Month: October 2017

I have a weird sense of humor

So a couple of months ago I saw a picture on Twitter of someone who did a “Conference Call Bingo” card and I thought it was pretty funny.  Then I thought about it for a couple of minutes and realized that it had one serious limitation – everyone who used it would have the EXACT same card.  That’s not fun at all.

Enter my weird sense of humor, and some time when I should have been doing productive work stuff but decided this was WAY more important.

I created my own version of Conference Call Bingo using Excel, but with more than the standard 25 entries.  Then I spent way too much time figuring out how I could shuffle and randomize the entries on the card.  Then someone in the office opined that if one subject (conference calls) was good, two different subjects would be even better.

So I spent more time not doing what I’m paid to do and created a second tab for the overnight change windows that seem to stretch on forever.  Then I realized I needed to add some instructions because what started as a funny picture had now evolved in to a multi-step process to entertain yourself.  Enter tab 3 to the document.

Without further ado, I would like to release my waste of time creation to my friends in the Wi-Fi Twittersphere and wish you joyous times during mind-numbing calls.

The one issue that hasn’t been firmly resolved is what to yell on the call that will alert your fellow competitors that you have won the game but won’t tip off the unaware participants (like PM’s) that your purpose of being on the call is not to contribute but to mildly entertain yourself while being bored at your desk.  I will take submissions of what to yell on Twitter, but ultimately that word will be up to the participants to agree on.

In our office the leading contender is “Goat Cheese!”




I Am Mildly Indifferent To Captive Portals

I know this has been a topic in the past about why captive portals exist, should they be there, what purpose do they serve, and why do companies want to monetize a service that most people believe is as crucial to running a facility as indoor plumbing and running water is.

At the recent CWNP Wi-Fi Trek in Orlando, we had many discussions about captive portals that followed in this same train of thought.  What I noticed, and had the exact same conversation about twice, is no one knows what to do when traveling and you find yourself stuck behind one of these monstrosities.  What I have found in my professional life is the executives of my company complaining that the Wi-Fi in the hotel they were staying in while traveling “didn’t work.”  Of course the Wi-Fi didn’t work, I DIDN’T DESIGN IT!  Sad part is there might be a very qualified Wi-Fi professional on the other end of that design, very well could be one with more certifications and experience than I have, but some mid-level manager horked up their Wi-Fi system with a captive portal and now users complain.  The point of this discussion is captive portals are a way of life for the foreseeable future, and this is how to deal with them.

Back to the poor Wi-Fi professional who put tons of time and effort in to designing a system that has perfect RF, great data flow, everything that a great Wi-Fi architect/engineer has dedicated years of their professional life training to do, only to hand it off to a server guy to mess up our work.  It’s always the Wi-Fi system’s fault so as a guy in the know; I came up with a plan to deal with this bane of our existence.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been responsible for deploying captive portals in the past, and I know of at least 3 that are still in operation to this day.  Guess what, I’m a MUCH better RF guy than I am an HTML coder, so in my example, I’m the server guy that messed up my Wi-Fi system.  That’s how I know these tricks.  There are 3 steps, and I will list them off and then explain why and how it works.

  1. Never, and I mean NEVER, click on the little window that pops up that says “Click here to access the internet.”
  2. After NOT clicking the window or dohicky pop-up thing discussed in step 1, launch the browser of choice on your given device.
  3. Browse to a website of your choosing that is http and not https.

Explanation time, so hold on tight.  For those that want to bail out, now is the time to do it.  Spoilers do come next.  As with all rules, and these in particular, you can break the rule but understand why you are breaking the rule and if things go sideways realize you might have to come back to step one, possibly even resetting the TCP-IP stack type step one.  If you are reading this, after you get some idea of the mechanisms behind a captive portal, you will be able to tell rather quickly when you can break the process and when you have to go through the steps.  My wife, who makes me do all this for her anyway, is never allowed to break this process.

