GNS3 – An Interview

It used to be that the only way to get any direct, hands-on experience with any networking gear was to have access to some actual, physical equipment. It was an expensive prospect, and often out of reach for most beginners to invest significant dollars into owning their own lab gear. Back in 2000, when I first got started in this area, there were no companies offering remote rack rentals, there were no good simulators, and there weren’t companies selling refurbished networking products at a deep discount. Ebay was available, but the products you were looking at there were quite often from questionable sources and probably not genuine. Needless to say it was very difficult to gain experience working hands-on with the products you were hoping to get familiar with.

Certification training, especially on a budget, was something that was very difficult to do on your own.

Over the years projects like Dynamips and Dynagen would provide some limited simulation functionality for Cisco IOS, but in 2007 as part of a university Master’s thesis project, Jeremy Grossman would begin developing GNS3.

GNS3 would evolve to become one of the most widely used networking simulators available and many a networking student working towards certification would find it an invaluable resource for learning.

Now, in 2014, GNS3 continues its evolution.

Now, I’m a sucker for a local success story and Stephen Guppy, CEO and Co-Founder of GNS3 is located just south of me in Calgary. I thought I’d reach out to him to discuss the past, present, and future of GNS3 and talk to him a little bit about their role in training and certification for the networking professional.

In The Beginning…

Stephen recounted the story of how GNS3 began as Jeremy’s university project, and while he now remains the sole developer, there have been a number of others involved over the years. After Jeremy moved to Calgary he met Stephen replying to an ad for a roommate. Over the past few years, GNS3 has been primarily a labor of love but recently the two really started to ask the question – “What does the community want from GNS3?”

After surpassing the 10 million download mark, they decided to launch a crowd funding campaign, in the hopes that they might make GNS3 sustainable in the long-term. So far that campaign has been a great success with over 13,000 contributors and over $553K in funding. The midnight launch of the campaign actually broke Crowdtilt (now Tilt) but they were very responsive and had things back up and running quickly. They met their initial goal in 3.5 hours and hit over 100K in 18 hours.

For contributors to the campaign, the first Alpha release of the new GNS3 became available April 1st, 2014, and Beta releases in mid-July. Their goal is to have the first version of the “final” product in December.

Fresh Start

The original GNS3 had become somewhat bloated with redundant modules and was a bit of a patchwork over the years with multiple contributors. For this new iteration Jeremy started from the ground up, with less than 5% of the original code going in. The design goal here was to develop a solid framework that could have modules added onto it. This meant simplicity when adding on support for VMware, HP, Juniper, etc.

The GUI and general feel of GNS3 hasn’t changed much so long time users of the product aren’t going through a huge learning curve with the new version either. The end result is a much more robust tool that takes up fewer resources, loads and runs faster, and is generally a lot friendlier to use.

Multi-vendor

Jeremy and Stephen had seen some interesting data over the last two years, and that was a steep decline in Cisco usage, with Stephen indicating a 25%-45% decline year over year. As they expanded into markets outside the US, other vendors were more dominant, including huge demand for Juniper and Huawei. GNS3 for many years had been known as a “Cisco” simulator but in reality, they aren’t. Their goal is to be the “CML for all vendors” and be able to offer the network engineer a platform to work on whatever vendor product they require.

The huge surge in virtualization has made it incredibly easy to integrate various vendor systems into GNS3. Not only that but with more and more vendors offering ‘free’ versions of their platforms to use in lab and test environments, access to the software has never been easier.

The L’s – Legalities and Licensing

Stephen admits they rarely have to address any legal/licensing issues because they’ve simply made sure they were always on the right side of the law.

“A lot of the things we provide are fully, freely available for anybody. The vendors provide it. XRV, 1000V, the 3600 series, Cisco provides that for free, online, anybody can download it. All that we are able to integrate within GNS3.”

They also have direct relationships with a lot of the major vendors, including Cisco, having been in talks with the product managers for CML and VIRL, as well as having other vendors approach them directly asking for integration into GNS3. Stephen mentions the relationship with the vendors should be “symbiotic” and in their discussions with various internal product managers, etc. all have indicated that GNS3 has value for them, providing highly trained people and a platform for test and development.

