Wireless professionals tend to be a passionate group when it comes to wireless training and education. With great value placed on vendor-neutral and product-specific certifications, and an abundant running slate of events like Cisco Live and Aruba's Airhead conferences for those with time and budget to spend, there are many opportunities to get educated and to stay fresh on rapidly changing WLAN product lines.
But there is also another resource for Wi-Fi information. It's more up to date than any other, it's accurate and it doesn't cost anything. I'm talking about online wireless support communities. Let's talk about why they are worth joining, or at least worth eavesdropping on occasionally:
Look beyond your own vendor for advice
When your WLAN is wiggy and clients are being affected, you sometimes want quick answers from others who have been there.
Regardless of whose wireless gear you use, sell or support, there's wisdom in keeping a worldview when it comes to wireless. All vendors "do" Wi-Fi in their own ways at the system level, but the 802.11 standard and the client devices in use are global factors that everyone has in common. Both are fraught with nuance and endless use cases, and just because your own vendor's discussion community doesn't address something you're researching, it doesn't mean you won't find answers, or at least clues, in the competition's community.
The future is often now
Often the user communities are ahead of official support channels in identifying bugs and finding ways to implement advanced features. Where tech support might say that some feature or fix is "coming soon," the support community frequently has alpha or beta testers that are already trying what you don't yet have access to. Additionally, there is an entire partner network that has advanced knowledge of where the vendor is going with its product lines. The frequent contributors to the discussions tend to be quite open with their findings and conclusions and can give you an incredibly helpful peek into the future for your solution-specific concerns.
Tech support that's sometimes better than tech support
Being a Cisco WLAN customer myself, I've become accustomed to dealing with protracted support cases that can take days or weeks of interaction just to find out I'm hitting a known bug. This is where Cisco's own user community really can cut through the delay, and reduce the time you may have to face when dealing with "official" support channels. This isn't to say that Cisco's technical assistance center engineers aren't thorough, but when your WLAN is wiggy and clients are being affected, you sometimes want quick answers from others who have been there -- as opposed to wading through lengthy debug times. Seldom are you the first person to hit a bug, and the forums are rich with open and detailed conversations about the same issues about which you might be inclined to open a support case.
Given that I also use or test other WLAN systems including those marketed by Aerohive Networks, AirTight Networks, Aruba Networks and Meraki, I find that deciphering official config documents can be another challenge. Sometimes, they are ineffective in conveying the steps needed to accomplish a specific configuration. Or they might be unclear in explaining what the feature that is being configured is all about. In these cases, there is usually someone in the support community willing to boil that 20-page document down to four steps and explain the whole thing in plain English.
Who's who in WLAN
When you regularly visit multiple support communities, you may notice an interesting effect. Many industry experts turn up in multiple communities. (I myself have been active in the Aruba Networks, Cisco, Solar Winds and Ubiquiti Networks communities in the past year, all concurrently.) These folks talk bugs, how-to and feature sets; but they also compare notes among different vendors and talk frankly about what works and what doesn't while sharing deep expertise about wireless networking. These are often channel partner luminaries, vendor advisory board members or just really sharp technical types who love to share what they know. Following them seriously adds to your own body of knowledge and tends to provide answers to questions on wireless networking that you didn't know you had.
Shopping? Visit the user communities
Whether you are in the market for a new system or a new job, WLAN vendor user communities can be excellent barometers, measuring a number of factors. Is the general vibe one of good discussion, civility and productive discussion? Or is it a clearinghouse for angst, frustration and lamenting about how lame a particular vendor's solutions are? If you apply some critical thinking to what you see in the communities, you'll see that they tend to be a reflection of a given company's strengths and weaknesses, depth and breadth of product offerings, and general standing in the market.
Not all communities are created equal
It is worth noting that there is disparity among the various wireless vendors' communities. Aruba and Cisco are both quite effective and well established, and you can spend hours browsing content without getting bored. By contrast, Meru Networks is just getting started with its user community while Xirrus has yet to form one. The main point? Some user communities are more vibrant and active than some of their competitors'. And where most vendors with a support community use it as a value-add for their customers, Ubiquiti uses its user community as the only support option. It's a mixed bag out there, and one worth exploring.
About the author:
Lee Badman is a network engineer and wireless technical lead for a large private university. He also teaches classes on networking, wireless network administration and wireless security.