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Sniffing + Seeing = What?

The latest development in 802.11 network "sniffing" combines radio spectrum analyzers with site survey tools, allowing network managers to deploy, monitor, and upgrade wireless networks more easily, according to vendors.

So far, though, enterprise users seem unimpressed with the upgrades -- pointing out that they already have standalone software that can handle the tasks that the vendors say they will make easier.

"I don't need it; something like a [standalone] site survey tool is just fine," says Moni Keo, senior network engineer at Los Angeles law firm Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro LLP (JMBM), who says he has used WLAN sniffing tools in the past.

AirMagnet Inc. announced this morning that its latest software will combine its sniffer tools with site survey software. Meanwhile, Ekahau Inc. is combining its site survey tool with sniffing software from Fluke Networks .

Network managers have long used network sniffing tools -- installed in WiFi-compliant laptops and handheld computers -- to cruise office spaces checking for unauthorized access points and other security problems. Recently, the startups that dominate this market have started to add new features to move their products beyond being simply security tools.

Adding site survey capabilities is the latest development in the evolution of the network sniffer. These programs now allow IT managers to "see" the radio signals from the active access points overlaid on a map of the entire deployment.

After loading in a site map, says Wade Williamson, AirMagnet’s product marketing manager, users can produce a 3D visualization of the WiFi radio signals in the workplace and find out if they have signal coverage everywhere using the firm's Survey 3.0 and Spectrum Analyzer 2.0 tools.

Moving around the site, the user can also get more information about the individual access points in the network. "We actually associate with the access point," says Williamson. "So we can check the connections and know if you're dropping packets."

Still, as the initial user response shows, network managers will need convincing that such tools really add value. WiFi clients installed in laptops today, notes JMBM's Keo, give you essentially the same information already. "You can do that now in XP," he says. "You can see the signal strengh and the security... That's all I need."

Roger Cass, CTO at Cincinnati-based healthcare firm MediSync, also likes the free sniffer tools out there. He has been using Ethereal to performance-test the VOIP phone system that the company has installed.

It's just a free tool, but works very, very well," he comments.

Cass hasn't yet looked into doing similar testing on the firm's wireless LAN network, but says that he might, as 802.11 becomes less of a convenience and more of a necessity: "Wireless will become much more important to us in the next 12 to 18 months."

There are plenty of free wireless LAN sniffer tools out there, such as Kismet and Network Stumbler. Typically popularized by hackers and "war drivers" looking for open WiFi hotspots, these programs can increasingly be found in enterprises as well.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

lrmobile_rusty 12/5/2012 | 4:07:11 AM
re: Sniffing + Seeing = What? There is a massive difference in what you can get out of Airopeek NX (and other tools that use monitor mode) compared to client utilities and free software like Netstumbler. For a small network where Wi-Fi is a luxury I can see the point of using free tools but if you need to solve tough problems quickly or properly analyze an enterprise network you need something more powerful.

I will admit that the guy from AirMagnet is blowing smoke. Who cares if the Wi-Fi adapter used by the AirMagnet application can associate? That means little because each type of Wi-Fi client adapter has its own association and roaming properties. It's generally better to concentrate on signal strength during a site survey unless you can use production Wi-Fi clients to test the connection.
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