“We never want to do something illegal and be taken down because a lot of people depend on our product.”

On CML and VIRL

“I hope Cisco pushes the boundaries, GNS3 has needed a little competition.” Stephen says, laughing. Having known about CML and VIRL for a very long time due to their relationships within Cisco, they’ve been very excited for release of these products. Stephen calls these a “declaration to all the other vendors” and a challenge to them to provide the same level of support for the network professional.

CML, the paid, TAC-supported platform has already been released, but VIRL – the free, community-supported platform remains vaporware. However, should Cisco decide to release VIRL sooner than later, I wondered how a “free” product would impact them?

Stephen admits these products will impact GNS3 in some way, as a competing product, but a lot of the feedback from those with early access to these new platforms seems to be that while they were generally good products, people eventually moved back to GNS3.

“Cisco is building a whole new community from the ground up and that’s not easy.”

The Community

In 7 years the GNS3 community has evolved to a group that has very knowledgeable people who understand the product very well.  Stephen says plans here are to really nurture this relationship and harness the people within the community, starting with a “legitimate, real community portal”. He cites Thwack (the Solarwinds community portal) as an example.

“You help out, you get points, you get a t-shirt.”

Long-Term Strategy

I’ll admit that over the course of the interview with Stephen I learned a lot about the product that I didn’t know. I had been guilty of seeing GNS3 as a “Cisco simulator” but learned that their focus has not been single-minded, and that support for pretty much any vendor was their goal.

Training and Certification remain a huge part of what they are focused on. Plans include a full CCNA platform including labs and documentation, all for free.

“We want to provide all the material and all the resources you need in order to get your certifications. We would love to do it all the way up to CCIE and equivalent expert certifications in all fields, and provide it for free. All you have to do is be a part of the community.”

This is huge. As anyone who has set a goal for a particular vendor certification, the costs associated with the training and studying are sometimes a limiting factor. For GNS3 to be able to offer community-driven material as well as a platform for labs, is incredible and speaks volumes about the goals Jeremy and Stephen have for their software.

“Networks run our lives. They make our lives possible and the network professional, while it is a very thankless task, is probably one of the most important, or I think the most important profession in the world. Vendors make it extremely difficult for them to be good at their job and I think that’s a huge miss from them. We look at training not as a source of revenue but just as something that needs to be done. Someone needs to step up and be able to provide all of this, and we have the eyes on us to be able to do that, so that’s the ultimate goal.”

“You never have to pay for training again, if you chose to.”

As the new product evolves it’s plain to see that these guys are passionate about what they are doing and the energy they are putting into this new iteration of their product is tremendous. The GNS3 brand itself has undergone a massive overhaul as they reimagine themselves not only as a training tool but as a legitimate choice for network modeling, development, proof-of-concept work, etc.

It’s clear that as GNS3 evolves from “that Cisco simulator” into a full-fledged multi-vendor, multi-purpose network virtualization platform that it seeks to become a core component of every network professional’s toolset.

Cisco UCS – Zero to Hero in 5 Short Years

I’d love to call Randy Seidl and ask him for an interview. The problem is, I don’t have the street cred that it would take to even make it past his administrative assistant. You see, Mr. Seidl used to work for Hewlett-Packard as their “Senior Vice President of the Americas, Enterprise Servers, Storage, and Networking”.

He doesn’t work for HP any more.

From YouTube/Cisco: "The Worst Predictions in History"

From YouTube/Cisco: “The Worst Predictions in History”

“A year from now the difference will be UCS is dead and we have had phenomenal market share growth in the networking space.”

This is a quote taken from this article over at CRN just prior to HP’s 2010 partner conference, just one year after Cisco launched the UCS platform. HP’s strategy at this point was to try to take market share away from Cisco in their core switching business. I suppose this was a natural response considering Cisco’s foray into enterprise servers was aimed to strike a blow at the heart of HP’s business. HP’s strategy aimed to empower their partners to offer significant discounts and trade-in allowances for any existing Cisco customers, hoping to woo them away from the teal giant. 2-for-1 and 3-for-1 deals weren’t uncommon, and it seemed HP was ready to cut off their nose to spite their face just to grab more of the Ethernet switching pie.