Step 1 – Never click the little window or pop up.  This ties back to the server guy who configured the captive portal and wrote the HTML script.  Sometimes that guy is awesome; sometimes he still lives in his mother’s basement.  This also ties in to step three, so we will refer back to this.  The pop up windows can be defeated if the server is programmed to pass the URL’s that common devices ping after they establish a connection to tell if you are connected to the internet.  Can I ping  I’m on the Internet and there is no portal.  I can’t – must be a captive portal, let me show my user the pop up window.  The issue with this is the browser you get after clicking on that window isn’t always a full-blown browser.  In my experience, iPad’s are the worse.  The Safari browser that launches on an iPad doesn’t support Bluetooth keyboards.  Try explaining to your CEO why she has to turn off her Bluetooth keyboard, get the onscreen keyboard to launch, type her room number in, press enter on the screen and then turn her keyboard back on, right after she got off a 15-hour flight to Asia.  Step 1 was painful to be learned.  Step 1 also allows you to fulfill Step 3.  If you skip Step 1, you might get stuck on Step 3.

Step 2 – Open up a browser session.  I like this because I have taken control back from the robots that inhabit my devices and makes it do crazy things when I don’t want it to.  This will also allow me to proceed to Step 3, the most important step actually.  Different browsers will behave differently, and I can pick which browser I want to be in.  It doesn’t really matter, but the CEO of my company, and my wife (not the same person in this case, I really do have a separate CEO of the company) don’t get this and think they are stuck using whatever browser pops up.  Having something familiar when navigating the coding of some unknown person after a long day of traveling always helps.

Step 3 – Browse to an http website.  This is crucial, and I can’t stress this step enough.  Recent security concerns have prompted device, OS, and application folks to really lock down what your browser will allow you to do.  Hijacking an https session, which is what a captive portal is trying to do, makes the previously mentioned folks unhappy, which in turn makes you unhappy.  Fortunately for us, there are some websites that are still http and I keep a list of them handy and distributed throughout our company for this purpose.  Entering an http website allows a couple of things to happen, and understanding them is REALLY helpful.  When someone hits enter, their device tries to reach the Internet.  DNS servers “should” be white listed so your device tries to browse to remote server, and since it is an unsecured connection, your device will allow the captive portal to hijack the session and return it’s own HTML page in it’s place.  Someone at WiFiTrek said they enter, bypassing any possible DNS issues, to trigger the captive portal and it does work.  Depending on how savvy the end user is, this is a possibility.  Chris Reed recently suggested using which oddly enough was built for this purpose specifically.  I do take umbrage with them attacking the Wi-Fi system but that’s another battle for another day.

Back to my wife; she gets the http URL. There are ways to make it happen when accessing an https site but it takes a lot of time babysitting the server to keep the security certificates up to date and everything kosher on the back end.  Large organizations with dedicated IT can pull this off somewhat successfully.  This process is really for the Days Inn you find yourself staying in while visiting the scenic town that is Rawlins, Wyoming.

Anyway, you will finally be seeing the captive portal in a browser you know and one that has all the functionality you expect to have.  Now you can actually interact with the page and enter your name, room number, place of birth, blood type, your first neighbor’s pets middle name, and what you ate for dinner exactly 259 days ago; you know, the normal stuff.  Hit enter and then drop to your knees and pray.  Not really, but it can’t hurt.

Assuming the information you entered is correct, you will be allowed past the captive part of the captive portal.  Remember, a negative answer from a server isn’t a malfunction, it’s simply a negative answer, but it’s still an answer!  A negative answer means you now need to contact someone onsite to verify what you entered is correct.  In some instances, staff have to manually enter your credentials and the problem might reside there.  If you are validated on the captive part of the system, you are now in a grey area that can change based on any number of factors.  This is where following the steps eliminates the amount of grey area you encounter and give you the best shot of not being confused.  To clarify this, we now need to talk about server programming that will “break” the Wi-Fi system.

Captive Portal systems have a “feature” known as “post-authentication redirection.”  What this means is the server has the ability, if enabled, to send you to a predetermined URL that is entered by the programmer.  This is used to send you to the homepage of the location you are at or a different URL if the system owner decides that.  Either way, it’s simply a URL that’s entered on a single line in the server.  If the portal you are navigating has this enabled, and the URL is still valid, you will see a web page.  This is great because it means you have completed the process.  The portal will log your Wi-Fi MAC address for a predetermined time, like a DHCP lease timer, and you are now free to surf the internet on your preferred browser; the one from Step 2.  The process is done until the timer runs out and you must repeat the process.  The issues come when this post-authentication redirection isn’t enabled or they are trying to be fancy and the redirection gets lost and never sent to you.  This scenario is why this process even exists.

