GeekTools: SolarWinds Wireless Heat Maps

Ever changing environments are the biggest problem that wireless engineers face. A new site can be surveyed, and based on that, an ideal wireless design can be created for the space providing perfect signal, overlap, and SNR; the wireless engineer leaves the site, SolarWinds NPM Wireless Heat Mapsmoving on to the next assignment, and that perfect design last through the weekend. Now the engineer is located in a different state, working on a different project, and is getting calls from the customer.

“Hey, we have problems, and I need you to fix them.” the customer says.
“Ok, can you describe the problem for me?” the engineer ask. Secretly, the engineer is shocked the customer is calling for any reason other than to laude the engineers talent, foresight, and general awesomeness.
“None of our customers can connect in the waiting area.” states the customer with disapproval.

Generally, troubleshooting this type of problem is straight forward. A quick look for interferers, a check to ensure all equipment is still functioning, and a general eye for anything that has changed. As a nod to the possibility of a changed environment, a simple question is asked.

“Has anything at the site changed? the engineer queries.
“Of course not” is the answer the customer provides, voice now dripping with disappointment.

Thus, the engineer continues to dig further.

Large enterprise organizations who deploy Cisco hardware generally keep maps for each facility in Cisco Prime. Smaller organizations without the budget or time to assign to Prime can find themselves looking for a different solution.

SolarWinds has a new solution that is part of NPM 11.5 and it is worth investigating. They now offer wireless heat maps. The simplicity of setting up the heat maps makes it easy for under-staffed shops to use the tool effectively. Import the floor plan, set scale, and then drag the AP’s supplied by the Cisco WLAN Controller onto the map into the correct locations. Once the AP’s are placed, the software makes a best-guess of wireless coverage. This is a standard but flawed practice.

The issue lies in physical placement of the AP’s within their environment. The AP’s are all at ceiling height, above cube walls, water features, whiteboards, and many other sources of signal degradation. The clients are on a much lower plane, and therefor see a different footprint.

SolarWinds solves this issue by allowing an engineer to place known clients on the map, and then use those to further improve the heat map. This provides a tool that can be used to understand what is happening at standard client heights, where signal matters.

“Oh look, now I see a huge null in the coverage.” the engineer says. “Are you sure there haven’t been any changes near the AP I placed by the receptionist desk?
“Oh, that’s right. We hung the sign this weekend” says the customer.
“That large metal sign that was in the shop area last week?” ask the engineer.
“Yeah, that’s the one, We suspended it from the ceiling right over the receptionist. It looks awesome. That wouldn’t cause this problem would it?”

The engineer proceeds to bang his head against the desk with a dull thud, thud, thud.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those responsible*

Watch SolarWinds discussing their wireless heat maps at Network Field Day 9 here: (Heat map discussion starts at 19:40)

-I participated in Network Field Day 9 as a delegate. As part of that participation, the cost of all travel and accommodations were covered. Additionally, some companies chose to give delegates small gifts for their participation. These accommodations do not in any way constitute a requirement for coverage, good or bad. In short, I am an opinionated jerk,  I was invited despite that, and anything I write is purely my own opinion. Special thanks to Tech Field Day, for the service they provide to engineers and vendors. If you would like to be a delegate at a future event, you can learn more here.  

Geek Tools – SSH and Telnet on OS X

Since I made the switch to a Mac in my day job, I’ve had two major frustrations. The first is the lack of Visio for OS X. The second one, was a little more major. I needed a replacement for MRemoteNG. I’ve searched for options and grown weary of reading the general post of “why would you need a specialized SSH tool, when it is built into the terminal of OS X?”

That statement is usually offered by a web developer who might have SSH connections to 3-5 servers on a daily basis. They live in a very specific world, and have a hard time understanding anything outside of that world. Feel bad for them; don’t hate them.

In the world of network engineers however, we may connect to 50 or more devices in a day, and may have logins to thousands of devices over an enterprise network. In that environment, there is a real need for the ability to bookmark devices.

After searching for options, I found one option that worked to some extent. This SSH workflow for Alfred is excellent. However, since I use a hosts file from someonewhocares.org to block a lot of advertisers and trackers, the index was never very useful.

After considering this problem from all angles, I finally had an “AH HA!” moment, and the simplicity of the solution made me equal parts giddy and disappointed that it took me so long to resolve. I created a file with a similar layout to a hosts file, in-fact I even named it hosts.txt. Each row of the file list a hostname, and an IP address. Since this file is purely text, you could add anything to each line that you wanted. 