5 years later Cisco remains atop the Ethernet switch market with a 60.4% share.

But we’re not here to talk about Ethernet switching. We’re here to talk about Cisco UCS.

Happy Birthday Unified Computing System

The official Cisco Unified Computing System press release came in March of 2009. By 2010, which marked my first Cisco Live event in Las Vegas, UCS had a lot of hype among the Cisco faithful. I returned home from the conference excited about UCS, because at my day job we were in the process of jumping head-first into virtualization and were looking at different options for servers and storage.

I shared my enthusiasm for UCS but was told Cisco would never touch HP or IBM in market share for servers. We bought Dell.

In just 5 years, Cisco UCS has vaulted to the #1 spot in the Americas(40.9%), and #2 Worldwide (26.3%) for x86 Blade Servers, according to the IDC Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker for 2014Q1.

HP has fallen from 47.7% to 34.9% in that time.

IBM has plummeted from 34.4% to 10.2% in that time.

ucs-1 ucs-2

Also according to the IDC report, Cisco has the highest industry growth in the total worldwide server market, with 39% revenue growth on a cumulative four quarter basis ending in 2014Q1. This, while HP, IBM, Dell, Oracle, and Fujitsu all report flat or declining results.

ucs-3

Cisco UCS also presently holds 94 performance benchmark records.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

5 years after launch, and 4 years after Mr. Seidl’s bold prediction that UCS would be dead in a year, the numbers reveal the truth of the success of the UCS platform. Cisco UCS has established itself as a key player in the enterprise server market, not only in the Americas, but Worldwide, and growth continues every quarter as the Cisco UCS product team continue to drive innovation and performance within the platform.

Cisco’s UCS business unit deserves a round of applause and a lot of credit.

The numbers don’t lie, but I’d still really like to ask Randy Seidl what he thinks of those numbers.

The official press release can be found here: http://newsroom.cisco.com/release/1426059

Cisco Live 2014 – San Fran-tastic!

My 5th Cisco Live is in the books and this was a fantastic week of reconnecting with friends, meeting new ones, and drinking from the technology fire hose.

This was my first visit to San Francisco and although I didn’t get to be a tourist very much, what I did see of the city was great. My hotel wasn’t in the greatest part of the downtown area, but even so the walk to and from Moscone never seemed too scary.

As I mentioned in my pre-show post my schedule this year was packed with sessions, meetings and events, much more than previous years. I arrived on Sunday and the whirl wind week of activity began immediately.

Registration and Arrival Tweetup

I managed to get to Moscone in time to register and pick up my badge and bag before the 5:00 pm closing on Sunday. After checking into my hotel and dropping off most of my gear, I went straight back to Moscone South for the Welcome Tweetup. This had grown exponentially over the last few years and the 2014 Tweetup was no exception. It’s always great to be face to face with the people you interact with all year on Twitter and other social media platforms, and this year was made that much more special with the #CiscoChampion program adding a number of new people to the mix.

Social Media Lounge 2014

Social Media Lounge 2014

The appearance of the SDNicorn marked the beginning of what was going to be a week filled with networking (in several terms), socializing and yes, even some shenanigans.

 

CLUS2014_02 CLUS2014_15

Sessions and Cisco Live Online

If you’ve ever attended Cisco Live or other events like it, you’ll know it’s near impossible to schedule in all the breakout sessions that you want to attend. There are simply too many of them. I’ve had a couple of years where I was focused on a particular technology, mostly because of a specific planned project at my day job, but when I can I prefer to have as much variety in my schedule as possible. Cisco has made this far less stressful because selecting one session over another doesn’t mean I have to miss the content for the one I didn’t attend in person, it simply means I can view it later on Cisco Live Online (formerly Cisco Live 365). This is a fantastic resource all year long, and I find myself going back to watch and re-watch content from the various Cisco Live events worldwide.