Possibility 1 – Post-authentication redirection isn’t set up.  This is the most common and easiest to diagnose / solve.  If Step One isn’t followed, this becomes an issue.  When clicking on the little pop-up window, you are opening up a browser with the sole purpose of loading an HTML page.  You never actually tried to go anywhere.  Without the redirect, you now have nothing to show.  Depending on the device, browser, OS, personal settings, etc., you may get something, a blank screen, or possibly even the log in page again.  It was the last HTML page it displayed, so it just shows it again.  If you don’t know any better, you start cussing the Wi-Fi and throw your device against the opposite wall.  Funny thing is you are actually online and just don’t know it.  Close the browser and continue on your way.  If you followed these steps, you entered a website in Step 3 that will now appear.  This is a visual indicator to you, your spouse, and your boss that they are now online because they got where they were headed.  Wi-Fi obviously works and no devices are injured in this experience.  Wi-Fi designer is AWESOME (of course we are) and they continue on with their life and go drink cognac wearing a smoking jacket next to the fire, or whatever normal people do in hotels.

Possibility 2 – Post-authentication redirection is set up but they tried to be fancy and it’s broken.  This is harder to diagnose and solve because now it’s not just one designer that failed, it’s a whole team of them.  There is a certain airport Wi-Fi provider that is pervasive around the world and they have this problem all the time.  They don’t admit it, but they do.  Based on where you are and how you logged in and how much you pay they will show you a different experience.  Sometimes they get too fancy and you end up being shown a dead-end road.  From my experience this is a white screen with a banner at the top.  Also in my experience, you may or may not be online; the end user has to attempt to browse to a new website to see if works.  This scenario is harder for the end user to overcome because what you see seems to contradict what you think you know.  If your intended web page shows up, you are online and can close the browser and go get a stiff drink as a reward for successfully completing this gauntlet of terror.

If attempting to browse to your website doesn’t work you will see the home page of the portal again.  Try to navigate it again and if you get the dead end again, you are now at the mercy of the portal operator.  If the name of that operator starts with a “B” and sounds like something you would hear at the local Bingo Parlor on a Thursday night, give up and go hide your head.  If it’s a different provider, you might be able to contact them and convince them to white list your Wi-Fi MAC address through the captive portal, preventing you from needing to navigate the portal altogether.  It’s an outside shot, but it can be done.  The unfortunate truth is the client is ALWAYS the one who suffers in this outdated attempt to monetize a service that should be free.  If you aren’t going to plan a guest Wi-Fi that is fast, free, and frictionless, just don’t do it at all.  End of story.  If your real-world experience ends here, I offer my heartfelt apologies.  Wish there was more I could do for you.

There it is.  The end of our journey.  All I can say is unless something drastically changes in the industry very soon, captive portals are going to be a part of our lives for a long time to come.  While dealing with them isn’t pleasant, I hope this helps you to at least reduce some of the friction when trying to explain something that shouldn’t exist to someone who doesn’t understand it.  I would love to hear others experience and their tips for dealing with captive portals so please share your story!

Wi-Fi Trek

Orlando is hot and muggy, even in October.

I am at the airport, waiting for my flight back to the crisp, cold weather of Colorado and leaving this stuff behind.  I won’t miss the weather, but I will miss the people.

I met some amazing people who actually accepted a nerdy radio guy in to the nerdy Wi-Fi club.  The list is too long to name, but if you were around me this week, then you know who you are.  I took a design class for 3 days, 10 hours a day and got to talk and share stories about nothing but Wi-Fi.  I got to hang out with professionals from all over the world and talk Wi-Fi and technology in general.

I took the Certified Wireless Design Professional certification test on the second to last day.  Even though I disagree with at least 2 of the questions on my test, and I KNOW that one of them is total garbage, I still passed.  Go me!