#site1
device1 10.0.1.1 description
device2 10.0.1.2 unique protocol info
device3 10.0.1.3 more information
device4 10.0.1.4
#site2
device1 10.0.2.1
device2 10.0.2.2
device3 10.0.2.3
device4 10.0.2.4
device5 10.0.2.5
#site3
device1 10.0.3.1
#site4
device1 10.0.4.1
device2 10.0.4.2

But how does this help us manage thousands of devices you ask? It doesn’t, but grep does. If we pass a search string to grep along with the file name, all matching hosts show up. Yes it is simple, but it is useful because of that!

In my file, I created a site heading by starting the line with an octothorpe. I use this so that I can search for sites. This looks like:

grep ^# hosts.txt
#site1
#site2
#site3
#site4

I can also search for all devices at a location using a statement like:

grep ^#site2 -A6 hosts.txt
#site2
device1 10.0.2.1
device2 10.0.2.2
device3 10.0.2.3
device4 10.0.2.4
device5 10.0.2.5
#site3

In this case, I am telling it to start at “#site2” and show the next 6 lines. Since the 6th line is the next site, I know that I am seeing all of the devices from site 2.

Finally, if I know part of the hostname, I can simply search on it, and it will display.

Hopefully this gives you a better way of managing huge networks from terminal.

Cisco Live US 2014 – Engage Now!

Last year, I attended Cisco Live for the first time in my career. I went expecting to learn a lot, and I was not disappointed. You can read about my experiences here and here. If you haven’t read them, you should read them now. No, really, go read them. 

Now that you have read them, you know that you need to begin planning your social experience now. The scheduler will soon be available, and while you are considering the need of various classes, be certain that you create time slots to meet people. There is an incredible braintrust available in the social media hub. If you take the time to mingle and discuss you will be surprised at what you will learn.

I have long been a proponent of Twitter for IT professionals. If you and I have met over the last few years, and I haven’t asked about your social media interaction, I would question whether you actually met me and not a doppelgänger. If you have actually met me, I hope that my influence, no matter how small, pushed you to engage.

If you are new to social media and planning on hanging out in the Social Media Hub, let me offer a few suggestions.

  • Engage now. Don’t expect to show up to the social media hub without ever talking to any other engineer on twitter and expect to enjoy your experience. We like our jokes, our running discussions (arguments), and interacting. The social media hub is our opportunity to continue our online discussions in person. If you want a great list of engineers to follow, just check out who I follow.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We all come from a different background. Some of us are jack-of-all-trades, some of us specialize. We don’t expect anyone to be an expert in everything. We enjoy learning from each other. If you listen, and ask questions, you will learn.
  • Leave the oversized ego at home. Most of us have bigger personalities than egos. There are people in this group who know more than you. Trust me on this! If you show up with the goal of proving how smart you are, you’re going to have a bad time.
  • Don’t worship at the feet of your favorite author/personality. Yes, they will hang out with us and yes, they know an incredible amount about certain topics. Without exception though, they don’t want to be placed on a juvenile pedestal. They want to engage with other engineers. Story time:

Last year, I started a conversation with a well known author. We talked about our careers, about IT in general and the direction of technology. During these conversations, no less than 15 people approached to tell the author how great he was. The author was very happy to talk with them, and many times tried to draw the individual into our conversation. He would introduce me, mention the topic we were discussing at the moment, and made a genuine attempt to engage them in the discussion. Without fail, they thanked the author for his work, and then shyly withdrew. They were worshiping, not engaging.

  • Finally, register NOW! Register now to be certain you can attend the session that you want or need. This will also ensure that you can get an exam registered before all of the slots are filled. You can register here:

Cisco Live Registration

Cisco Live 2013 Final Thoughts

Image of JD on his bike in West Virginia

Image by Klaus Jones

I spent the last 5 days on the seat of my motorcycle driving hundreds of miles through the mountains of West Virginia. I do some of the best thinking on my motorcycle. The sound and vibrations of my pipes, driving with my whole body, leaning in and out of curves, the awareness of everything on, in, or around the road. Somehow, with all of that going on, I think A LOT.

As I continued to process everything I learned at Cisco Live, there were some thoughts that stuck out. These have very little to do with the social aspect, as I have already written about that here.

 Cisco Live Itself

1)   Why isn’t there a “lessons learned” document or post from the team who setup the wireless network? That was an incredible undertaking. I heard no complaints. I want to know what the Cisco Live Team has done over the last few years to scale the wireless network. Maybe the article is out there, but I haven’t seen it. This article wouldn’t be theory or sales, this is open communication about a real-life incredibly complex environment.

2)   Ditto on the WAN connection.

3)   As a first time, late registering attendee, I didn’t fully understand the Meet the Engineer, or the Table Topics at lunch. Now that I understand both, I will take better advantage of them next year.

4)   There is a special program for Netvets. There is a special party for CCIE’s. Why isn’t there a session on Sunday or early Monday for first timers? Make it a welcome party, initiation, meet and greet, and Q&A. I would have felt overwhelmed if it wasn’t for the great group of engineers that I hung out with at the Social Media Hub.  It would have also answered #3 above.

