Thursday, January 21, 2016

New 802.11ah standard for IoT comes with tempered expectations

This year's annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) announced details around a very important new standard for managing the Internet of Things - 802.11ah, also known as HaLow.

HaLow extends the consumer WiFi radio frequency spectrum to include sub-1 GHz frequencies at low-power. The lower, 900 MHz frequency enjoys longer range (roughly twice the distance of current 2.4 and 5.0 GHz frequencies used in consumer WiFi) at the expense of throughput, as well as lower power ratings. As these devices connect on separate, 900 MHz channels, adopting them onto your network theoretically means less contention and interference with existing smart phones, laptops, and tablets already dominating the 2.4 and 5.0 GHz frequencies.

However, it's worth noting that there are plenty of devices out there already living in the 900 MHz space. Wireless internet service providers, for example, often utilize 900 MHz connections in areas where trees and other obstacles make a 2.4 or 5 GHz signal impossible. AV equipment, blue-tooth, and cordless phones are also often found utilizing 900 MHz for their wireless functionalities.

Power needs represent another potential concern with adding an additional 900 MHz radio to access points already sporting 2.4 and 5.0 GHz radios - particularly for those rated for Wave 2 802.11ac. Access points certified for the wave 2 ac standard require a lot of power. In fact, a whole new standard for POE (power over ethernet) was adopted to support them called 802.3at or PoE+. While the power footprint of a 900 MHz radio is less severe on it's own, it still isn't clear if an already power-hungry dual-band wave 2 ac access point can handle a third radio on the existing 802.3at power standard. A third power standard may also be needed to allow such a device to powered over ethernet.

It's worth bearing in mind that even the best guidelines and standards for WiFi aren't fool-proof, and there's no shortage of devices out there that while technically abide by a given WiFi standard, still sport wonky radio behaviors, shoddy security capabilities, or poorly implemented network drivers. These poor practices can't be solved by a new standard and spectrum option, and time will tell if consumer device manufacturers are mindful of these dynamics as they begin to release IoT devices for 802.11ah.

We're not likely to see many HaLow compliant devices for another year or two, which gives administrators and WLAN designers time to familiarize themselves with appropriate spectrum plans that include 900 MHz. However, device manufacturers are the ones who really need to get it right first, or even the best admins will be facing unpleasant complications by 2018.

Monday, January 4, 2016

One week left for most IE users to upgrade

Back in August of 2014, Microsoft announced they would be discontinuing support for older versions of Internet Explorer across a number of Windows versions by January 12, 2016. Over a year later, with only one week left before the cut-off date, millions of users have yet to upgrade.

The move by Microsoft appears to be an inspired push to shift users onto their new browser, Edge, which is included by default with Windows 10. However, the new browser's branding doesn't really distinguish it from the former Internet Explorer (a blue, lower-case "e" continues to serve as the logo for Edge), and most users aren't likely to realize there is a new browser in play for Microsoft. New features for Edge include a distraction-free reading mode, the ability to annotate web pages, as well as integration with Microsoft's voice assistant, Cortana.
To this end, only the latest versions of Internet Explorer will continue to be supported beyond January 12 - IE 9 for Vista, and IE 11 for Windows 7 and 8. These older versions of IE will continue to function, but Microsoft will stop releasing security updates and patches for them after the cut-off date, which potentially puts the many users who have not upgraded at the mercy of hackers and cyber-criminals who continue to find exploits in Internet Explorer.

Most home users shouldn't have too much trouble upgrading. Microsoft Edge and the latest versions of IE will work fine for most common needs. Enterprises running web apps or intranet sites standardized on older versions of IE are not so lucky, though. Reworking code of custom software to be compatible with Edge, or even the newest versions of IE is an expensive under-taking, and may not even be possible with some services.

In addressing these concerns, Microsoft points to Enterprise Mode of Internet Explorer 11, which offers better backwards compatibility for legacy applications that won't normally work with the latest versions of Microsoft's browsers. Enterprise Mode will continue to be supported through 2020, to give businesses time to find alternative, modern solutions.

Despite Microsoft's efforts, most Windows users have abandoned IE and Edge, with as many as 70% of them have turned to Google Chrome. Google has also announced the end of support for Chrome on Windows XP, Vista, and OS X versions 10.6, 10.7, and 10.8 effective April 2016.

Regardless, home users are advised to stay current with the latest version of their web-browser to continue receiving the latest security updates and patches.