Wireless networking is a miracle when you think about it. Try explaining it to a 5-year-old. We can talk to the internet without plugging anything in. We can run around every day with our portable computers completely disconnected from anything and still get work done. If you’d have asked me 20 years ago I would have told you this was a pipe dream. Even 10 years ago this wasn’t the primary method of connectivity. And yet here we are.
But wireless isn’t perfect. One of the primary problems that it has is that it’s just a bit too resilient at times. Through the evolution of wireless protocols we’ve increased speeds and throughput between devices and access points. We’ve created more dense deployments with better coverage for a larger number of users. And when everything works the way it’s supposed to it’s basically invisible. But when it starts failing you notice. Not because it’s not working, mind you. But because it’s not working as well as you want.
Wireless clients will connect to any AP they can hear no matter how low the data rate. They’ll keep retrying over and over again. Self-healing networks typically do crazy things like boosting power of surrounding APs to fill coverage holes during outages, which creates RF contention and other obstacles to that perfect utopia of invisible coverage. How are we as humans supposed to know how fix all of this?
Hidden In The Fog
That’s where the new breed of wireless companies are coming into play. One of them is a name I’m very familiar with – Mist Systems. They’ve presented many times to the audience of wireless professionals at Mobility Field Day. But they have also started changing their messaging to reflect what their control systems are really doing on the back end. Their Virtual Network Assistant (VNA) is a collection of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) designed to solve the complex problems faced by wireless professions when it comes to tuning networks and troubleshooting issues.
They’re doing this to provide a better experience for users. How many times have we seen the network at a conference go down followed by the chorus of “it’s the wireless!” followed quickly by “it’s not the wireless!” over and over again. The reason for this is because there are a lot of complicated factors that go into building a resilient wireless network. Mist is simplifying this by creating a software component that increases wireless network reliability and uses the data that it collects to make better decisions going forward. It can find problems faster and fix them better because of what it sees.
Network, Heal Thyself
I think an overlooked part of all this with Mist is how it plays perfectly into the messaging that Juniper has been putting out for a while now. Juniper purchased Mist earlier this year. There was a bit of uncertainty in the community based on the track record Juniper has had with wireless companies in the past. But I think this time it going to be different. Because of reliability.
Juniper is starting to focus less on network engineering and more on network reliability engineering (NRE). That means building systems that aren’t just capable of being fixed. It means building systems that are reliable to start with and are easy to fix because they are built to be that way. Simplicity comes from proper design. It doesn’t come from hiding everything under encapsulation. Take a look at some of these concepts from Networking Field Day 20 with Matt Oswalt:
Mist is a perfect compliment to the NRE concept. Their VNA helps ease troubleshooting woes because it can learn more about network conditions and wireless issues than a human can. It can give suggestions to fix issues and can even be set to automatically take care of the minor issues in the background. That’s the ultimate extension of NRE to me. It’s reliable not only because it’s built right but because it fixes itself when issues arise. You can’t get any more resilient than that!
Bringing It All Together
The integration between Mist and Juniper post-acquisition is still on-going. There’s a lot of potential to take the VNA technology and start applying it across all of Juniper’s NRE concepts. Imagine a network in the future automatically fixing issues and operating at peak efficiency because it’s smart enough to know when it’s not and remedy that situation? Sounds crazy now but remember how crazy the idea of a completely wireless laptop sounded even 10 years ago.
If you want to learn more about Mist and Juniper, make sure you tune in for Mobility Field Day 4 where they will be presenting once again.