The Problem With “Free”.

It’s rare to have a day go by during which I don’t hear or read about some product that a vendor is now ‘giving away’ or moving to a ‘freemium’ model. In some of the more contentious verticals in the IT industry this seems to be a key tactic for winning new customers and providing value-add for existing ones.

I’m not in marketing or sales, so I can only assume here that the premise behind these gratuitous offerings is to have new, potential customers try the product, fall in love with it, and want to then add more of that company’s products to their infrastructure. There is also a tiny voice in my head that suggests perhaps these organizations might also want their ‘free’ product to become so critical to your operation, that should they decide to charge a fee or licensing for said product at some point in the future, that you’d be forced to pay because it has become something you simply couldn’t live without.

Ultimately the short or long-term goal of offering these products doesn’t really matter. What matters is there is a very big problem with these free products:

They’re free.

They don’t generate revenue, at least directly, for the vendor providing them. This means they are, in all aspects, simply a cost center…a money sink. An expense that perhaps proves the old saying that “you have to spend money to make money”. But the real issue here for you or I as a potential user, or implementer of these products, is that it is very difficult to get any support.

Hello, Bonjour

This particular rant blog post is centered around one such product that everybody seems to be racing to give away. If you, like me, work in an environment that is moving to support the BYOD craze and have anything other than one large, flat network, then Apple’s Bonjour is probably driving you nuts and causing you to sprout gray hair, if you have any left.

Because this particular protocol and all of it’s relatives (mDNS, Zeroconf) can’t communicate across layer 3 boundaries (they have a TTL of 1) when someone on your BYOD wifi wants to talk to the Apple TV on your corporate wifi, you need something to broker that connection.  Enter the Bonjour Gateway (BG).

Aerohive was first to announce and make available their BG product in early 2012. It is built into their HiveOS on any Aerohive access point, or as a virtual machine that will run on VMware. It’s free up to 2 instances of the virtual appliance. I don’t know what the cost might be for anyone wishing to use more than 2, but I would imagine this is an opportunity to sell actual Aerohive hardware to a potential customer.

Cisco has included it as part of their Wireless Lan Controller (WLC) software beginning with version 7.4.  This isn’t free, per se, but is obviously a valuable addition for any existing customer.

Ruckus announced in January 2013 their SmartWay™ technology as “beyond bonjour bridging”, and would be available Q2. Again, this is only free in the sense that existing customers would not have to pay for the software upgrade to their existing controllers.

A quick Google search at some other vendor offerings show that pretty much everyone in the wireless space is offering support for Bonjour in some way.

I may be wrong about this but it seems to me that providing a solution for this issue in enterprise networks is/was a priority for each of these vendors. Why then has my experience with getting one of these platforms working been such a disaster?

Aerohive

If you don’t already follow Andrew von Nagy on Twitter (@revolutionwifi), you should. He is a true wifi evangelist and an excellent resource for keeping up-to-date on all things 802.11. His twitter feed was very active with the announcement of the release of Aerohive’s BG.

Working in a K-12 education environment we had already identified this as a need. Staff and students wanted to take advantage of AirPrint and AirPlay and we had to find a solution. I quickly signed up for my free Aerohive BG and HiveManager account.  Installation was easy as it comes in the form of an OVA. It’s pretty much ‘drop it into VMware’ and you are ready to go.

I had some problems with devices being able to see the AirPrint and AirPlay services across subnets. After some tinkering I decided to email Aerohive at the provided “free_bonjour_support@aerohive.com” address with my issue. That email must have ended up in the bit bucket because I received no reply.  I sent out a tweet about a week later asking @Aerohive how long one could expect to wait for support for the BG.  That too was met with silence. Two weeks later I was rather frustrated and sent out another tweet, this one a little more vitriolic:

“Going nowhere fast with Aerohive’s free bonjour gateway. Anyone have alternative suggestions? (That work)”

Now it should be noted that I’m in Canada and this tweet was sent out on November 22nd, 2012 – US Thanksgiving.

Andrew von Nagy responded via twitter and helped me out with some troubleshooting. I have to throw out a big thanks to him for taking the time on a holiday to offer some support.

On that same day, I received a reply to my original email (unsure if Andrew had anything to do with this) and began working with the online support to get the BG working.