World of Solutions

I was surprised by the number of engineers running through the WoS chasing cheap plastic swords and other bits of junk. I liked a few of the T-Shirts, and grabbed a few of those, I picked up some buttons from Solarwinds, who clearly understands geek humor, and I avoided the rest. I realized on my ride this week, that the attendees were following the design. Run from booth to booth conquering and claiming prizes. Vendors, can I make a few suggestions?

1)   If you plan to give away shirts, make it a good design. If I like the design, I will wear it. Other engineers will see it. Conversations will be started about your company. Isn’t that the goal? If the design is bad, it will end up in the “donate” pile, as the yard work t-shirt, or used to wash cars. None of those are good for brand recognition. Special points given to geek humor and high quality shirts. If you want to guarantee that it sees the office, make it a polo shirt.

2)   Stop trying to win customers with a 5-minute pitch thrown out at the speed of sound by a mouthpiece that can’t answer questions. Your audience is technical. Do you think the audience can’t tell when the speaker is reciting words that they don’t understand?

3)   Find a way to engage potential customers. Make it easy for them to talk with a technical person, who can answer technical questions, and provide technical solutions. (Noticing a theme?)

4)   Don’t scoff at me when I refuse to provide my information for your cheap junk.

5)   Most importantly, don’t scoff when I sit through your presentation, give you my information, and then refuse your cheap junk. I am the person you are trying to reach, someone who is genuinely interested in your product, and who could easily be convinced to become a customer. I’m not there for the cheap junk, I’m there for more information about your product. If you could only answer my technical questions…

Now is a great time to register for next year!

Hey Apple, Help Us, Help You!

When the iPhone debuted on the AT&T network, AT&T was clearly not expecting the demand that was created. They were caught off-guard by the influx of customers, and more importantly they were surprised by the data consumption of users, who had purchased a device created to consume data. Problems were reported at a ridiculous rate, and rumors abounded everywhere within the Tech blogs that Apple was threatening to take their ball phone and go home to Verizon if AT&T didn’t do something fast.

In the mean time, Apple began working on ways of optimizing the iPhones use of the carriers network, and kept pushing AT&T for improvements. It took AT&T a couple years, and a LOT of money to build their network up. Some people will argue that if the iPhone had not been made available on other carriers that AT&T would still be having issues.

Apple studies, lives and dies by user experience. They knew that a poorly performing network would reflect on their device. It was not enough to simply blame the network. If the network wasn’t available, then features of their phone weren’t available either.

With that in mind… Apple DOES NOT provide developer access to wireless API’s in IOS. Troubleshooting WLAN issues for IOS devices can only be accomplished from the infrastructure side. Without jailbreaking an iPhone, there is no way to access RSSI, SNR, or other WLAN statistics.

Which device is best for troubleshooting iPad connectivity issues on a WLAN? If you answer anything other than “another iPad”, go directly to jail, do not pass go, and do not collect $200. This is an oversight decision that Apple needs to quickly reconsider.

Apple, we are the network. Without WLAN Engineers, iPads and iPhones won’t function correctly on corporate networks. Without the proper tools, WLAN engineers cannot support IOS devices when there are issues on the WLAN. Without tools, our network problems reflect on your devices. Help US, help YOU.

Explaining wireless overlap to non-techies.

Yesterday I was called about a problem in a new warehouse where I had recently rolled out wireless. I knew what the problem was before I ever logged into the wireless LAN controller. My organization leases approximate two thirds of a large warehouse, and the remaining space is occupied by various organizations. Those various organizations are broadcasting from 29 unique AP’s all crowded into the 2.4Ghz space.

I knew the issue, because I had raised the red flag before the project had even begun. I explained the problems that would be experienced, due to the other networks,  and that there was little I could do to mitigate the problem. I was able to work with the building owner to disable AP’s that existed on our side of the warehouse.

Since I had already explained the problem once, I thought I would take a different tack. I typed out a quick short story that explains the overlap problem, and sent it off. It seems the story made a positive impact and helped the manager understand the root of the problem. I thought I would share this to help bridge the gap between engineers and business managers, that need to understand wireless problems.

Bob is excited to finally be going to the XYZ annual conference in Podunck, Al. This year, the conference is bigger than ever, and he was lucky to even get a ticket. When he arrives, he learns that all sessions will be taking place in room 1, room 6, or room 11. Since he paid extra, he has two days of additional classes which he can choose to attend, and quickly fills his schedule.

On the first day, each session is taught from the stage, with the latest in PA equipment. The speaker is easily heard, and the presentation is clear and effective. Bob ask a few questions, and gets answers he both understands, and appreciates. He leaves feeling like he has learned an incredible amount in a very short period of time.