What do I take away from this week?  There are some crazy smart guys in this world that can talk about wireless processes that are measured in nano-seconds, NANO-SECONDS, for 20 minutes and keep me enthralled!  I thought I was pretty good but compared to these guys, I’m a monkey who can ask for grapes.  (Yes, I stole that line.  I like to steal obscure social references and incorporate them into conversations.  If you get them, you’re welcome.)  Listening to these people talk is inspiring.  Interframe spacing times, frame and packet analysis, and general philosophies about how things can be done is refreshing to hear from a room full of people.  Overall, it makes me want to be a better person so next year I feel like join their world and not be an interloper.  Hell, I started this blog to try and contribute what I can to the community.  I might be the dancing clown in the corner, but at least I feel like I brought something to the table to make up for all the stuff I’m stealing from it in the mean time.

What next?  No one really cares but me, but I do have some ideas for blog posts.  The antenna theory in the community needs a shot in the arm.  We call it theory but in reality there isn’t much theory, it’s all practical.  So some blogging, waiting for the podcast so I can be formally introduced into the community, and waiting for the WLPC conference in February.  I will be working on a 10 minute presentation for that to get some speaking skills honed up.  Training, certifications, and general learning is also in my future.  What really inspired me was hearing that CWNE’s number 2 and 3 either taught, or took classes at Wi-Fi Trek this year, but also took tests again.  In so many other technology disciplines, the “experts” sit back on their laurels and never keep up with technology and trends.  The fact that they still care is the biggest takeaway from my week.

Experts who care, and care about the monkeys and their grapes.

I’m here, now what?

Tonight I did my very first podcast.

Well, I didn’t do it, I was on a podcast that was recorded and eventually one day will be casted out on the internet and someone will listen to me talk about something I really don’t know much about.  A little more history is in order at this point, and I think some words from my experience earlier this evening was almost spot on.

January of 2017, me and my buddy Mike are at work, doing Wi-Fi stuff.  Like crazy Wi-Fi stuff that we thought was a little crazy but we knew we were late to the party, so EVERYONE must be doing crazy Wi-Fi stuff, right?  We are a couple of dumb radio guys but we can’t be the only ones.  Problem is, where we were sitting, we couldn’t see anyone else in the same predicament we were in.  We Googled everything else in life, why we never thought to Google “Wi-Fi People” is beyond me.

Remember, dumb radio guys.

Anyways, my buddy yells at me and says “hey, I want Ekahau training!”  If you know what Ekahau is, good.  If you don’t, finish reading this and then Google it.  You still won’t understand what and how Ekahau is, but at least you Googled something.  In what has to be one of the turning points in my life, I Googled Ekahau training.  Somewhere on the first page was a link to some get together in Phoenix in February of 2017 that offered Ekahau training and then a little get together for a couple of days after that.

I found WLPC.

Like some people with Ekahau, I found WLPC but I had no idea what I had actually FOUND.  Long story short, Mike makes it to an Ekahau Certified Survey Engineer class that was part of the Wireless Lan Professional Conference run by a guy named Keith Parsons.  First day in the class, he sends me a message that says “we break every rule in the book.”  I wasn’t too concerned, I had never seen a book on Wi-Fi so why do I care if I break some rule that I didn’t care about?  Second day the message is “wow, we really have no idea what we are doing.”  Somewhere between the realization that we had built one of the fastest guest Wi-Fi systems in the country by breaking every rule in the book and not knowing enough about how the Wi-Fi world was supposed to operate, I said “I want in!”

We were doing things so bad, we compared ourselves to the Holiday Inn Express Commercials.  You know them, the one where someone does something great and then says “I’m not really that person, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” We weren’t even smart enough to stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, we got drunk at the bar and passed out in the bushes in front of a Holiday Inn Express last night.  We didn’t even intend to make something great, we were at the right place at the right time and did something amazing.  Probably still drunk, but we did it!

After discovering Twitter was something more than to listen to customers complaints about, I started following some amazing people.  Amazing Wi-Fi people who are REALLY smart.  I started reading their blogs.  One in particular, Rowell Dionicio (@rowelldionicio, changed my life and turned it upside down.  He doesn’t know it, but my 6 month TAC case is thanks to his blog.  The fact that he had SECRET information about how the frames work in 802.11 and actually typed it up in a format that I could understand, to this day, still blows my mind.  The fact that the TAC Engineer didn’t have this information and I did made me AWESOME and Rowell had given it to me for free!  Thanks Rowell!  If I ever meet you in person I owe you a drink!