A short 10 weeks later, I had resolved the issue (on my own) and closed the support request with Aerohive.  From the original email on November 5th to resolution on January 10th….granted there are a few holidays in there…but that’s a long time to get an issue with an initial configuration resolved.

Ruckus

Just around the same time (January 2013) I managed to get that first BG working, we received word from our current wireless vendor, Ruckus, that they too were working on a BG solution. This was direct from David Callisch, VP of Marketing for Ruckus Wireless. He even offered to let us beta test the new firmware. This is great news! Being able to implement this solution on infrastructure we already own and manage should be quick and easy, right?

It’s mid May, and we still haven’t received the beta firmware.

Also, Ruckus recently pulled their latest 9.6 firmware off their support site, so I have a feeling 9.7 and SmartWay™ are going to miss their targeted Q2 release.

“Ruckus    Wireless    has    decided    to    remove    the    9.6.0.0.264    release    for    ZoneDirector    while    we    investigate    an    issue    that    was    discovered    after    the    release.”

Aerohive Revisited

In April I received an email from Aerohive that outlined some major bug fixes and enhancements to their free BG.  While I had been able to get it working with AirPlay somewhat in my previous attempt we had never been able to get AirPrint to work properly. I hoped that this news would mean we could get both pieces to function properly.

Having deleted the VM for the original installation of Aerohive’s BG, attempted to reinstall it, only to be told that my serial # had already been activated and that I could not reactivate it.  Ok, easy fix, right?  I  fired off an email to “free_bonjour_support@aerohive.com” and explained my situation and asked if I could have a new key or the original key re-enabled.

That email went out April 19th, and I have yet to get any sort of reply.

Free Should Not Mean “free from support”

If these value-added features, or in some cases, fully ‘free’ products are meant to drive potential customers to become paying customers and/or if these products are meant to keep existing customers as loyal, long-term customers with an existing vendor, then I would expect support be as agile and attentive as it would be for any other product or offering from these same vendors.

I shouldn’t be left waiting for an email that never comes, and I certainly shouldn’t have to resort to social media shaming to get action from a vendor. Sadly it seems to be the most effective method of getting things moving, but it should be a last resort not the primary method of seeking resolution.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much from a free product or feature, and I may be misinterpreting the purpose of these add-ons as marketing/sales tools. I might be naive in believing that any truly ‘free’ product is going to become a key part of my infrastructure and solve a major technical hurdle for my users. I can only hope there is actually some sort of benevolent, beneficial reason for vendors to offer these solutions, and hope that they are able to provide some better support in the future.

Otherwise, there are truly free and open products like Avahi that are able to quickly and easily deploy mDNS service discovery options across subnets. If you know a little Linux…

Note: During the writing of this post I had been contacted by our local Aerohive rep who caught wind of a Tweet I sent out yesterday about my BG issue.  He’s managed to get me a new serial # for our BG so I can happily reinstall it and give it another go.  Social media wins again!

Tony’s Discount Switch Emporium

Random Acts of (dis)Connectivity

Summer time is busy time.  July and August, when all the staff and students are out enjoying their vacation, the IT department for a public school division is hard at work.  It’s one of the rare opportunities I’m allowed to unplug, replace, upgrade, reboot, and/or generally break our infrastructure, because nobody is using it.  So with a full plate of projects to complete before the end of August – when random things break “on their own” it sometimes causes some confusion.

Last week I had two wireless access points stop communicating to the controller at one of my sites.  Now, had there been people in the building I could have initially chalked this up to someone playing around in the wiring closet (we have switches in the weirdest, least secure places) or some kids throwing basketballs at them (yes, we have AP’s in the gyms), but I knew for a fact that this building was empty.  Our Facilities guys generally let us know if there is going to be some work done that is going to involve power going down, and this definitely wasn’t the case because the switch these 2 AP’s were on was up and running.

Strange Behaviour

I checked the switch and the ports that the AP’s were on showed up/up.  I could even ping their IP addresses.  What was strange was I could not ping the controller from that switch, nor could I ping the site gateway.  While the switch appeared up and functional for all intents and purposes, it appeared as though it was simply refusing to forward any traffic.  Then I checked the logs:

Aug  9 13:11:48: %ILET-1-AUTHENTICATION_FAIL: This Switch may not have been manufactured by Cisco or with Cisco’s authorization.  This product may contain software that was copied in violation of Cisco’s license terms.  If your use of this product is the cause of a support issue, Cisco may deny operation of the product, support under your warranty or under a Cisco technical support program such as Smartnet.  Please contact Cisco’s Technical Assistance Center for more information.

