Next Generation of Mobile Applications (white paper)

The days are long gone when corporations had a single wireless network that was used primarily for networked computers, running it from a series of access points mounted near the ceilings. Today’s wireless infrastructure is much more complex with different types of endpoints besides laptop PCs, operating across multiple radio frequencies, and serving many different purposes besides connecting PCs to file servers. In my white paper for MobileAccess that is posted this week, I talk about how today’s applications are changing the wireless landscape and describe in some detail some of the leading examples of this new generation of wireless applications to enhance productivity and integrate mobility into the workplace.

Mobile WIMAX session at Interop NYC

Mobile WiMAX is about to be a reality in the US and around the world. With WiMAX investment increasing, this is a topic that IT managers need to understand today.Just exactly what is mobile WiMAX, and what will it mean to mobile workers? What is the relationship between WiMAX, cellular, and Wi-Fi? When will WiMAX reach a critical mass that mobile users can depend upon?

I moderate a panel discussion on this topic for the Interop show in New York on October 25th. My panelists include:

  • Rehan Jalil, CEO,  WiChorus
  • Jeff Thompson, CEO of Towerstream
  • Cathy Zatloukal – CEO,  MobileAccess
  • Bernard Aboussouan VP of  marketing, SEQUANS Communications

The Lessons Learned of 802.11

The wireless toolkit for electronics design engineers has widened considerably with the emergence of the 802.11n draft standard. Implemented properly, this innovation will bring wireless connectivity to a new series of mobile applications and continue to fuel wireless penetration in homes and businesses, while providing major performance benefits. I synthesize some of the lessons learned from previous wireless standards and talk about how 11n will offer some significant improvements in performance and wider applications support.

You can read the full story in

Six Steps to a wireless site survey

To get the best performance out of your wireless network, you need to ensure that your access points (APs) are placed in the best locations and that other radio emitters are kept to a minimum. To do this will require you to periodically perform site surveys of your wireless spectrum, and depending on the scale of your installation, there are a number of tools available for the task.

In this story for Computerworld, I talk about what is involved and which tools are best for which tasks in doing the site surveys.

Bluetoothiness and truthiness

Okay, here is a quick test. Do you recognize the following acronyms? A2DP, AVRCP, GOEP, BIP, HSP, OPP, HFP? Here’s a hint: they all have something to do with Bluetooth. I’ll give you the answers at the end of this column, but let’s get to some of the underlying truths of Bluetooth (say that five times fast, if you will).

I had a chance to look at some of the latest Bluetooth products as part of an assignment for the NY Times. They asked for my recommendations for their annual holiday geek gift guide, out today. The article is called “Music, Photos and Printouts, Beamed Through the Air.”

I wanted to take a moment and talk about what I’ve learned about Bluetooth in the process of doing this article. While there are some great products that cut the cord, the state of Bluetooth today is akin to where Ethernet was back in 1990, or WiFi around 1992: a series of incompatible technologies, poorly adopted protocols, and different implementations that will conflict with each other when more than one thing is installed on the same PC. Does that sound as bad as it reads?

Bluetooth is short-range wireless, for those of you that haven’t yet touched this tech. And short-range meaning about 25 feet, give or take. Its most popular implementation to date has been hands-free headsets for cell phones, and indeed there are dozens of models to choose from, some of which are almost sonically acceptable. The ones from Jabra are akin to wearable jewelry and some are so small it is easy to forget they on your ear. If all you are doing is using a headset on your phone, then these products are pretty solid.

The problems start to appear when you pair the same Bluetooth part with multiple devices, such as cell phones and computers, or want to do more than just have a remote headset. Then you have to rely on the different PC makers’ implementations of how they have added Bluetooth protocol support. For the Times review, I found that many products worked fine as long as I used the company’s own Bluetooth USB dongle that came with the product. On a recent vintage Dell laptop, its built-in Bluetooth adapter was almost worthless and could barely connect with anything.

I had some better luck with a dongle from Toshiba on Windows, and a Dlink USB adapter on my Mac, but it was still touch and go. (Most Macs come with their own BT support but I didn’t get it on mine.) If I installed several different dongles on a PC, the computer would get confused and I had to resort to re-imaging the entire drive to clear things up. This isn’t yet for the general public, where the words “re-image your drive” strike fear into their hearts.

