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Supporting IoT devices requires careful WLAN design

The Internet of Things (IoT) has become defined by the perennial refrigerator that orders more milk when you run out. But in this Q&A, one networking pro explains its role in the enterprise and the issues with designing a WLAN to support IoT devices.

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In this edition of "The Subnet," we chat with Jonathan Davis, a senior network planning analyst at a global automotive and commercial manufacturing company, about everything from the challenges of optimizing Wi-Fi for the Internet of Things to his life as a beekeeper.

What are you working on lately?

Jonathan Davis: I work in two major areas: wireless and data center. On the wireless side, we're going through all of the North American manufacturing facilities and upgrading the wireless networks. There's a large number of very different applications in each location, so we're trying to provide a standard level of service.

On the data center side, I am replacing the MPLS WAN core for North America, and directly following that, the data center networks. We're migrating to Cisco's Nexus [series] like everybody else.

What's driving the wireless upgrade?

Davis: There's a buzzword Cisco uses, the Internet of Things. We're really starting to see that in the factories in things like building management or lighting control, and there are a lot of line-management-type applications that require wireless connectivity. Even the tools -- torque wrenches and things like that -- now have wireless connectivity, so you can verify every screw is bolted to the correct torque and how often [the wrench] has been used to see if it needs to be calibrated.

There's a huge demand now for wireless capacity and excellent wireless coverage, and the problem there is the wireless supplicants themselves are so different.
Jonathan Davissenior network planning analyst

So there's a huge demand now for wireless capacity and excellent wireless coverage, and the problem there is the wireless supplicants themselves are so different. [You have to know] whether they support 5 GHz or not -- most devices in the enterprise space don't yet -- or whether they have a single antenna or not. Most devices are still 802.11g with a single antenna, generally a 0 dB or possibly a 2 dB antenna, but very rarely with multiple antennas. So that leaves us in a spot where you're building a wireless network for the lowest common denominator, and that lowest common denominator's pretty low in most cases. It's not always an easy task.

What is the strangest thing you've had to do in the line of duty?

Davis: We manufacture trucks, and the trucks go through cold- and hot-weather testing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where there is a cold-weather testing facility. They can take it from ambient temperature outside to -- I think they're capable of reaching negative 60° [Fahrenheit], but this particular test was for negative 40°. The vehicles are loaded with sensors. A lot of the sensors are in the onboard computer, but there are also a few hundred added to test temperature, exhaust, various gases and anything that can be measured.

Last year, I engineered a point-to-point wireless solution using Cisco 1552s [access points] that allowed the person looking at the numbers to be quite a distance away from the truck. So last week, we had to mount these very large APs back into the trucks, make some configuration changes to align with the frequency the Air Force would allow us to use, prepare the trucks to go down to negative 40° and pull all this data while these trucks were being driven around. From a purely technical perspective, [the network] is pretty simple, but the complexity comes in the fact that you've got moving vehicles involved.

If you had an unlimited network budget, how would you spend it?

Davis: I don't think any organization that has as many sites as we do is ever really happy with their WAN. If I had the ability to spend as much money as I wanted, I'd definitely be looking toward the WAN.

A large portion of the frustration is the fact that right now, for us to get a new, large WAN pipe, we're looking at months [to provision it]. So when we identify a problem or maybe a new use case that's going to dramatically change our WAN utilization, it may be six months before we can actually have that WAN link delivered. I would be throwing as much money as I could at divorcing ourselves from relying so heavily on the major WAN providers and looking at things not only like Riverbed [for WAN optimization] but also at some of the WAN overlays like Cisco's IWAN [Intelligent WAN] to see how can we improve some of the response times, not just by spinning up cheap links but also by offloading lower-priority traffic onto cheaper links. [This is] so that, long term, I'm not spending a ridiculous amount of money on large MPLS WAN pipes when 60% of that traffic is headed directly to the Internet.

What were your early career goals, and what led you to networking?

Davis: I was planning on joining the military. I was all set to leave and tore my ankle up four weeks away from my leave date. I had to figure something out rather quickly, so that was what led me into IT. I did every other aspect of IT before coming to networking, from systems to the Web to .NET development to DBA [database administration]. I was honestly fed up with IT in a lot of ways, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do when I left IT -- and then discovered networking.

I had an opportunity in one of my positions to take a lead role on the network side. I thought, ‘It's one area of IT I haven't touched in any way. At least if I leave IT after this, I'll know I tried it all.' And I fell in love. It just fits my way of thinking. Networking in a lot of ways is that 20,000-foot view. If I'm getting a packet between point A and point B the way I want it to go, then my job's done.

Your Twitter bio says you're a beekeeper. How did you get into that?

Davis: Every kid is afraid of bees, right? You step on one and learn quickly that bees equal pain. When I was 7 or 8, I got stung a few times, and at the second or third time, I thought, ‘Well, that wasn't as bad as I remembered it.' After the initial shock, it wasn't as horrible. I began asking adults about it and learned the bee dies too. I thought, ‘Shoot, well I don't want to step on a bee and kill the bee.'

So it kind of started in childhood. [Beekeeping] was something I'd always wanted to try, and I was given the opportunity from an acquaintance to go into his beehives, and it just further developed the interest. When I go into my beehives, everything gets really quiet. It's not technical in any way. I spend a lot of time in the technical world, but what I'm doing with the bees is completely non-technical. It's kind of a back-to-nature thing for me; it's very peaceful and calming.

That's amazing -- because that sounds exactly like my worst nightmare.

Davis: Actually, I go into my beehives without gloves. And that's where most people go, ‘Wow, that's crazy! You must get stung a lot.' But I've been stung one time this year and have probably been in my beehives 30 times. For a bee to sting you, it's going to give its life up, so that means the bee doesn't really want to sting. To protect the hive, it will, but it's not like a wasp or a yellow jacket, which don't lose their stingers.

I began to realize when I was wearing gloves, I could bump the bees -- just slightly tap them -- and they would move out of my way. They weren't reacting aggressively; I would just tap them and they would move. That's when the light bulb went off and I thought, ‘Yeah, I could totally do this without gloves.' They're actually quite gentle.

Next Steps

Learn what the Internet of Things and smart objects means for the network

Find out how the Internet of Things is already affecting network capacity needs

IoT migration is all about specialized networks

This was first published in September 2014

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