Dammit!  I knew that guy selling Cisco gear off the back of his unmarked white truck in the back alley was too good to be true!  His prices were so reasonable, even compared to our educational discount.  You know it’s so hard to work within an ever-decreasing hardware budget these days.

Alright in reality this batch of switches was bought from a legitimate Cisco Partner, one of Canada’s largest, and I hadn’t touched them since rolling them out a couple of summers ago.  They had the out of the box IOS 12.2(22)SE that they had shipped with, and I had about 30 of them around.  These were a batch of 2960S switches that were replacing some aging 2950 units that had calcified and grown long grey beards.

I started checking several others and quickly realized this was an isolated issue, limited to this one switch.

Licensing, Contracts, Smartnet, Oh My!

As part of our ongoing efforts to reduce expenses and save what little budget we have, we don’t get Smartnet on our access switches.  Ultimately all of the current 2xxx and 3xxx switches (sometimes referred to as the DSBU or Desktop Switching Business Unit switches) come with Cisco’s Enhanced Limited Lifetime Warranty which includes free IOS software updates.  The lifetime warranty is arguably Cisco’s response to pressure from HP’s long-standing lifetime warranty on their Procurve switches, and free IOS updates are always nice:

Software Update

Q. Can I obtain a “no additional cost” Cisco IOS® Software update for the Cisco Catalyst 2960 Series?
A. Yes. Cisco offers ongoing Cisco IOS Software updates for certain fixed-configuration and stackable Cisco Catalyst switches at no additional cost. For the life of the product, updates within the Cisco IOS Software package purchased (LAN Lite and LAN Base) will be made available.
Note that upgrades are different from updates. For example, an upgrade from the IP Base package to IP Services package provides significant new function; therefore, this upgrade requires the purchase of a software license upgrade. Updates are incremental software features and bug fixes that are released within a licensed Cisco IOS Software package.
This statement supersedes any previous warranty or software statement and is subject to change without notice.
Q. How do I get a “no additional cost” Cisco IOS Software update for the Cisco Catalyst 2960 Series?
A. Visit http://www.cisco.com, click “Downloads,” and select “Switch Software.” Downloading software requires a Cisco.com username and password. If you do not have a Cisco.com username, you can obtain one by clicking “Register” at the top of any Cisco.com Webpage.

Since we also keep a couple of spare switches around we don’t need overnight or next-business-day hardware replacement, Smartnet is an expense we can live without.  This sometimes causes issues when trying to RMA a product…

Someone Tell TAC

I found a few posts in the Cisco Support Community from folks who had run into this same issue.  It seemed a general consensus that there was no real solution.  It appears a small batch of 2xxx and 3xxx series switches were having this issue as far back as March of 2010.  There had been a Bug ID for the issue but the workaround had been to update the IOS to 12.2(44)SE or later, with no other workaround.  Since I was already past that update, I decided it would be easier to just call TAC.

Apparently nobody tells TAC about lifetime warranties or free software.  It always seems to turn into an argument with the front line support agents because as soon as they see there is no support contract, they won’t open a case.  It’s pretty binary in their world…no contract equals no support.

So how do you get support for a lifetime warranty product?  Just tell them you want to RMA the device.  Cisco is more than happy to simply drop ship a new switch than to waste time troubleshooting and that’s fine by me. I’m not a CCIE so I don’t get bumped up to a level 2 engineer right away, and I’d rather not waste time on the phone or via email with a level 1 engineer.  It’s in the best interest of everyone involved to just send me a replacement.

Good Experience

I’d have to say all of my experiences with Cisco’s RMA process have been excellent.  Even without 8×5 or NBD service, they are quick and painless to deal with.  A box arrives with a pre-paid UPS waybill and I happily ship the dead product back to them in the same box the replacement came in.  They even have a Canadian location I can ship to so I don’t have to fill out reams of Customs paperwork (I’m looking at you, Ruckus Wireless) or pay brokerage fees.

Thanks for reading.  As always feedback or comments are welcome.  I have to run, Tony is here with some deeply discounted UCS servers and Rolex watches I need to take a look at.