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« Pass-One, Mark One | Main | News for 5/1/2002 »

April 30, 2002

Sputnik: Aggregation, Security, Clarity

Sputnik's initial launch (bad joke intended) presaged what appeared to be a new trend in inexpensive or free tools to transform cheap PCs and cheap access points or Wi-Fi cards into hot spots. Joltage and SOHO Wireless emerged from hiding around the same time, and while each company had a different aim, their approach was the same: focus on the software controls not the underlying hardware.

Sputnik's offering is open-source-based software that allows a PC plus a wireless card to be a self-standing, firewalled hot spot with quality of service (QoS) bandwidth throttling. Sputnik planned to let anyone who set up a Sputnik-based hot spot access all other points on this network for free, while charging the non-viral for access.

Today, the company made the announcement that they are focusing on a commercial product aimed at the enterprise, while continuing to support the free hot spot software. They also dropped plans to charge for the network.

I had a chance to talk with the three founders a couple of weeks ago, and that discussion is made more timely by today's announcements. I spoke with David LaDuke, Arthur Tyde, and David Sifry via conference call on April 12.

The talk with these three fellows was refreshing, as they have clearly paid attention to what's missing in wireless network administration: a single point of aggregation that allows a system administrator to avoid maintaining many different pieces of software, tables, and lists just to keep a consistent profile and robust security.

Sifry said that their stealth mode was abruptly turned off by a prominent mention in a New York Times article by John Markoff. "It wasn't our intention to go so public so soon."

Their initial product offering and approach made them seem as if they were planning on becoming another Wayport, but with a twist. However, Sifry said, "At the end of the day, we don't see ourselves as a service provider. We see ourselves as a software vendor, and specifically an enterprise vendor." (Today's announcement makes that much clearer, too.)

The basic Sputnik system they now call the Sputnik Community Gateway relies on a core platform that accomplishes several tasks; this core is also at the heart of the enterprise product.

First, it controls a radio, any radio, in true BSS mode, which is the infrastructure mode used by dedicated APs. Second, it uses firewall and throttling code to keep a local network fully isolated while allowing local users priority access. Third, the authentication system is independent of the device. Fourth, everything is tracked: usage by user and duration of sessions, and packets and bytes by user over the gateway.

Releasing the Community Gateway allowed Sputnik to get developers interested in the platform, as well as to let users stress test in heterogeneous environments. "Our goal is to see how" people would use it, Sifry said. As of April 12, over 200 developers had joined the Sputnik program, with 10 to 15 more joining daily.

The Sputnik Enterprise system adds a variety of tools to reduce cost of ownership and tie together equipment made by different companies, and installed with different configurations.

First off, the Enterprise version can be run as a radio-less server: that is, it can treat any APs on a network as dumb slaves, turning them into bridges (instead of routers, as they can sometimes be used) with authentication, access, and other management handled through the Enterprise server.

This option allows a company to keep its existing hardware in place and plop the Enterprise server in as an overlay. (Think: one server to rule them all...)

The Enterprise server offers a hot fail-over option: two identical boxes configured as master/slave can automatically change roles if the master dies.

In a feature that made me blurt, "You're the Borg!" while laughing, the Enterprise server offer "rogue AP detection." Sifry explained that many organizations find themselves with unapproved APs many of which offer a gaping hole in enterprise (not USS Enterprise) security.

The Enterprise server can monitor both the wired and wireless sides of a network for new APs. The system administrator has two options: it can "notify the network administrator whenever one of these rogue APs comes online," Sifry said, or, in the Borg move, it can configure it so that it's part of the Sputnik Enterprise network.

(This is a neat trick: because it's monitoring constantly for MAC addresses in the right ranges for APs, it can grab a device while it's still in its default mode as it comes online. Sputnik monitors MACs but also sends SNMP requests to test whether they're the devices they think they are.)

On the wireless side, the server checks the signal to noise ratio on networks that appears, and then examines ESSIDs and interference to inform a sysadmin.

The server has plug-ins to work with popular network management tools, like Unicenter and Tivoli.