I also discovered this group called CWNP.  Didn’t know what it was or why it existed, other than to confuse our group wondering what new Cisco certification program we had found, but I wanted in!  In the summer of 2017 I took my first CWNP class, Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA).  Man, I knew RF but I had no idea what all this other garbage was.  I still wanted in, but I was sure I wanted in to something that was over my head and I was going to drown.  Whatever, fake it till you make it!  (I have never lived my life this way, but I guess I can start.)  Shortly after, I discovered that they had this little meet and greet in the fall called “WiFi Trek.”  I figured Mike had gone to WLPC, I might as well go to Wi-Fi Trek and have a look see at this magical organization that I wanted to join that was going to drown me in my own ignorance of the thing I really liked to do that I had conned someone in to paying me to do.  Why not.  Problem was I had taken the class, but I hadn’t taken the test.  Now I really wanted to show up to Wi-Fi Trek with a cert, but I still thought I was the guy passed out in the bushes at the Holiday Inn Express.

Together, Mike and I buckled down and studied, and went and took the test together.  We both passed, I finished first but he got more right and we are still debating what that means.  Either way, I could show up to Wi-Fi Trek in Orlando with a cert!  I rock again! (Or maybe I rock for the first time?  I don’t know any longer.)

October comes, and I pack my bags and fly to Orlando.  First day of the class I signed up for, I walk in the room and meet Keith Parsons for the first time.  This is one of the magical people I had discovered on the Twitter, and he tweeted really smart things.  Maybe he was like me and was just faking it (he’s not) but I was here amongst my new people!  My wandering in the desert had come to an end.

One of my first tweets that I think people noticed is when I said “the more I learn the more I realize I need to learn.”  It’s not even one of those deals where the road gets just a little longer when you go around the corner, that sucker triples in length every time I just look up.  Taking the Certified Wireless Design Class from Keith is like that.  I hear that taking any class from Keith is like that, but either way I had a great time.  That is what lead me to tonight.  During class, I participated (he asked us to, not my fault!) and at the end of the three days he asked if I would be willing to do his podcast with him and talk about the crazy stuff we were doing in Wi-Fi.  After a very short, but long 8 months, the great Keith Parsons wanted to record me telling stories.  I tell stories all of the time, and some of them are even true, but no one had ever wanted to record me before.

Since I ruined the end of my story in the first line, I did the podcast with him.  My first.  He also encouraged me to start a blog, and between that and a podcast Keith did with Rowell (Wireless Lan Professionals podcast #108) a month or so ago that I had listened to on the flight, here I am.  I started a blog, did a podcast, and so far nothing has blown up in my face.  Granted, no one has read the blog yet (I want to clean it up before I tell anyone) and the podcast needs to be edited before it is posted.  Still, I want to consider this a win so far.

Tomorrow is Day 2 of Wi-Fi Trek, and my CWDP exam, so still plenty to blow up and plenty of time to do it.  At least this way, Keith and Rowell can take the full blame of everything else that happens from this point further.

They told me to just do this!

How did I get here?

Many, MANY years ago I was a junior in high school, in Utah, not really sure what I wanted to do with my life.  I was working in a restaurant after school and every day I would either walk or ride my bike to work and pass an Armed Forces Recruiting Station, and seeing as my older brother had been in the Army, I thought “Hey, why not?!”

WOW, I would never guess what would happen after that.

Many stories later, 19 years worth of stories, I found myself married with 2 kids and living in a midwest state in a rather large city.  At the job I was working at I realized I was bored and there was a service that our group, the Radio Shop, was responsible for that was interesting, and the guy who was running that service was less than fit for the job.  I knew I didn’t know as much as he did about this crazy thing called IP Networking and in fact, I.T. in general.  My main realization was I knew a WHOLE lot more about radio stuff than he did, and that was killing the service.  This new thing I had stumbled into was a crazy technology called Wi-Fi.  Little did I know that 5 years after that my life would be turned around and I would be designing and running a whole Wi-Fi network and doing some crazy stuff I never imagined.

Stick around, who knows where this whole crazy thing will go next.