This year’s sessions included some Collaboration, UCS, Virtualization, and Nexus sessions. Also, thanks to Robert Novak (@gallifreyan) over at rsts11.com I was provided a complimentary 4-hour lab, and I chose to attend the Intelligent WAN (IWAN) Hands-On Lab. The IWAN lab was fun, given that I got to spend some time working with gear and software that I don’t normally get to play with, particularly UCS-Express (in the form of ISR-2911′s with UCSe blades), and Cisco Prime Infrastructure. A lot of this lab focused on Cisco Prime and seemed more of a DMVPN lab mixed with some WAAS and QoS, but it was still a great learning experience.

 #CiscoChampions

Throughout the week there were some fantastic opportunities facilitated via the Cisco Champions group. These included an excellent (and revealing at times) team building event, a live Cisco Champions Radio episode hosted by Amy Lewis (@CommsNinja) in which a large number of us piled into the smallest room possible to record a really entertaining podcast, a tour of the Cisco NERV truck, and a briefing on the upcoming Cisco Modeling Labs (CML) product.

For me, these activities were more about connecting with a group of people who I’ve “met” through the Cisco Champions program via Google+, Twitter, and podcasts, but hadn’t yet met in person. I was absolutely blown away by the diversity of this group and the opportunity to meet face to face and share some conversation, some knowledge, and a quite a few good laughs as well.

CLUS2014_07 CLUS2014_06 CLUS2014_08

#BaconIT

The fine folks over at @CiscoDC along with infamous bacon advocate Amy Lewis hosted an awesome party at the Cable Car City Pub on Monday evening. This was a fun social event that gave everyone an opportunity to wind down after the first full day of sessions and enjoy meeting some more of the social media personalities, Cisco Champions, and Cisco staff. The evening included some bacon-related giveaways, including subscriptions to the bacon of the month club. There was even a food table replete with….bacon.

@CommsNinja tossing bacon to the huddled masses

@CommsNinja tossing bacon to the huddled masses

INE Rewired

INE once again hosted a customer appreciation event that included some excellent prizes (congrats to @bbaize on winning a Macbook Air!) and some more food and drinks. After mercilessly harassing Mark Snow (@highspeedsnow) and Brian McGahan (@brianmcgahan) I managed to procure one of the VIP tokens that provided access to an exclusive section of the Mezzanine Nightclub. They also used the evening to preview their upcoming revised and retooled training platform which promises to be a tremendous platform for studying and certification along your chosen Cisco track. The Rewired platform offers an interactive community approach to learning, including badges, achievements and looks to add a bit more “fun” to the task of studying for a Cisco exam. I’m really looking foward to the launch of this product, and attendees of the event were told they would have beta access sometime in the upcoming months.

Achievement Unlocked: VIP Coin

Achievement Unlocked: VIP Coin

Mezzanine Nightclub

Mezzanine Nightclub

 

Customer Appreciation Event

The annual CAE is always a great time, and this year was no exception. We invaded AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, and were treated to some awesome food, a few beverages, and live performances from Lenny Kravitz and Imagine Dragons. I would have loved to see Kravitz as the headliner, but then again I’m old. He played a fantastic show, playing many of his hits from the 90′s and 00′s. Imagine Dragons’ set got off to a rocky start when the power went out to their amplifiers, but after a brief “Please Standby” everything got back underway. The rocked out the remainder of the evening and the evening’s finale was a brilliant fireworks display launched from a ship in the San Francisco Bay beside the park.

 

IMG_1368

Myself and @pidooma

Party Tweeps

Party Tweeps

#BaconIT lady @CommsNinja

#BaconIT lady @CommsNinja

Birthday Hats

Birthday Hats

Lenny!

Lenny!

@Lauren and @ColdStorageGuy photobomb

Final Tweetup and Farewell

The Thursday of Cisco Live is always bittersweet as the final sessions of the week wrap up, the last of the prizes are given away at the World of Solutions, and everyone heads to the airport to scatter across the world back to their homes. This year was no exception.

