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Interop 2011 wireless and mobility: From tablets to gigabit WLAN

In this Q&A, Interop 2011 wireless and mobility track chair Craig Mathias offers perspective on large-scale wireless LAN deployments, the rise of tablets and gigabit WLAN.

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Craig Mathias, Principal of the Farpoint Group

The takeaway: At Interop Las Vegas 2011, the mobility and wireless track will explore managing tablets on the corporate LAN and whether large-scale wireless LAN and gigabit wireless LAN are in your future.

Enterprise wireless and mobility issues range from managing tablets and personal mobile devices on the corporate network to how to design and control large-scale wireless LANs. As part of our Interop Las Vegas 2011 coverage, the SearchNetworking team spoke with longtime chair of the wireless and mobility track, Craig Mathias, principal of the Farpoint Group. Mathias offers some perspective on the future of tablets, real-world advice on managing large-scale wireless LAN deployments, the future of the wireless LAN controller and whether gigabit wireless LAN will be in your future.

There's an Interop panel discussion titled, "Will Tablets Rule the World?" What's the answer to that question?

Craig Mathias: I don't know. I think most people agree that the smartphone, or the platform phone capable of running applications, is going to be part of everybody's mobile arsenal. You can look at the tablet as being a big phone without the phone built in. I connect my tablet to my phone all the time over Wi-Fi. Sometimes I connect various devices together via Bluetooth. You have your own little network of capabilities, so when I want to carry a large device or I want more screen context I use the tablet. But I try to get everything done with my handset because it's so convenient.

The other question is, will the tablet replace the notebook? It's cheaper and a lot more convenient to use, with the iPad really leading the way. But will it replace the notebook? I don't think so. There is still an awful lot of software that runs on Windows, Mac OS and Linux that doesn't run on tablets. And if you're keyboard intensive, even a tablet with an add-on keyboard may not be the best solution.

But there's a bigger issue here; it's application management and mobile device management. It's not a slam dunk. When we start looking at personal liability—people bringing their own phones and tablets and PCs into the enterprise—that's a huge opportunity for disaster if not properly managed.

The tablet panel features three producers of enterprise-friendly tablets (Cisco, Avaya and RIM), but not Apple, even though the iPad is the device everyone wants to talk about.  What does that tell us about the role tablets will play in enterprise wireless and mobility?

Mathias: It doesn't tell us anything. Apple just does not participate. They don't even go to their own conference. We don’t really need Apple there. Everyone knows about it. Apple has its own particular market and strategy that its pursued for quite some time. I don't think anyone wants to hear about the iPad. They've already seen it. But how many people have seen the Cisco Cius? How many have seen RIM's new product? I'd rather hear about those.

The Interop 2011 wireless and mobility track features an architecture debate that examines the role of the wireless LAN controller. Do we really need a standalone wireless LAN controller appliance anymore? Is it just another box for vendors to sell?

Mathias: The architecture session will address two questions: Should the data flow through a controller and should you have a controller at all?  And if you have a controller, how should you implement it? Is it hardware or is it software? To give you my opinion, there are three key functions in a wireless LAN system which we call planes: Control plane, management plane and data plane. We've pretty much settled on the management plane being centralized, even though it may be in the cloud. And we're starting to see data be very distributed as it was in the early days before controllers existed. But the controller is still there and it can provide a wealth of functionality. There is always a control function whether there is a controller or not. The big question is, does it make sense to have a hardware or software entity called the controller? And if so, what should it do? Or, does it just get in the way?

It's unlikely that we are going to settle these issues anytime because we lack hard data for determining under any given set of circumstances what works and what doesn’t.  Large-scale benchmarks are very expensive to do. They take a long time and are very complex. The alternative to that historically has been modeling. You build mathematical models of the way a particular architecture works and then you simulate it. But nobody has built any good models at this point that I'm aware of.

You also have a session on large-scale wireless LAN deployments that features a Google engineer and a project manager from Philadelphia's public school system. Why does scaling up warrant the attention of a specific session at Interop?

Mathias: Let's make the assumption that wireless LAN has become the primary or default access for the majority of users in an enterprise. If we're talking 10,000 APs, we're talking about a large, global, distributed operation. If it's primary that means it's mission critical. If it's large and distributed, that means it needs a management strategy and a whole set of tools around that. What do those need to be? Even people who are running relatively small wireless LANs today with hundreds of access points are interested in this topic. They know that they're going to grow.

A lot has to do with management and operations, but a lot has to do with planning as well. I'd like to know what the “gotchas” were as they were building up their wireless LANs. Did they have to do a rip and replace on a regular basis? Maybe they did that anyway because the technology was evolving so fast. I don’t' think that's going to be as big an issue anymore now that 802.11n is becoming established. Even though gigabit wireless LANs are coming along, I don't see those replacing 802.11n.

On the last day of the show we have the session on advanced wireless LAN technologies. What will be discussed?

Mathias: In conversations [with presenter Fanny Mlinarsky, president of octoScope] the topics that came up were advances in standards and specifications coming out of organizations like the the Wi-Fi Alliance. Of particular interest is gigabit 802.11ac and ad. I don't think it replaces 11n, but there will be plenty of people who will disagree. That's going to be very important because even though 300 and 400 and 500 megabits are big numbers, you never have enough throughput. HP came out recently with an AP that has two 3x3 radios in it. So that's 450 megabits each or 900 total. That's perilously close to Gigabit Ethernet. So do we have to do to for 10 Gigabit Ethernet or 40 Gigabit Ethernet? I don't know, but it will be interesting because that stuff isn't cheap yet.

What will you cover in your session "Maximizing mobility: Architecting optimal solutions”?

Mathias: This one is mostly about management and the evolution of mobility. We'll talk about policies, costs, security, personal liability, optimal device mix, application mix and something of a technology roadmap. We'll focus mostly on wide area there as opposed to wireless LAN. It’s about how do you think in terms of an overall systems perspective for mobility? We've often found that's where things break down. People come up with great concepts for all kinds of things, but when looked at in context of a larger system, they don't work.

The concept of "the consumerization of IT" drives a lot of marketing among networking vendors these days. How much of this is hype and how much it is reality?

Mathias: There are two pieces there: One is the fact that we're using consumer-grade devices for enterprise-grade applications. For example, there are a bunch of medical apps that run on iPhones and iPads now, and the FDA wants to regulate them as medical devices. People can use it to review CT scans and do cardiovascular monitoring, but does that require approval and if so, how much is that going to cost? It's a classic example of a consumer device and an app you can download [for the enterprise].

The second issue revolves around liability. Who owns the device? Who pays for it? Suppose I only want to carry my own phone? I don't want my employer giving me a BlackBerry too, but I want to run my phone on your network. That's a very complex topic, mobile device management. The term liability is in there for good reason.

The future is undoubtedly toward personal liability. In the future, the edge of the network is in fact the mobile device, and the mobile device is in fact owned by the end user. But we can fingerprint the device and give the user credentials and add the two together for a two-factor authentication mechanism.

To learn more about Interop, view our 2011 Interop Las Vegas conference page.

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