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Cisco and Apple Now Support Better Wi-Fi, QoS for Apps

Over a year ago, Apple and Cisco officially announced a partnership to help optimize the latter’s network for the former’s devices. It seemed like a natural fit, as organizations were increasingly using these mobile centric platforms, but were often constrained by their consumer focus.

At Cisco Live Europe last week, we finally saw some of the results of the partnership. It was stressed that this wasn’t the end-result of the collaboration, simply the first deliverable result. It’s interesting enough on its own to make we wonder what else is on the roadmap.

From an organizational perspective, I think the most exciting component of the announcement is Fast Lane. This allows you to apply QoS policy to app data, which before now couldn’t be done on a device level for Apple. This works by first having an admin setup on QoS profile on a given device. This profile effectively whitelists specified applications with QoS priority. From what I understand, this does require app developer support to enable this whitelisting. When not on a Cisco network, the apps act unimpeded. I’m sure it was of supreme importance to Apple to make sure the user experience remained consistent. From everything I saw, that seems to be the case. When on a Cisco AP however, packets from those whitelisted apps received specified QoS tags. These tags don’t have any significance in themselves, but as they are routed, Cisco applies QoS policy based on the administrative profile. Overall, I was impressed by how unobtrusive it all appeared.

The other announcement dealt with how Cisco handles Wi-Fi handoff on Apple devices. The issue now is that switching between access points necessitates a delay as signal drops off from one AP, which then forces the device to look for another to switch to. Apple helps negotiate this with the 802.11k protocol. This essentially narrows down the list of total available APs to a smaller list which can be switched to faster. For their part, Cisco augments this with the way their APs naturally coordinate. Their APs can be gathered into RF zones, which has a central awareness of other APs in the area. This can help 802.11k by actually looking at how devices typically roam, so that if a high percentage of devices roam from two different APs, the device will know to try that one first. This is combined with other situational awareness using 802.11r/v to make roaming more seamless, with the end result taking switch time down from 0.5 seconds down to sub-50ms. This seems like a typically Apple move. Most people probably don’t think it’s that big of a deal to take half a second to switch to a different AP. But delivering a purportedly smoother experience is just what Apple is known for.

Apple products are an inevitability in the enterprise. We’ve long since moved past an era when IT could mandate what smartphones users could put on their network. Apple and Cisco have already made a big step in making management of iPhones and iPads a lot easier. These might not seem like the biggest announcements from these two giant companies, but a world where your Skype or WebEx never drops out is one I want to live in.


About the author

Rich Stroffolino

Rich has been a tech enthusiast since he first used the speech simulator on a Magnavox Odyssey². Current areas of interest include ZFS, the false hopes of memristors, and the oral history of Transmeta.

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