The farewell Tweetup was held at the Social Media Hub Routed Bridge (no idea, ask @amyengineer) and everyone had an opportunity to take a few more photos, play a few more hands of Cards Against Humanity #CLUS, and say their goodbyes. As is tradition the group photo at the Cisco Live sign marked the end of the week, and I bid farewell to my fellow Twitterers, Champions, and friends, and headed to the airport.

Sayonara at The Sign

Sayonara at The Sign

Cisco Live 2014 was for me, the best Cisco Live yet. They seem to get better every year and I’m not quite sure how that happens, but it’s true. From the moment I left San Francisco I started to look forward to next year, and Cisco Live 2015 in San Diego.

See you there!

Cisco Live 2014 – #CL5K Information

For those still waiting on official word about the when and where of this year’s Cisco Live 5K Fun Run – here it is.

The run will take place Wednesday morning at 7am at Rincon Park. It’s pretty much straight up Folsom street from Moscone Center to the bay, and the park has a huge red and yellow bow & arrow sculpture to identify it. We will be running along the San Francisco Bay Trail to Pier 39 and back.

A map of the run can be found here: https://goo.gl/maps/MDqKP

The Embarcadero

Come and walk, run, heckle, prod, or anything else you can think of in support of this year’s run. It won’t be as crazy as the Bay to Breakers but it’s always a fun run with a group of great people.

All Aboard for SFO – Cisco Live 2014

Cisco Live 2014 is only two days away and although I like to think I’ve planned everything out well in advance, I’ll likely be doing a lot of last minute panicked preparation early Sunday before my flight.

This will be my fifth Cisco Live, my first one being the 2010 event in Las Vegas. Things have changed for me significantly since that first conference, and every year it just seems to get better and better. To be honest it’s become the one networking/professional development event I absolutely cannot miss every year, such that I pay for the majority of the trip myself.

Budget Scarcity

Working as I do in the public sector, where budgets seemingly shrink every year, while costs and expenses rise, I do not have the benefit of a large professional development budget. Much of the training and certification I have done over the years has been self-paced, self-funded, and conducted in my home office and lab. This includes the costs incurred for Cisco Live. What budget I do get every year (usually between $1000-$1500 CAD) I put towards the conference registration costs. This does help put a dent in even the early-bird conference price of $1995 USD, and I appreciate the fact that I get anything at all towards my continued education.

Travel can be expensive but I’ve managed to get pretty thrifty over the years, and more often than not find pretty good deals on hotels that aren’t part of the Cisco Live “official hotel list” but are in close proximity to the conference location and other amenities.

In 2011 for example, I was able to stay The Excalibur in Las Vegas which is literally across the street from the Luxor, Mandalay Bay, and MGM Grand, which are all official Cisco Live hotels, for about 1/3 the price. The tram running along the strip provided fast transport over to the Mandalay Bay for the conference events.

This year was an even bigger challenge with hotel prices in San Francisco bordering on insane. There was no possible way I was going to be able to attend this year if I had to book one of the official hotels which ranged from $170 to $399 per night.

My schedule is so packed every year I actually don’t spend a lot of time in my hotel, so it’s basically a place to sleep for a few hours before beginning another day of social networking, learning, and fun. With that in mind I booked a room at a hostel-style hotel called The Winsor that’s a decent walking distance away from The Moscone Center. I’ll have a small room with pretty much just a bed and a sink, and a shared bathroom. The reviews on various travel sites said the neighborhood wasn’t great but the hotel was decent, even if it looks a bit shady.

Some examples:

“Decent hotel, but absolutely scary street/neighborhood!”

“The hotel is of course very basic, but definitely acceptable (including in terms of cleanliness) given the excellent price.”

The proximity of liquor, beer, and cigarettes will be convenient, at least.

The proximity of liquor, beer, and cigarettes will be convenient, at least.

 Evolution

The first year I attended Cisco Live in 2010 I was purely alone. I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t very active on social media, and I had no idea what to expect from the conference. I focused on maximizing my time in breakout sessions with the intent of learning as much as possible in the week I was there. I lurked on Twitter and saw there seemed to be a community within a community here and quickly saw some of the same names interacting with each other, with mention of “tweetup” and “Tom’s Corner”.

