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If nothing else, this summer's announcement of Wi-Fi Aware by the Wi-Fi Alliance shows that innovation in the Wi-Fi space remains very much alive and well. And as the benefits of this new development materialize over time, the somewhat exotic topic of pre-association service discovery will become decidedly less so.
Networking, of course, has historically focused on access and connectivity -- creating the plumbing that moves data from point (a) to point (b). But equally important is learning what services are available on a given network and where these resources are located geographically. Is a printer nearby, and where might it be? Is a particular multi-user application available on this network? Can I gain access to a particular resource if I connect? Can I quickly exchange status information with another user? Service discovery protocols exist for just this purpose.
Examples here include Apple's Bonjour, Bluetooth Service Discovery Protocol, and even DHCP. Service discovery functions can also include hostname resolution in services like DNS, and service discovery can also be an element in "zero configuration" networking, providing the information necessary to implement such a service. With Wi-Fi Aware, pre-association service discovery is just that -- learning what capabilities a given Wi-Fi network offers before a connection is established.
The Wi-Fi Alliance was originally founded to provide a clearinghouse for interoperability among the rapidly-increasing number of products during the early days of the IEEE 802.11 standard. Over the years its mission has increased to solving real problems (such as WPA addressing the fundamentally flawed WEP security mechanism) and adding new functionality, such as what we see with the new certification. As such, Wi-Fi Aware is a specification of protocols and a corresponding interoperability certification, and not a standard, but its impact will be quite similar as essentially all vendors, we believe, adopt and integrate this capability.
So what can Wi-Fi Aware really do? Here are the key functional elements:
- Discovery. Devices will be able to obtain and make decisions based upon a list of available capabilities obtained before connecting to a given network (this is the pre-authentication part) and then connect -- often automatically, via Passpoint or a related technique -- if desired. There's no point in connecting, for example, if a given network is private when Internet access is essential.
- Proximity. It's often desirable to connect to networks to access nearby physical resources, such as printers. The new certification can provide this information.
- Personalization. Users can, for example, specify particular context-based services of interest, with connection occurring when these services are advertised as available. This capability could become, depending upon specific implementations, very robust over time -- and this leads to a very important point, which is:
- Application-driven. The success of Wi-Fi Aware in large measure depends upon applications (and app) developers, as well as the Wi-Fi systems industry, creating compelling implementations. But we believe there's little risk here, once developers get started. We expect to see many new applications in gaming (and other consumer apps) and even basic information sharing like train schedules, instant coupons and more. It may take some time for users (and, really, all of us) to understand the privacy and security ramifications here, so we recommend that IT shops develop both polices and educational materials as soon as possible.
It's important to note that not all Wi-Fi clients are usable with Wi-Fi Aware. While we assume that essentially all new units will be (with some requiring a firmware upgrade), many older products many not be so lucky. Ditto for access points, although Wi-Fi Aware can work peer-to-peer like Wi-Fi Direct. It's best to check with your vendor, and to verify that Wi-Fi Aware is supported on the products you might be considering as part of your next upgrade cycle.
What's really interesting about Wi-Fi Aware is that it's indicative of a continuing high level of innovation in Wi-Fi itself. While discussions surrounding Wi-Fi have, over the years, devolved to marveling about ever-greater throughput (even as the discussion really should be about capacity, not speed, and we'll likely get our wish here as multi-user MIMO rolls out), adjunct capabilities like pre-association discovery will continue to keep Wi-Fi vibrant.
Indeed, advances in Wi-Fi's basic capabilities have allowed us to reach the era of sufficiency, allowing mobility to shift the protocol stack all the way up to Layer 7 applications. And that's what Wi-Fi Aware is about. We're looking forward to such capabilities as enhanced location-based services that will further erase the gap between the real and cyber worlds. We also foresee an expansion of closed-user-group social networking, which could underpin future organizational information systems. Users will be able to exchange information more fluidly and more securely. Guest access will be cloaked with greater simplicity and transparency.
But, again, it is all about the apps, and those will take a while. In the meantime, we encourage IT organizations to focus on getting up to speed on specific implementations of Wi-Fi Aware (contact your vendor), setting policies and educating users. This, if nothing else, is going to be fun.
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