Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A New Class of Device, A New Class of Application, A New Class of Wi-Fi

What drives you to Multimedia-Grade?
That question was put forth by David Morton from the University of Washington who lead the group in a discussion of the defining devices, applications and services that are driving them towards  Multimedia-Grade infrastructure at their respective institutions and businesses.  I've asked David to comment on the highlights of those discussions.  Over to you David!

"Thanks, Brad.  I'd like to share some of the major points folks expressed in our discussion. We started with a look at some statistics from our environment at the University of Washington that begin to give you a flavor for why deploying a Multimedia-Grade network is becoming critical to us.  In the spring 2010 we saw about 78,000 unique devices connecting to our wifi network. Of those 78,000 47% are Windows, 25% are Mac OS, 24% are IOS and 2% are Android.  

Of that mix, we're seeing our most rapid growth from handheld devices such as iPad, iPhone and Android devices. Together these accounted for over 18,000 unique devices. For the last four and a half years, we've experienced steady growth on wireless with the number of devices and usage roughly doubling every 18 months.  It's interesting to note that we are beginning to see some users now bring two to three Wi-Fi devices to campus.  For those of you who are interested, these stats are updated regularly on my blog;  These stats are pulled using the registration from the browser via our authentication captive portal.  

We then moved to a lively discussion about the key trends and drivers for the need of multimedia-grade Wi-fi. Some of these included:

Increase in the numbers and types of devices
As I noted above, we are seeing substantial growth in devices over the years. This has been especially true for handhelds. This trend was echoed by everyone on the working group. Several people noted that this change is beginning to raise issues and create challenges. 
It exactly these types of issues that has led us towards a discussion of how to find ways to bring the network operators (including enterprise and ISP like university networks), client vendors  and network vendors.

Changes in user expectations for WI-Fi networks
Many of our Wi-Fi networks began as networks of convenience. They were intended to supplement wired connectivity. Now we are seeing a general move for Wi-Fi to replace wired networks for many types of users. This fundamental change in use brings a fundamental change in expectations. The networks must now offer not only coverage, but be able to support the types of applications and uses that are continuing to evolve.  

In addition to applications, we are seeing changes in expectations in where and what types of networks are available. A bit of laughter broke out while one commenter mentioned a trouble ticket that complained about the lack of Wi-Fi converge in the restroom. After the basic bathroom humor subsided, we were left with agreement on trends that the network is expected to be everywhere.

Moves towards video/voice/real time communications
Services such as Netflix, Hulu, Skype, GoogleVoice, iChat, FaceTime and others are increasingly common on our networks. While most of us don't use Netflix or Hulu for work purposes (see next note below), there is serious use of real time communications happening on most of our networks. Increased Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi), convergence of cellular and VoWiFi and video conferencing was noted by almost everyone. Participants also wondered about whether Wi-Fi should be a chief part of their overall mobile voice solution. This is a common problem I hear a lot in my discussions. Cellular coverage on many campuses is often pretty poor. While there are a number of reasons for this, the solutions are traditionally pretty expensive (cell sites, distributed antenna systems, working with cell providers, etc). How can we use Wi-Fi to improve this situation? T-Mobile offers one potential solution, as does better integration with standard VoIP.

There was a wide variety of issues for those who are officially supporting these technologies, but common threads were clear throughout. These threads supported the need and desire for better multimedia-grade focus on Wi-Fi.

"Unofficial" apps show us the "official" future demands
As I noted above, Netflix, Huiu and other entertainment services are increasing in use on our networks (the best we can tell). Today these are rarely used in an "official" capacity, but many of us believe that by understanding these uses today, we can better prepare for the "official demands" that will be made on our networks tomorrow. We've seen this play out with all types of Internet applications and few would argue that consumer use of IT is driving the direction of many technology investments.  Using this traffic as a learning experience to scale and harden our Wi-Fi network can insure we will be ready to support our mission as it grows to become more multimedia savvy.

Other drivers
While not multimedia, more services are moving to IP as a transport. Examples include physical security systems (door locks, video surveillance), vending machines, parking enforcement devices, HVAC and other sensor based systems.  The cost and convenience of Wi-Fi is creating a preference over wired access for these services thus steadily increasing the offered load.  With the openness of Wi-Fi in most environments and the lack of tools employed to effectively characterize traffic, many folks didn't initially realize this was happening. All agreed this increase in baseline traffic must be characterized and taken into consideration when deploying a Multimedia-Grade environment.

David Morton, Director Mobile Communications, University of Washington"

Thanks to David for sharing these many excellent discussion points.
So, what's driving you to Multimedia-Grade?  Please post your comments and share your experiences with us!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wireless Networks in the Age of the iPad

Welcome to Multimedia-Grade!

A new age of handheld mobile devices and multimedia applications is driving a new Wi-Fi infrastructure. This blog will track the trends that are shaping this new network environment, promote best practices for retrofitting networks, and highlight activities from a new working group that I’m chairing dedicated to defining Multimedia-Grade Wi-Fi. The working group is made up of a cross-industry consortium of enterprise and education organizations interested in staying ahead of these trends.

We just hosted the first meeting. And to get everyone thinking more critically about just what it means to support video over Wi-Fi, we began with an open ended discussion on multimedia. As you can imagine, this revealed an interesting mix of concerns and comments.

Most notably, organizations are undergoing a monumental shift to mobile handheld devices like the iPad, iPhone, Droid, etc. One of the members, David Morton from Univ Washington, mentioned that ~25% of the wireless devices on their campus were now mobile handheld devices. How will a network scale to support this shift? What types of applications are most common? To what extent should we be allowing these to connect on our network? It will also be important to look at what issues have arisen sofar to determine what we can do to be more proactive.

Educational organizations make up a large percentage of this working group and have other unique interests that range from interactive learning to entertainment. There are quite a few people looking at the unique requirements for transitioning to multicast television services over Wi-Fi. Especially if you consider aspects of television like DVR functionality and on-demand movie services.  There is an initiative underway with Internet 2 to deliver multicast video to member organizations making the availability of "network ready" video even more viable.  One-way multicast and two-way RTP received much attention as some of the most challenging issues.

Security is a universal concern when we consider the increased presence of handheld multimedia devices. There is widespread concern around access provisioning for these new devices; many smart but some, quite frankly, pretty dumb.

Finally, is wireless the technology that will finally make good on the promise of “convergence”? At what point can you forgo deployment of coax and CAT5 in favor of Wi-Fi? Is performance and quality of service at a point where you can guarantee SLAs for voice and video? Of particular interest is high population areas and how well they scale into multimedia access. 

What do you think?  What excites you most about entering this age of the iPad?  What should we be looking out for? And what should we be doing today in anticipation of these changes? Go to comments and weigh in!