Know When It’s OK To Have a “Plan B”

By Lee Badman, Blog Contributor
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If you do something the same way over and over again, it stands to reason that you should get good at it. In IT, there's a lot to be said for keeping things uniform, whether it be the methodical implementation of a carefully managed Active DIrectory or the same wireless network topology deployed at hundreds of branches of a retailer. When you can make it the same every time, it's easy to support and talk about. But it might also work against you if you get so comfortable with doing things one way, and one way only. Yeah- I'm talking to YOU, One-Trick Pony Boy…you know who you are.

 Don't get me wrong, I dig the oft-repeated as well. It makes life a lot easier when you have a big environment and small staff. My own very big wireless environment is carefully tended, and technicians and engineers alike don't have to think all that heard about the building blocks and logic in play, because we don't quickly embrace making exceptions, except where needed. Which brings me to the point of this article: sometimes exceptions are needed. It's a complex IT world, and "total environmental uniformity" can be a pretty tough line to walk sometimes.

In my main world, I have 14 controllers, almost 4,000 access points, a handful of SSIDs, and a generally well-run environment. Clients know what to expect of the WLAN and those of us who support it, there are few surprises in the course of a wireless day, week, or year, and given the complexity of Enterprise Wi-FI, I (and my bosses) are pretty happy. But I also learned years ago that you have to break your own rules sometimes. You have to stretch your paradigm, move your cheese a bit, and do things that you don't generally want most of your users to know about. This is where my branch sites come in.

For all of it's cost and horsepower,  my primary campus solution is cumbersome when trying to extend it to the branch. yes, my vendor has a prescribed "branch mode", but I don't like it for a number of reasons and so choose not to use it. Just because it's available on a system we already have is not a compelling enough reason to use something when a better fit carries a different logo. I found an alternate solution that works far better for my domestic and international branch needs, and allows for the nuances (and we have plenty) that can make one far-away space different from another. We end up having a second management console, but I have found that to be the only downside of opting for Plan B in this case.

Then there are the user devices. Sadly, the client device space has never been more fragmented- even though they are all Wi-Fi devices from the 802.11 perspective, everything from required data rates to supported security types is all over the map (I'd love to see the Wi-Fi Alliance step in and clean up this mess with "requirements" for a device to be considered suitable for enterprise use) for many of the oddball devices that users bring. This client chaos means you're either telling users "no" to an awful lot of requests for cool things like getting Google Glass on the network (shame on you Google- put some stinkin' 802.1x support in your pricey toy for Pete's sake), or you're looking at a re-architecting of either your topology or onboarding magic to let the occasional one-off onto the WLAN. Or, you get creative- with quietly issued "free pass" configurations that are made with the requisite "you better not tell anyone about this" threats. Sure, you'd rather not do it, but these can also translate into huge wins on the relationship-building front and yield some serious interpersonal capital.

Thankfully, the options for handling BYOD challenges and user oddities are getting more robust, but there's always something waiting to throw you for a loop. Where once upon a time I used to grimace and mutter "military language" under my breath when the weird stuff popped up, I can now admit to actually feeling a little flicker of happiness at opportunities to flex my creativity. I'm highly cognizant of regulatory requirements and policies that have zero wiggle room, but I also know where my WLAN's little leveragable nooks and crannies are, and am glad to be able to make an otherwise dejected user happy now and then. Time has taught me to keep it between the lines, except when you just can't. In those cases, responsible flexibility is in order. Can you relate? What's your own story on straying from the norm out of necessity?