Duke CIO releases statement on wireless disruptions

Duke University has posted a statement on its Web site saying that a “particular set of conditions made the Duke wireless network experience some minor and temporary disruptions in service.” But the precise cause of the problem has not yet been disclosed, except to clear Apple’s iPhone of any responsibility.

The Web posting, by Tracy Futhey, Duke’s chief information officer, adds little detail to what exactly those conditions were that led to the outages, which began in the school’s extensive campus-wide wireless net just over a week ago. “These conditions involve our deployment of a very large Cisco-based wireless network that supports multiple network protocols,” according to the posting.

“Cisco has provided a fix that has been applied to Duke’s network and there have been no recurrences of the problem since,” Futhey continues. “We are working to fully characterize the issue and will have additional information as soon as possible.”

Futhey exonerated the Apple iPhone. “Earlier reports that this was a problem with the iPhone in particular have proved to be inaccurate,” Futhey writes.

Some of Duke’s IT staff initially thought the iPhone was to blame in some way, because at least two iPhones appeared to be disrupting access to up to 30 access points at a time, for about 10 minutes. The disruptions, nine as of Tuesday, July 17, were thought to result from very large quantities of Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) requests from the iPhones.

Earlier on Friday, July 20, a Cisco PR spokeswoman via a two-sentence e-mail message said that the networking problem experienced at Duke was “caused by a Cisco-based network issue.” When more details were requested, the spokeswoman replied in e-mail, “this is all we are disclosing at this time.”

Futhey’s statement criticized media coverage of the outages. “Some of the reports incorrectly made it sound as if our entire wireless network had collapsed,” according to the post, or suggested that the iPhone could not work correctly on Duke’s network, or that the network itself was "deficient in some way because the problem had not been encountered more broadly."

The story, first reported by Network World, was widely disseminated over the Web at dozens of tech sites, often sparking lengthy and heated comments from readers.

The celebrity status of the already iconic iPhone seemed to catalyze interest in the Duke disruptions. Early analysis of traffic trace data by Duke IT staff seemed to support the idea that the iPhone was, for some reason, and under certain conditions, triggering sporadic, temporary ARP floods, disabling groups of access points. Kevin Miller, assistant director of communications infrastructure with Duke’s Office of Information Technology, was firmly convinced that the iPhone was the instigator. “I don’t believe it’s a Cisco problem in any way, shape, or form,” he said at the time.

“Meanwhile, our Duke community should feel confident that both the Duke wireless network is fully functional, and the iPhone is fully operable within our environment,” Futhey writes in closing.

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