In between 2010 and 2012 I spent a lot of time following some of the more active names from that first event. People like Tom Hollingsworth (@networkingnerd), Jeff Fry (@fryguy_pa), Amy Arnold (@amyengineer), Stephen Foskett (@sfoskett), Tony Mattke (@tonhe), Eric Peterson (@ucgod), and Jennifer Huber (@jenniferlucille) just to name a few.

I discovered the Packet Pushers podcast where a lot of these folks got together with Greg Ferro (@etherealmind) and Ethan Banks (@ecbanks) to discuss current topics and trends in networking, and started listening to the back catalog of recordings.

I learned about Tech Field Day and it’s delegate program and with it another list of names of people I started to follow and interact with on Twitter.

As I built both the group of people that I followed on Twitter as well as those who followed me, I began to feel a real sense of community within these groups and carried that forward into the next visits to Cisco Live.

 #CiscoChampion

By 2013 in Orlando the trip to Cisco Live felt less like attending a trade show and more like a reunion with a large group of friends. “Tom’s Corner” had evolved into the Social Media Lounge, and it was clear that Cisco was putting a lot of effort into social media and this large subculture of networkers who populated it. The welcome Tweetup was the largest it had ever been and once again it was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with old friends and meet new people as the social media crowd grew even larger.

2013 Orlando Social Media Lounge

I had been approached by Cisco’s Social Media Marketing Manager just before the Orlando show as a candidate for the Cisco Champions program. I welcomed this as an opportunity to continue to grow with social media as a platform to discuss, inform and debate current topics within the networking world. I’ve been able to participate in some great podcast, product briefings and even managed to have a few blog articles published:

http://blogs.cisco.com/perspectives/los-angeles-unified-school-district-ipads-for-everyone/

http://blogs.cisco.com/perspectives/los-angeles-unified-school-district-hack-the-ipads/

http://blogs.cisco.com/perspectives/ioe-napkin-math-and-your-daily-commute/

Now in 2014, the #CiscoChampions group has grown quite a lot and there are several events scheduled for us in San Francisco. My schedule now is even more jam-packed between regular sessions, social media events, Cisco Champion events, Tech Field Day round-tables and somewhere in there, time to eat and sleep.

 Other Events

The Customer Appreciation Event is going to be excellent this year with Lenny Kravitz as the headliner, and Imagine Dragons in support. The #BaconIT meetup with Amy Lewis (@commsninja) should prove to be another great evening with friends and bacon (and maybe a beverage or two). And I’m also looking forward to running in another 5K with Colin McNamara (@colinmcnamara) in support of the Wounded Warriors Project. Rumor has it we might be running across the Golden Gate Bridge!

I’m truly looking forward to another great year, and can’t wait to see you there!

2013 Orlando Sign Photo

Cisco Live 2014 CAE – A Canuck Connection!

Pretty much every year, the Cisco Live Team post a poll on the Cisco Live web site to potential registrants asking which band they would like to see for the Customer Appreciation Event (CAE). I’m not sure if the polls are a short list of potential performers or if they are just gauging interest in a particular genre of entertainment, but the options all seem to cover a fairly wide range of tastes.

Before attending my first Cisco Live I can remember watching a few YouTube videos of some earlier CAEs, one of which featured none other than KISS. My I was stunned and excited by the opportunity to be relatively up close and personal with a private show by one of the world’s greatest entertainment groups.

The poll one year included Lenny Kravitz, who I voted for, and the results seemed to be largely in favor of him being the CAE performer. Alas that year Kravitz was not ultimately the chosen act, but another great CAE was enjoyed by all in attendance nonetheless. (I had heard rumor that Kravitz had been lined up that year, but a scheduling conflict forced him to back out and another band was selected)

This year I am very excited about the announcement of the entertainment for the CAE. As a proud Canadian, there is a very special link with the artist and my country, even though he resides in the United States. I also know that many of my fellow Cisco Live attendees, bloggers and #CiscoChampions have all been begging for him to be the CAE headliner.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this years Customer Appreciation Event headliner:    JUSTIN BIEBER!

beiber

I may have to turn comments *off* for this post.

