include an alphabet soup of 802.11s. Gone are the days of understanding basic RF math, defining hidden node and identifying multipath. Today’s WLAN student is faced with QoS, Spectrum Management, VOIP, a deluge of analysis tools, location-based system tracking systems, DSCP tagging, RSN networks, just to mention a few. The rapidity of enhancements is overwhelming. The leaders in wireless certifcation, Planet 3, has moved chameleon-like to stay current. I do not envy Mr. Devin Aken, Mr. Scott Williams and Mr. Joshua Bardwell, Mr. Criss Hyde and all the other dedicated people at Planet 3 on their mission.

Now, having some information on the state of wireless networking and having spoken to implementers and designers alike, I am skeptical about WLAN as a remotely managed service. A major issue with WLANS is interoperability. Some manufacturers have their own proprietary way of implementation. Algorithms are guarded secrets in some instances, some deviate from the standards completely. As was recently stated by Mr. Devin Akin, white papers are morphing into sales documents. The leaders in WLAN installs are Cisco, Aruba Networks and Symbol Technologies with Cisco claiming about 60%, Aruba Cyber Security Cloud    about 10% and Symbol 6%. I read recently where one MSP questioned Cisco’s Managed services platform and its multi-vendor support. As a WLAN designer one would strongly suggest uniformity. In reality, this rarely is the case. I am seeing companies partnering to provide platforms. Verizon and AT&T has made their individual choice of IP partners. Symbol/Motorola has their own Customer Interaction Center (CIC). The dilemma is compounded when we address security. Cisco PEAP vs Microsoft PEAP, RADIUS support, handoff algorithms, WPA vs WPA2, EWGs, and the list goes on and on.

The WLAN MSP has a lot to consider and overcome to provide a top rated service. The provider must be aware that the WLAN is far more than Access Points and controllers with many laptops. It involves VPN technology, authentication devices, biometrics and very soon convergence with WiMAX and RFID devices. The potential for profit is huge but should not be taken lightly. One area that is definitely in need of management for the mobility infrastructure is health and manufacturing. A report undertaken by TeleChoice and commissioned by Brightwater Systems identified healthcare, financial and manufacturing as the leading deployers of mobility networks. My last visit to the emergency room of a New York hospital was almost a visit to the Enterprise. Wireless devices were everywhere. Yes, WLANs present a great opportunity for the MSP but it must be a thoroughly planned endeavor.

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