Tyde pointed out that some sites, like Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, don't allow Wi-Fi at all. "I could see people deploying Sputnik gateways" just for detection, he said.

The security services attached to he server include plug-ins and APIs for biometric devices, SmartCards, etc. A different piece of hardware, a Sputnik authentication server, can talk to a single signon server based on Active Directory, LDAP, RADIUS, and so on, to handle the interaction. They offer an 802.1x plug-in, but it's not part of their reference platform at this time.

The authentication ties in with bandwidth throttling, allowing different user policies for use and allowed bandwidth.

Sputnik has committed to continuing to update their community software, and you can see why: it's both a way to get purchasers and developers to test the waters without a commitment, and it's a good-will gesture to the community of developers that underlies a chunk of their code.

Sputnik's software might find its way into all manner of other products, not just a software package. The company is talking to AP makers, who might want to use Sputnik as the layer their customers deal with instead of the typically poor interface the microcode firmware developers place on top.

Likewise, the company sees themselves with a strong role in the transportation and logistics industry where a variety of devices, not just Wi-Fi cards, will be connecting through all kinds of edge networks and need cheap, robust integration.

I don't know anything about Sputnik's financial viability or business model. I do know that they've produced a compelling offering which, if it stands the test of enterprise-grade labs and hard-nosed CIOs, could help substantially reduce the complexity and cost of wireless/edge network administration. This, in turn, could lead to greater penetration and lower costs in the industry as a whole.

Best of all, based on what I've seen, they may set a new high-water mark for creating configuration tools that work, and that average human beings can understand.

Yo Ho Ho: Pirate Networks

A Pirate Network Becomes Big Business in Der Spiegel (Germany): reporter Carsten Volkery files another excellent article, although with a little more sensational tone, for German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel (The Mirror).

Public wireless LANs and UMTS -- (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System or 3G) -- have been, up to now, two different worlds. On one side, leaping into the fray, are 20-something broadband pirates, who share their fast Internet access with the public, often for free. On the other side, stand multinational telecommunciations companies, which spent billions for the exclusive right to a radio freuqency. In the former world, a base station with an antenna costs a few hundred dollars; in the latter, the cost is in the thousands.

Volkery goes on to talk about the entrance of cell companies into the hot spot market, citing Voicestream Wireless's purchase of MobileStar assets. (Have to love the German word for bankrupt: bankrot, like a rotted bank.) He also mentions British Telecomm's recent announcement to roll out 4,000 hot spots, and AT&T Wireless's intent to launch a service, too.

"Within two years, all cell companies will certainly be in the Wi-Fi business," predicted Glenn Fleishman, a veteran Wi-Fi expert and editor of the Web site. Volkery writes that the new magic word is Integration.

The first phase: Voicestream will integrate its cell and Wi-Fi billing. In the second phase, cell and Wi-Fi will tie together into a single user profile using a SIM card (as with GSM). In the thir phase, a user can wander in and out of regions and have their service automatically switch.

The article continues in discussing current Wi-Fi limitations: short range, and hot spots tend to be single, isolated points. Handing off from one service to the next is a problem, but IBM and Nokia are working on it. (A nice image here, too: hot spots are popping up like mushrooms out of the ground.)

Matt Peterson is quoted on the lack of awareness of service. For hobbyists, it's not a problem because they're working on it purely for fun.

Many observers recall the Wi-Fi boom as part of the Intenet bubble. Not enough, apparently, as the venture capitalists have discovered it as their new darling. The companies themselves may be too naive, too, Peterson says, who himself is a consultant. "Many Wi-Fi startups have the dotcom mentality. They have no customers, and are spending money like there's no tomorrow."

That can't last. It may last until the largest telecomms finally start their marketing campaigns, Fleishman believes, for America to become a nation of Wi-Fi users. "Millions of people already have network cards in their laptops. They would be ecstatic if they were to know abuot Wi-Fi."

News for 4/30/2002

Wi-Fi Metro and Gatespeed launch San Jose HotZone: the two companies add this second multi-block coverage area to their plate, having already unwired Palo Alto's main drag.