Bringing Wireless Back in to the Fold


I’m sitting in the airport in Barcelona just having had an amazing week of conversations ranging from potentially core-belief shattering to crazy ideas for puppet shows. The best part of these events, for those of us who are social, is the ability to interact with people in meatspace that we’ve already “known” for a period of time on twitter. I had the pleasure this week of hanging out with such luminaries of the networking social scene like Tom Hollingsworth (@networkingnerd ), Amy Arnold (@amyengineer), Jon Herbert (@mrtugs ), Ethan Banks @ecbanks and, not to be left out of any conversation, Mr. Greg Ferro.

 

There were a lot of great conversations, and more than a couple of packet pushers shows recorded during the week but the one that’s sticking in my mind right now is a conversation we had around policy and wireless. This has been something on my mind now for awhile and I think I’ve finally thought this through enough to put something down on paper.

Before we get started, I think it’s important that everyone understand that I”m not a wireless engineer, I’m making some assumptions here that I”m hoping that will be corrected in the comments if I’m headed in the wrong direction.

 

Wireless: The original SDN

So in many ways, wireless networking have been snickering at us wired lovers for our relatively recent fascination with SDN. Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard a lot of snark on this particular subject for quite awhile. The two biggest being:

  • Controller Based networking? That’s sooooooo 2006. Right?
  • Overlays?  We’ve been creating our own topologies independent of the physical layout of the network for years!!!!

 

I honestly can’t say I disagree with them in principle, but I love considering the implications of how SDN, combined with the move to 802.11ac is going to really cause our words to crash back together.

 

I’m a consumer of wireless. I love the technology and have great respect for the witchdoctor network engineers who somehow manage to keep it working day-in and day-out. I’m pretty sure where I have blue books on my book shelf, they have a small alter to the wireless gods. I poke fun, but it’s just such a different discipline requiring intense knowledge of the transmission medium that I don’t think a lot of wired engineers can really understand how complicated wireless can be and how much of an art form that creating a good stable wireless design actually is.

On a side note, I heard this week that airplanes actually use sacks of potatoes in their airplanes when performing wireless surveys to simulate the conditions of passengers in the seats. If that doesn’t paint a picture of the differences with wireless, I don’t know what does.

 

The first wireless controller I had a chance to work with was the Trapeze solution back in approx 2006. It was good stuff. It worked. It allowed for centralized monitoring, not to mention centralized application of policy. The APs were 802.11G and it was awesome. I could plug in an AP anywhere in the network and the traffic would magically tunnel back to the controller where I could set my QoS and ACLs to apply the appropriate policies and ensure that users were granted access and priority, or not, to the resources that I wanted. Sounds just like an Overlay doesn’t it?

In campus environments, this was great. An AP consumed a theoretical bandwidth of 54Mbps and we had, typically, dual Gig uplinks. If we do some really basic math here, we see the following equation

Screen Shot 2014 12 05 at 1 08 31 PM

 

Granted, this is a napkin calculation to make a point.  But you can see it would be REALLY hard to oversubscribe the uplinks with this kind of scenario.  There weren’t that many wireless clients at the time. AP density wasn’t that bad. 2.4 Ghz went pretty far and there wasn’t much interference.

Screen Shot 2014 12 05 at 1 09 14 PM

 

Hmmm… things look a little different here.  Now there are definitely networks out there that have gone  to 10Gb connections between their closets in the campus. But there are still substantial amount that are still running dual gig uplinks between their closets and their core switches. I’ve seen various estimates, but consensus seems to suggest that most end-stations connected to the wireless network consume, on average, about 10% of the actual bandwidth. Although I would guess that’s moving up with the rich media (video) getting more and more widely used.

Distributed Wireless

We’ve had the ability to allow the wireless APs to drop the wireless client traffic directly on to the local switch for years. Although vendors have implemented this feature at different times in their product life cycles. I think it’s safe to say this is a me-too feature at this point. I don’t see it implemented that much though because, in my opinion, having a centralized point in the network, aka. the controller, were I can tunnel all of my traffic back to allows me to have a single point to apply policy. Because of the limited bandwidth, we could trade off the potential traffic trombone of wireless going back to the controller to access local resources for the simplicity of centralized policy.

Now that a couple of 802.11ac access points can potentially oversubscribe the uplinks on your switch, I think we’re quickly going to have to rethink that decision. Centralized policy not only won’t be worth the cost of the traffic trombone, but I would argue it’s just not going to be possible because of the bandwidth constraints.

 

I’m sure some people who made the decision to move to 10Gb uplinks will continue to find centralized policy to be the winner of this decision, but for a large section of network designers, this just isn’t going to be practical

Distributed Policy

This is where things start to get really interesting for me. Policy is the new black. Everyone’s talking about it. Promise Theory, Declaritive Intent. Congress, etc… There are a lot of theories and ideas out there right now and it’s a really exciting time to be in networking. I don’t think this is going to be a problem we solve overnight, but I think we’re going to have to start creating the foundation now with more consistent design and configurations allowing us to provide a consistent, semi homogenous foundation when we start to see the policy discussion resulting in real products.

What do I mean by this? Right not there, really two big things that will help to drive this forward.

Globally Significant, but not Unique VLANS

Dot1x, or more accurately, the RADIUS protocol, allows us to send back a tunnel-group ID attribute in the RADIUS response that corresponds to a VLAN ID ( name or dot1q tag are both valid ). We all know the horrors of stretched VLANS, but there’s no reason you can’t refuse the same VLAN number in various places in the network as long as they have a solid L3 boundary in between them and are assigned different L3 address space. This means that we’re going to have to move back towards L3 designs and turn to configuration tools to ensure that VLAN ids and naming conventions are standardized and enforced across the global network policy domain.

Consistent Access Control Lists and QoS Policies

RADIUS can also send back a specific attribute in the RADIUS response that will tell the switch put apply a specific ACL or QoS policy to the authenticated connection for the session time of that connection. Some vendors, but not all, allow for the dynamic instantiation of the ACL/QoS policy, but most still require the ACL or QoS construct to be already present in the network device before the RADIUS policy can consume that object. This means we’re going to be forced to turn to configuration management tools to make sure that these policy enforcement objects are present in all of the network devices across the network, regardless of the medium.

 

The future

I think we’re swiftly arriving at a point where wireless can not be designed in a vacuum as an overlay technology. The business need policy to be consistently applied across the board and bandwidth to be available and efficiently used.  I don’t see any other way for this to be done without ensuring that the we start to ignore the medium type that a client is connecting on.  On the bright side, this should result in more secure, more flexible, and more business policy driven wired connectivity in the coming years. I don’t believe we’ll be thinking about how the client connected anymore. We won’t care.

 

Agree? Disagree? Did I miss something? Feel free to comment below!

@netmanchris

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s