Web Informant #327, 2 May 2003: Managing wireless networks

 

The great thing about wireless networks is the freedom to

roam about your campus, home, or office. The trouble is this

freedom comes at a price, and enterprise network

administrators are finding out that managing all this

mobility is messy and fraught with multiple complicating

factors, making wireless networks more of a burden than

dealing with wired connections.

 

The reasons have to do with a combination of poor tools and

the ad hoc nature of wireless networks themselves. The good

news is that many vendors are stepping up to the plate with

new products that can make some of this pain go away.

 

I got to see some of these products as one of the "Best in

Show" judges in the wireless category at the Networld+Interop

show in Las Vegas this past week. And while the show floor

was so quiet you could hold your own religious service, the

booths of the wireless vendors were all crowded with

attendees, many of who were not wearing any vendor-logo'ed

shirts (and thus perhaps real buyers). The three products

that fellow judge Sean Doherty of Network Computing and I

picked as finalists were from Chantry Networks, AirMagnet and

AirWave Wireless Inc. Each of them solves the problem of

having multiple wireless access points and being able to

manage them in slightly different ways.

 

AirWave, with their Management Platform v 2.0

(www.airwave.com) takes the policy management approach,

looking at your collection of access points as if it were one

huge network. It solves the problem of being able to keep all

of your APs on the same firmware version and with the same

configuration. What if you have already purchased APs from

multiple vendors? Then it will still be able to manage them,

and push out configuration changes to multiple products

easily. That was a really nice feature that caught our

attention. The only trouble is that the product doesn't yet

support APs from most of the major enterprise-line vendors

yet. (This is at odds with what you can find on the vendor's

web site, which was a big disappointment.) Also, it doesn't

handle discovery of huge networks very well either: we asked

the folks from AirWave to do a census of all the wireless APs

on the Interop show network and they could only discover

about 75 of them in an hour. The trouble is the show network

has two very large IP address spaces: a class A and a class B

address. These take time to scan through. The nice thing

about their discovery algorithms is that they examine both

the wired and wireless addresses and try to match up the APs

accordingly. I would give the product a little more time, and

with wider vendor support it might be a real gem.

 

Chantry, with their BeaconWorks family of products

(www.chantrynetworks.com) looks at your wireless network as

just a collection of routers that are centrally managed and

can handle scalability and reliability issues. The main

advantages to their approach is automatic fail-over and self-

healing networks. They also support non-Chantry APs as well

to allow users to roam across the entire campus (the non-

Chantry products don't do the fail-over however).

 

Both Chantry and AirWave are only supporting 802.11b products

at this time. The winner of the category was AirMagnet, with

their Distributed System (www.airmagnet.com). Both Sean and I

liked the fact that they supported 802.11a and b products

now. Think of the AirMagnet system as a distributed Sniffer

for wireless networks, similar to how that product extended

network analysis tools for wired networks many years ago. Its

main advantage is wireless discovery of what is running

across your airwaves. AirMagnet has been selling a stand-

alone analysis tool for about a year now and this distributed

concept is a natural extension. Here is the scenario: You

need to instrument your campus with a bunch of probes

either by running software on a laptop or by installing one

of their dedicated hardware probes. But once you do deploy

this stuff you can glean all sorts of information about the

state of your wireless network. At the show, AirMagnet very

quickly found over 200 APs in the Vegas Convention Center,

including about 75 rogue APs that the network control center

staff hadn't yet accounted for. Granted, this was a very

extreme and chaotic environment, but a good one to stress

test the product and show how you can track down APs that

don't have encryption turned on, or that are misconfigured.

Another nice feature is that you can see if having too many

APs talking on the same channel is clogging up your radio

frequencies. It doesn't do the policy management as nicely as

the AirWave system though.

 

What I thought after looking at these and other entries for

the category was that I wish I could pick and choose the best

features from each product and design my own wireless

management system. My ideal product would have the policy

management features of AirWave, the discovery and scanning

properties of AirMagnet, and the reliability and scalability

deployment features of Chantry. While I am wishing for the

best possible product, I might as well add to this some neat

mapping features that is found in the Trapeze Networks

product where you can figure out placement of your APs given

the radio properties of your actual buildings. And to top

things off, my wish list would include support a wide variety

of enterprise-class APs from Cisco, Orinoco, Proxim, and the

like. Too bad it doesn't exist yet.

 

This shows you the complexity involved in supporting

enterprise-class wireless networks. At least there are a few

bright people working on the problem. Maybe by this time next

year we will have some solid solutions in place.

 

Entire contents copyright 2003 by David Strom, Inc. 

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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