Oct 12 2010

Wireless Management Matures

New software tools offer network managers easier ways to measure performance and boost service levels.
November 2010 E-newsletter

Public Service

Wireless Management Matures

Maximizing 802.11n

Aruba's Manageable Gear

Wireless local area networks (WLANs) have come a long way since the 1990s when the technology was expensive and standards were new.

Much of wireless networking's success is that it's more stable, fast and cost-effective today, thanks to mature standards-based equipment. But just as important, network managers now have sophisticated, yet easy-to-use management and monitoring tools at their disposal -- and these tools are becoming even better at troubleshooting, measuring performance and boosting quality and service levels.

"For a period of time, wireless network management for manufacturers was a must-have sideshow," says Jim Frey, research director with Enterprise Management Associates.

"A lot of the technology needed to mature, and now it has," he says. "Wireless access points are supported by most of the management tools and brought under the same scrutiny and control as any other network node."

The tools, available from all the major providers of wireless networking equipment, including Aruba Networks, Cisco Systems and Meru Networks, now have features that let network managers configure, test and monitor performance of access points, as well as enforce policies and compliance across the WLAN. Air quality measurement, known as spectrum analysis, is now becoming an integral part of a WLAN, as opposed to a separate, manual tool.

Wireless in Washington

In the state of Washington, the teams of scientists, engineers, project managers and other staff members in the Department of Ecology all have access to a wireless LAN that lets them use the same computing resources they'd have if they were plugged into the wired network. There's also a second wireless network that lets approved guests, such as contractors, legislators, vendors and local government partners use the Internet.

The department's mission is to protect, preserve and enhance Washington's environment, working to prevent and clean up pollution and support sustainable communities and natural resources. The department's staff is spread across numerous facilities in the state, with the headquarters in Olympia, Wash.

Jim French, network manager and IT security officer with the Department of Ecology, says the wireless LAN consists of four Cisco Wireless Services Modules, which serve as controllers, and 136 Cisco Aironet access points. Each of the users' notebooks have Cisco Secure Services Clients, which let them boot up their notebooks wirelessly and authenticate through the controller and the Cisco Secure Access Control Server. To manage the wireless network, the department uses the Cisco Wireless Control System (WCS) for planning, deploying, monitoring, troubleshooting and reporting on the network. French takes advantage of a customizable dashboard that, among other things, can deliver fast access to actionable data about healthy and unhealthy events occurring on the network, as well as a summary of critical information, faults and alarms based on their severity.

Michigan is also using Cisco wireless networks in more than 60 buildings throughout the state, according to Rhea Linn, information technology specialist and wireless administrator with the state's Department of Technology Management and Budget. Linn oversees all the wireless initiatives in the state.

Like Washington's Department of Ecology, Michigan has both a secure network for staff, including those in such agencies as the Department of Human Services, the Department of Transportation, and the State Police, as well as a wireless network available to guests. On a typical day, several hundred users access the network, which consists of 430 Aironet access points and two controllers. Plans are under way to add three more controllers to increase capacity and redundancy, Linn says.

The statewide rollout was driven in part by state workgroups, but also by the state's desire to provide the best IT service it can. "When it comes to advanced technology like wireless, everybody sees it and wants it," Linn says. "They see wireless at Starbucks. And wireless improves our staff's flexibility and productivity. People can work wherever they want and need to work."

The wireless network management capabilities Cisco offers in the Wireless Control System provides access to information on the performance of the access points. "It helps us see the lay of the land, and troubleshoot," Linn explains.

Linn says she is also looking forward to adding Cisco's CleanAir technology, which is available now but requires updated code on the controllers and the use of Cisco's 3500 series access points, which Linn says also will be introduced into the state's wireless LAN topology.

200 meters
The range that 802.11n wireless devices can cover in a home, office or outdoors

Source: Wi-Fi Alliance

Initially, the state will install one per location at the smaller sites, and one per floor in buildings where multiple agencies share space. With the CleanAir technology, Cisco's WLAN solution can monitor, identify and classify sources of wireless interference; determine the threat level to network performance; and, if necessary, dynamically adjust the affected parts of the network around the trouble.

"This is a value add," Linn says. "It allows us to detect radio frequency interference and will enable us to manage our network better," she says.

That is especially important to Michigan's wireless LAN implementations in Lansing, where many of the state's main offices are located.

"In downtown, there are so many access points, in restaurants and other places, and they can interfere with what we have," Linn says.

She says the CleanAir technology will also eliminate the need to use the more manually intensive spectrum analyzers that typically have to be used at the source of the interference.

"It is such a hit-and-miss thing with spectrum analyzers," Linn explains. "By the time we deploy someone out in the field, the interference might be gone. Having the CleanAir technology will certainly be an asset."

Look for Integrated Spectrum Analysis

Radio frequency interference in a WLAN is a fact of life. That's because WLANs operate in the unlicensed bands of the radio spectrum, and regulations require that these bands accept any interference. Most interference isn't nefarious, but it can wreak havoc on your WLAN's performance. It can reduce data throughput and range, hurt the quality of voice and video applications, and sometimes even bring down a link.

To uncover and remedy RF interference, most network engineers rely on stand-alone spectrum analyzers that have to be carried out into the field to check for problems. But increasingly, manufacturers are integrating spectrum analysis into the access points themselves. Aruba offers this via its spectrum analysis module; Cisco Systems recently announced its CleanAir product line of new access points that integrate spectrum analysis functionality; and Meru Networks offers the Meru Air Traffic Control and Spectrum Manager.

Source: Farpoint Group