On some products, like a Lexmark photo printer, I tried four or five USB adapters that weren’t recognized by the printer, including one that was on the manufacturer’s recommended list. It was using a different firmware version, I guess. But I shouldn’t have to guess. (The P450 5″x7″ photo printer, by they way, is a dandy one despite these shortcomings. It doesn’t connect to PCs, but reads the camera media storage cards directly and makes beautiful prints that you would think came from a professional print house.)

Remember that litany of acronyms at the top of this column? I know you have dying to find out what they are:

• A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution)
• AVRCP (Audio Video Remote Control)
• BIP (Basic Imaging Profile)
• OPP (Object Push Profile)
• HSP (Headset profile)
• HFP (Hands-free profile)
• GOEP (Generic Object Exchange Profile)

Well, that is just the start of how hairy Bluetooth is. Some Bluetooth dongles don’t support all the various profiles, so you could get into a situation where you have a Bluetooth keyboard that doesn’t talk to your PC, but a headset that does, with the same dongle. This isn’t yet a consumer-friendly place to be. And it isn’t necessarily a good thing for IT managers at corporations either. Here is an article that I wrote about that for Computerworld.

Certainly, smarter minds than mine are working on this, and it is a shame that the overall situation is in such a sorry state. And I don’t mean this to be a rant that paints all Bluetooth products with the same dark brush – there are some great products out there. I just don’t want to have to re-image my drive when I want to switch between them.

Insecure hotel LANS

My very first column for PC Week back in 1988 was called The Practical Networker, and the first topic was about hotel connection problems. Back then, we just had to take apart the phones in our rooms to gain access to the little red and green wires to hook up our modems. Sometimes it required surgical skills for those hard-wired phones. Those days seem so quaint now.

Today we have a much more difficult problem, that of insecure and leaky hotel networks. Most hotels don’t really spend the time and energy to lock down their networks, and most business travelers don’t spend the time and energy to lock down their computers. The result is a boon for any corporate spy that has a laptop and minimal skills. Go to any center city convention hotel today and within minute you can collect Powerpoints, secret documents, and business plans on just about any industrial topic. And you don’t need any skill, other than showing up at the right time and place.

The problem is several-fold. First, hotels typically don’t segment their guest LANs – meaning that everyone in the hotel is on the same segment, has the same access, and can see anything across the entire network. This is true for wired and wireless access. Obviously, if a wireless user can sit in the parking lot of the hotel and gain access to the entire hotel LAN, this is even more trouble waiting to happen. The best situation is to have every single guest on a separate virtual LAN so they can’t see anyone else’s traffic. This requires them to use more expensive switching hardware, of course.

Second, many hotels don’t understand their Internet connectivity, and provide little beyond the kind of consumer-grade access that you and I use from our homes. Some even have little or no protection on their Internet connection, as unbelievable as that sounds. There was one hotel I remember vividly in San Diego that had no firewall between its network and the Internet. None, nada. I was attending a conference there during one of the virus outbreaks, and sure enough, a lot of people got infected on Monday morning before they came down for their sessions. In some cases, hotels will give you a public IP address so that you can get out and use your VPN connection. Under these circumstances, these public IPs are really public, you know what I mean?

Some of the Internet providers also don’t understand security, and don’t do anything to protect their customers either. We’ll get back to this in a moment.

Third, most laptop travelers don’t use personal firewalls, still. And if they do use them, they don’t have their configurations setup properly to mask themselves from curious guests who know how to bring up Windows Network Neighborhood and surf around for open file shares. I recently did a demo with a vendor who was sitting in a hotel parking lot somewhere in Salt Lake City. In a minute or two, we were looking at the open file shares on a dozen or more users, all of whom were completely exposed. We were browsing one person’s extensive music collection in a few mouse clicks. Lucky for him, our tastes weren’t similar. (Just kidding.)

Finally, there is the whole wireless issue that just makes things even more insecure. There are hotspots called “evil twins” that are just traps run by clever people that use common names and are set up for the unsuspecting traveler to login to – I have begun noticing these traps more and more when I bring up my laptop. And let’s not even get into how poor wireless security can be.

How prevalent is all of this? Two colleagues, Lisa Phifer and Craig Mathias, traveled around the northeast and tested 24 hotels this past summer. They found trouble almost everywhere they went. Just one in four sites could prevent wireless eavesdropping and block all notebook probes.