On the second day, more people have arrived at the conference, and he is surprised to find that each room has two classes going on at the same time. There is now a stage at each end of the room labeled A and B. Also, since the focus of the second day is Q&A, audience participation is paramount for the day to be effective. After breakfast, Bob gets a seat near Stage A, and while Stage B is distracting at times, he is still able to understand things that are being said. After lunch, however he isn’t so lucky. Near the middle of the auditorium noise from the Stage B often overwhelms the sound from stage A. Also, when the Stage B audience participates, he gets distracted, and forgets the question he wanted to ask the presenter on Stage A. Once he finally remembers, and gets the attention of Stage A, it is clear that they can’t understand him, so he repeats his question multiple times. Finally the presenter understands the question, but Stage B creates so much noise that Bob never hears the answer. Bob leaves that day feeling frustrated.

On the third day, everyone has arrived. Bob is horrified to learn that each room will have 4 sessions running simultaneously. The scene is pure pandemonium, and Bob does something smart…he spends the day playing golf.

Like Swiss Cheese – The road to being certifiable – Part 2

I tested, and received my first certification in 2000. I had been in IT for only 6 months, and I passed the Windows NT Server exam, which gave me the title of Microsoft Certified Professional. I did so after spending $7000 on a 6 month MCSE course. Finishing the course, just so happened to coincide with Microsoft announcing the end of the 4.0 track, and the beginning of the 2000 track. I didn’t have enough time to pass all 6 exams, to complete my MCSE, so I spent $7100, including the exam fee to attain my MCP. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy.

Moving forward over the next 5 years, I worked in every aspect of IT. I worked as help desk support, DBA, .Net programmer, and Web Developer. Eventually, I got sick of programming, and decided to plot my return to servers and networking. It was that or walk away from IT all together.

It took me a year, but I finally found a job that would trust me with their network, and I quickly made up for lost time. I fell in love with networking, and realized that I had finally found my niche in IT. Wired, wireless, firewalls, it all just made sense to me on a level that nothing else I had ever touched had.

Since that time, I have considered getting certified multiple times. In my opinion, the Cisco certifications are the most well respected vendor certifications available, and since I was working with about 90% Cisco equipment, there was no reason for me NOT to be certified. The only problem was, there didn’t seem to be any reason for me TO be certified either.

Salary surveys and employment studies seemed to indicate that certifications didn’t equal better pay, or higher level of employment. I have always been a busy guy, and passing certifications would require me to give up a lot of personal time that could be used to pursue other interest.

I was facing a motivation crisis. Couple that with my past experience in certifications, and the fear of, dare I say it, not passing an exam (also known as failure). I had plenty of reasons NOT to take a certification exam.

This all changed a couple of months ago. I made a couple of realizations that made getting certifications important to me, not for resume building, but for me as an individual.

I had just finished having a conversation with a junior level engineer over TRILL. I had explained in detail the finer points of TRILL vs. every vendors’ competitor. I discussed how it would most likely push L3 routing back into the Core and Distribution layers and out of the Access layer. I explained IS-IS.

Then, I was asked for help to setup a static Frame Relay map. My response was “Google for it” and I walked away quickly. I could discuss complex new technologies and yet somehow, a basic CCNA level task had escaped me. There were holes in my knowledge that I couldn’t escape.

I thought about that experience over the next couple of weeks. I realized that I was suddenly surrounded by real network experts through twitter: @etherealmind, @amyengineer, @matthewnorwood, @jtie_6ee7, @networkingnerd, @ecbanks, and many more. I liked the conversations that were taking place through blogs and other avenues. I also felt like I had a dirty little secret that would one day be discovered. I didn’t know (some) basic CCNA level stuff about networking.

It didn’t matter how well I could discuss PAGP vs. LACP, OSPF vs. EIGRP, IPv6, TRILL, or any other topic. It didn’t matter that my home network included an ASA and aironet AP. I could be easily stumped (without the internet) on basic topics that I never bothered to learn and memorize.

That was when I decided it was time to begin my certification journey. I would start with ICND1, taking no shortcuts. I wouldn’t take the CCNA composite test, in-case it didn’t cover a topic in-depth enough. I would become certified, and more importantly I would fill in the gaps, and know where I stood.

I easily passed the ICND1. According to Cisco, I have at least entry level experience and knowledge (surprising, right?). I quickly scheduled the ICND2, and there is where the holes appeared. On the portions of the test I knew, I didn’t miss any, or at least not more than one. ACL’s, OSPF, STP, and IP subnetting wasn’t a problem. There were problems though, and despite a few HORRIBLY worded questions, I can only blame myself. I missed passing by 21 points out of 1000.

Needless to say, I will be retaking the exam next week. I expect to pass, and more importantly, I will have filled in a few more holes.