WLAN Controllers and Fast Secure Roaming

WLAN Controllers and Fast Secure Roaming

By CWNP On 01/03/2012 - 38 Comments

The title is deceptive. Now that I have you thinking about WLAN controllers and fast secure roaming, my goal in this short post is to point out why WLAN controllers do not sufficiently address fast secure roaming. Why must I write such an article? Because in the past six months, I’ve read article after article claiming that the cure to fast secure roaming problems is a WLAN controller. IT IS NOT! I have nothing against controllers per se; I just want to set the record straight. My point is actually twofold.

Point #1
Even with a WLAN controller, the state of fast secure roaming in Wi-Fi is quite poor. Today’s roaming options are sub-optimal (understatement alert!!!) and any significant solutions have been slow, slow, slow to market, like watching a cactus grow. WLAN controllers don’t fix this because they can’t control the clients or the client vendors. Inconsistent clients are typically the real problem!
Point #2
The best roaming options today are not a result of controllers. Preauthentication is actually not a terrible protocol. It’s a little inefficient, but it would work if folks would use it. It works on any architecture (autonomous included), but I know of only one infrastructure vendor and very few client vendors that support it. OKC is a solid protocol, but again, very few clients support it.
Cisco’s proprietary CCKM protocol (part of the CCX program) happens to use a WLAN controller, but that’s not why it works. It works because Cisco has market share and can influence client vendors to implement the feature. Any vendor with any architecture could specify a proprietary protocol that works, but none other than Cisco have the business muscle to make it useful, and Cisco happens to be a controller vendor.
Meru’s proprietary single channel design essentially eliminates the need for client control of roaming. They remove the weak link in the chain. Meru’s design is more dependent on a controller, but once again, the fast secure roaming problem is not solved by a WLAN controller. For Meru, it is solved by using a single channel and a single BSSID across all APs.
And I suppose I should make the obligatory point that any other good-but-not-widely-or-consistently-supported roaming protocols work equally well with a cooperative autonomous WLAN (i.e. Aerohive). WLAN controllers simply do not fix the roaming problem.
The Solution
The Wi-Fi Alliance members could help the disheveled state of roaming by adopting and promoting Voice Enterprise. Voice Enterprise has technical merit, is based on public specifications (802.11r and 802.11k), would lead to consistent implementation, and would drive better adoption among vendors by virtue of Wi-Fi Alliance certification. But lo, we wait.
Final Comments and Suggestions (FCS)
WLAN controllers fix the roaming problem. WLAN controllers fix the roaming problem. WLAN controllers fix the roaming problem. WLAN controllers fix the roaming problem….. You can keep saying it, but it’s still not true.
WLAN controllers are not the solution to fast secure roaming. They’re not. The real solutions are simple enough:
  1. Use PSKs,
  2. Build a widely supported, publicly documented, certifiable, efficient set of protocols for key management across an Extended Service Set (i.e. Voice Enterprise), or
  3. Use proprietary protocols
Controllers aren’t bad, but buying one won't fix your roaming problems.
  Tagged with: marketing, roaming, Mobility, WLAN controllers, fast transition

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01/25/2012 at 09:56am
Amen. The thing I can't understand is why no one is pushing Android and IOS devices to support CCKM or 802.11r. The vowifi handset market would dry out within a year Apple or Google came out with an enterprise level SIP dialing setup that could fast roam. I'd buy a million

Howard Higgins Says:
01/04/2012 at 17:11pm
My problem with "voice enterprise" is the name.
I have several devices that need fast roaming - but they have nothing to do with "voice". Or the CTIA for that matter.
I need WMM-PS and therefore WMM for power savings. Now I need another certification (voice-ent.) to get/claim decent roaming?
Every WFA certification costs more $ and time. Multiply that by a number of models and things have really gotten out of hand.
I suggest a new classification - something like "what Wi-Fi should have done to begin with", and wrap all this up in one new certification.
Afterall, who would want any kind of device that burns up batteries, and can't roam properly anyway?

Daniel Bui Says:
01/04/2012 at 02:42am
Finally, Someone has the cajones to tell it like it is! Fast roaming is definitely a client issue. The closest company that got it right is Meru but I never thought the solution would be scalable. You're right, if we could get the WiFi alliance to certify fast roaming?

01/03/2012 at 18:20pm
Here, here! Standards-based fast roaming and adoption is sorely needed.
I would also point out that Cisco's CCKM worked long before controllers existed on Autonomous APs. Let's not forget that Cisco's WLCCP protocol and CCKM were "cooperative-control" light. Okay, not even quite that, but on the right track at least ;)
Andrew vonNagy

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