Here are a few choice tidbits from their report:

“Hotels can thus be excellent venues for those interested in stealing confidential data from business travelers. Users may assume they are insulated from outsiders, but really have no idea whether any firewall lies between their notebook and the Internet. Business travelers willing to connect to any network that offers free Internet access are especially vulnerable to such attacks – it is literally impossible to tell the good from the bad in this case.”

“Hotspot users might be unpleasantly surprised to discover they are reachable from the Internet [when they choose public IP addresses]. We expected paid networks would protect users from each other or Internet attacks more often than free hotspots, but this was not the case. Several free hotspots had noteworthy exposures, but so did paid networks, including the most expensive sites. ”

The only two Internet providers that passed all their security tests were I-Bahn and T-Mobile. They segregate traffic by user and prevent people from inadvertently sharing their connection. The others, including Guest-Tek, Passsym, Starwood, TurboNet, StayOnline, and Wayport, all had security problems.

So, spend some time today making sure your own laptop is properly configured. By all means, if you don’t have a personal firewall on it, now is the time to download one. Zone Alarm is what I use on Windows and it works very well. And the next time you travel, you now have some additional options for in-room entertainment that are absolutely free of charge.

The report is available for download here. As the saying goes, don’t leave home without it.

WiFi Interference

While we are trying to stay cool this week, I had some time to do some wireless tests at the Strom world HQ. And when I started to add up all the wireless stuff that I have beaming radio waves around here, I was impressed that everything just sorta works, given all the crossed signals.

Let’s make a list, shall we, of the wireless stuff that is in a typical house: besides the wireless LAN, there are Bluetooth headsets, wireless mice and keyboards that may be running on infrared or some other signal, remote controls to the TV and stereo, cordless phones, microwave ovens, and let’s not forget garage door openers too. Heck, my wife just bought a fan yesterday that had a wireless remote control, which got me thinking about all this wireless stuff out there.

A nice article that covers some of the basics with dealing with interference can be found here by Network Computing’s Jameson Blandford.

If you are in the market for a new cordless phone, make sure you get one that operates at the higher 5 GHz frequencies if you can — you will get a clearer signal and stay out of the WiFi band that your network operates on. That is, unless you have an 11a network.

What about the wireless LAN — that has its own idiosyncrasies. Most of you are probably not aware that the current crop of wireless LANs operates on three non-overlapping frequencies out of all 11 frequencies that are available — channels 1, 6, and 11. It is best to do a site survey and figure out if you can move your own access point/router to some other frequency that will have better reception. In my case, I had plenty of neighbors who were using channels 1 and 6, but only one on 11.

How do you do a site survey? If you have the Canary WiFi spotter, you can do it easily in about two minutes, because this handy device tells you immediately what channel everything is talking on. And you can move from one side of your house to the other easily and see how the signals change. Failing that, you can bring up your laptop’s wireless control panel and root around for a while seeing if you can make sense of the information it is telling you while walking around your house.

Once you get the frequency, you will have to dig out your wireless router’s manual and figure out how to connect to its management interface and make the change to its parameters on the right page. While you are on this page, if you have a wireless router that operates on more than one protocol, such as a b/g or a/b router, now is the time to turn off the ones that your computers don’t use. If you have those 5 GHz phones, then turn off the 11a signals and you will get better reception, provided none of your laptops are running 11a cards. Got that?

Finally, there is Bluetooth, which operates at near the same frequencies as our wireless 11b/g networks in the 2 GHz ranges, along with microwave ovens. Now, most of us aren’t on our Bluetooth headsets all that long anyway, but some new ones are coming out there that can do double duty — such as answer calls from our desk phones and also be used to connect to our PC audio to listen to music or make VOIP calls. I tried out the GN Netcom GN9350 and it worked well, even on my Mac that isn’t promised in its manual. The one downside is there are a lot more wires on my desk, and the unit doesn’t do caller ID on its futuristic base station. I could roam all over the house with this unit, which is very nice, but I wonder how my wireless LAN connectivity is affected. Blandford’s article talks about a 10% hit in his tests.

Have fun with your wireless networks, and enjoy your summer.

RFID the next old thing

Want to get on board the next great thing? How about Radio-Frequency Identification? For VARs and integrators, it is just starting to take off.

Wait a minute! isn’t that old tech? Yes and no. While the technology that supports radio-frequency identification has been with us for several years, the VAR ecosystem is just starting to take off, and there are plenty of opportunities for new business in this arena. You can read more in my story last month for eWeek’s Strategic Partner magazine.