Okay, it’s not The Biebs, although I know there are some of you who are disappointed. The actual CAE artist does have a Canadian connection however in that he recorded an excellent cover of The Guess Who’s “American Woman” in 2000.  The Guess Who, not to be confused with England’s “The Who”, are from my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and I list them among Canada’s greatest accomplishments along with poutine, Pamela Anderson Dan Ackroyd, and The Canadarm.

This year in San Francisco for the 25th Anniversary, the CAE headliner will in fact be Lenny Kravitz at AT&T Park – Home of the San Francisco Giants!

Kravitz is a pure entertainer and an extremely talented artist. Not only as a musician but more recently as an actor. Kravitz is multi-talented singing lead and backup vocals and in many cases recording guitar, bass and drums for his own albums. As a hack musician drummer myself for many years, it’s easy to truly appreciate the dedication to one’s art that this diversity of skill requires.

As networkers and IT professionals, we are all equally dedicated to our own “art” and in the constantly changing world of data networking, we too must continue to develop additional skills and ‘learn new instruments’ as it were, in order to continue to be the best in our fields.

This year at Cisco Live and at the CAE, we are provided not only an opportunity to connect, reconnect, and learn from each other, but to sit back, relax, and enjoy some down time with our peers and colleagues, while enjoying what will likely be an evening of epic entertainment that could easily rival all previous CAEs.

Not to be overlooked is this years special guest – Imagine Dragons! Their 2012 debut release “Night Visions” has had phenomenal success and afforded the band many accolades in 2013, including “Breakthrough Band of 2013″ by Billboard and their hit “Radioactive” named “the biggest rock hit of the year” by Rolling Stone.

If you haven’t already, head over to the Cisco Live US page and get registered. Trust me when I say it’s an event you do not want to miss!

This announcement totally makes up for my accomodations!

Winsor Hotel

Note: This is not an official Cisco Live hotel, but I’m traveling on my own dime this year and the San Francisco hotels are pricey

I look forward to seeing you there!

One Way Audio on Cisco 7925G Wireless Phones

Knock Knock.

Who’s there?

Voice over Wireless LAN.

Voice over Wireless LAN who?

….

….

Hello?

….

Hello?

Working with a multitude of different technologies is great. I love it, for the most part. That being said sometimes it can be really frustrating as well. I am neither an expert in voice nor wireless technologies, but I am often times the primary ‘go-to’ person for both of these subjects at work. Now I like working with voice, it’s fun and presents its own interesting challenges sometimes, but for the size of our VoIP deployment, it pretty much just works. Wireless, while still fun to play around with, tends to be my nemesis, as I just haven’t had enough time to really delve into its deeper mysteries. Now, on that rare occasion when the problem is related to both voice AND wireless, things start to get really interesting.

I recently deployed some Cisco 7925G Wireless IP Phones to a number of our sites’ custodians as a replacement for cellular phones. They need to be mobile around the facility in order to troubleshoot issues in places that don’t have a hard line, but don’t require a full-blown cell phone.

Now some caveats; we don’t have sufficient AP coverage for a full-blown VoWLAN deployment, and during testing with the 7925G I did notice some interruption in the call stream when roaming from AP to AP. We also no longer have Cisco as our wireless vendor so I thought there may be some interoperability issues, but felt that 802.11 was after all, a standard right? What could possibly go wrong?

First Reports

The first rumblings of a problem came from some of the custodians saying they had ‘intermittent’ audio. I assumed (somewhat incorrectly) that this meant they were trying to wander around the building or even outside, treating the phone as a cell-phone, and losing sufficient signal from a nearby AP to maintain the call.

I explained to anyone with issues that these were not in fact cellular phones and they needed to stay within reasonable range of an AP to keep their call going. We would add capacity to the wireless as needed in the future, but for now it was the best we could do.

Sent Back

Next I received one of the phones, and it’s charger, in inter-office mail with a sticky note saying simply: “doesn’t work”. I tested the phone with a few different numbers and it seemed fine. I sent it back to the person who mailed it with a note: “works fine”.

As it turns out, I was wrong.

Definitely Broken

I next heard from another analyst who said all calls from the phone at one site were completely dropping. No audio at all. We tested and found that audio coming from the 7925′s was fine, but they were having problems receiving audio.  The initial call setup seemed fine and there were a few seconds of clear two-way audio, but almost immediately the receiving audio was failing.

One-way audio – the bane of any voice engineer’s existence. Coupled with the fact that these were wireless phones as well, made troubleshooting the issue even more complicated.

I had initially thought this might be a QoS issue but the wired phones at the site were fine. Wireshark confirmed QoS wasn’t an issue but I could clearly see in the captures that the RTP to the handsets stopped shortly after calls began, resulting in one-way audio.

Viewing the Call Statistics on the phone also confirmed there was definitely some sort of problem. Jitter was extremely high, Receiver lost Packets were many, and the MOS was around 2.

7925G-Before

Settings

I began playing around with the WLAN settings on the 7925G handsets, trying to find what might be causing the issue. Some suggestions from folks on Twitter pointed at forcing the phones to use 2.4 GHz only, while others insisted they would work fine on 5 GHz. Hard setting the frequency didn’t appear to resolve anything, so I continued the ever popular troubleshooting technique of randomly turning options on and off.

I came across the setting labeled “Call Power Save Mode” which was set by default to “U-APSD/PS-Poll” and also presented the option “None”.

Now, I had no idea what this option did, but I set it to “None” and performed a test call. Lo and behold, the issue appeared to go away. Two way audio persisted through the entire call, and call statistics on the handset were dramatically improved. Jitter was down to 2/22, only 2 dropped packets, and MOS was up to 4.5.

7925G-After

U-APSD/PS-Poll

So what exactly does this option do? U-APSD or Unscheduled Asynchronous Power Save Delivery is a mechanism that allows frames to be queued on a wireless access point in order to save power on a wireless client. When there is no data for the client to receive, it can go back into standby mode, allowing it to save power and battery life.

From Cisco’s Voice over Wireless LAN Design Guide:

The primary benefit of U-APSD is that it allows the voice client to synchronize the transmission and reception of voice frames with the AP, thereby allowing the client to go into power-save mode between the transmission/reception of each voice frame tuple. The WLAN client frame transmission in the access categories supporting U-APSD triggers the AP to send any data frames queued for that WLAN client in that AC. A U-APSD client remains listening to the AP until it receives a frame from the AP with an end-of-service period (EOSP) bit set. This tells the client that it can now go back into its power-save mode. This triggering mechanism is considered a more efficient use of client power than the regular listening for beacons method, at a period controlled by the delivery traffic indication map (DTIM) interval, because the latency and jitter requirements of voice are such that a WVoIP client would either not be in power-save mode during a call, resulting in reduced talk times, or would use a short DTIM interval, resulting in reduced standby times. The use of U-APSD allows the use of long DTIM intervals to maximize standby time without sacrificing call quality. The U-APSD feature can be applied individually across access categories, allowing U-APSD can be applied to the voice ACs in the AP, but the other ACs still use the standard power save feature.

Best Intentions

So why did turning this feature off resolve the one-way audio problem? It seems this is a technology that should help rather than hinder a wireless VoIP call. In this case it appears to do nothing but cause problems.

I can only speculate here because my understanding of this particular mechanism is limited, but I would suspect that even though U-APSD is a standard as part of IEEE 802.11e, the implementations may be somewhat disparate across vendors. Cisco in this case makes the phone and the wireless network is Ruckus. I suspect if I were using Cisco wireless gear, this wouldn’t be an issue. That’s not to blame Ruckus for the problem of course, it just seems to be one of those minor differences in how vendors implement certain technologies.

This brings about an entirely different topic of discussion, but if this is the case, can anything be done to hold vendors accountable for the little tweaks and changes to technologies that are supposed to be standards designed to improve, not prevent interoperability?