Companies running important workloads over their wireless networks will always have some kind of wireless scanner in their network monitoring toolbox. But often, these are just wireless packet analyzers based on low-cost or even open-source platforms. If you’ve made a significant investment in your wireless infrastructure, then protecting that investment with a professional-grade wireless scanner is a worthwhile move.
To see what such a tool is all about, we contacted a sister company that’s also a leader in this space, Ekahau. We asked the company to let us test its Ekahau Pro platform, which consists of high-end wireless design and management software along with a hardware spectrum analyzer, called the Sidekick. After getting hands-on with the solution, we found that its most popular audience will likely be IT consultants specializing in wireless networking. It’s not for small businesses or wireless neophytes, but IT professionals that deal with medium or large wireless networks daily will also find it invaluable.
(Editors’ Note: Ekahau is owned by j2 Global, the parent company of Ziff Media Group, the publisher of PCMag.com.)
That said, this isn’t a standard network management tool, which tend to fall into infrastructure management and network monitoring camps. Infrastructure managers monitor infrastructure, servers, switches, or routers, and sometimes allow you to make direct reconfiguration to a device through a single interface, like in the case of Microsoft’s System Center management suite. Meanwhile network monitoring apps, like venerable Ipswitch What’s Up Gold, watch devices and app traffic to measure performance and identify problems, but generally don’t allow for fixes through the same interface.
Between those two poles, Ekahau Pro leans towards What’s Up Gold’s mission. It monitors everything and can easily identify problems, but it doesn’t allow direct device reconfiguration. The data it provides is invaluable to folks who have to make those adjustments, but they’ll need to make them through some other tool. Ekahau’s ability to “what if” various network layouts, up to and including the ability to what-if different (simulated) device settings and application traffic, is what makes it so valuable as a planning and network design tool.
The Fergenschmeir RFP
To see the Ekahau Pro in action, we decided to test it at on-site at PCMag’s offices in New York City. This provided a complex enough wireless environment to stress the tool appropriately. Because Ekahau is a very deep tool that generally performs best in the hands of Wi-Fi networking experts, we framed our first review around solution benefits rather than individual technical features. To do this, we devised a fictional Request for Proposal (RFP) for a fictional company, called Fergenschmeir GmbH. To meet the RFP, Ekahau had to:
- Build an accurate network map of existing wireless infrastructure
- Scan and assess infrastructure locations, signal strength, and viability
- Locate areas of overlap both in our own infrastructure as well as that of our neighbors, and
- Provide an all-up report of the scan’s finding as well as recommendations for fixes and future directions based on Fergenschmeir’s future application and workload needs.
We described Fergenschmeir as a fairly typical medium-sized business that was using a combination of cloud service applications (Slack, Salesforce, Dropbox, and several more) with on-premises productivity and business applications (Microsoft Office, Sage 300 financials, Adobe Photoshop), as well as a custom app with servers both on-site and in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. Fergenschmeir also uses a voice over IP (VoIP) service that is currently running over wired desktop phones but wants to move to wireless handsets for a mobile VoIP implementation within the next 12 months.
In response, Ekahau sent two product engineers, equipped with a full copy of the Ekahau Pro site survey software as well as the company’s new Sidekick spectrum analysis device. Everyone showed up to our offices on the agreed upon date and we proceeded to walk through each section of the RFP with Ekahau’s experts performing most of the actual work, PCMag Labs personnel getting as hands-on as possible while behaving as though we were the actual Fergenschmeir customer.
Prior to arriving at our office, Ekahau asked that we supply them with floor plans of the office, which is standard procedure when performing an in-depth Wi-Fi scan. We provided PNG files, which were accepted, but the engineers emphasized, that once you import straight graphic images like ours, it’s important to remember to accurately scale the maps as that’s crucial to the scanning process later. They also stressed properly connecting the maps if the floors are contiguous as they were in our case. Ekahau allows users to organize maps into buildings and then highlight areas on each floor plan that connects with another, typically staircases, elevators, exit doors, and the like.
Finally, you’ll need to assign structural values to walls, doors, retail shelving, cubicles, offices, and anything else that may have an effect on Wi-Fi signal attenuation. A granite wall will have a more pronounced effect on signal attenuation than a cubicle or office wall, for example, which means their values will be different. The software has default values for most of these, so you’ll just need to pick one from a drop-down menu. Advanced users can add their own attenuation coverage area values, but newcomers should probably tread lightly or ask for help.
One way to make all of the above much easier is to not use graphic files, like our PNG pics, but rather CAD files, which many offices can get from their facilities departments or office architects. For us, all values had to be entered manually, which Ekahau was kind enough to do before they arrived at our office. With a CAD drawing, however, most of those values are already included as part of the CAD file’s data. That makes it much simpler to assign accurate attenuation and device range values. Ekahau Pro is compatible with most popular CAD formats so it can assign base values automatically. IT professionals can then simply adjust those values if required and move to the next step.
If this is a scan of an existing Wi-Fi network, customers
will at this point likely provide the brand, model, and location of all Wi-Fi
networking equipment on each floor as well as what type of Wi-Fi signal is
being used by each (2.4 or 5GHz). We did provide Ekahau with the type of
equipment we use, but not the locations because we wanted to see if the
scanning process could find the access points on its own.
Ekahau Pro has a large database of enterprise Wi-Fi networking components from all the major business-grade wireless router makers, including Cisco, HP, Ruckus, and others. The company compiles test data from customers to keep this database as up-to-date as possible. That is how it’s able to build default coverage heatmaps before any scanning has taken place. By importing the floor plan, construction values, and locations and makes of your Wi-Fi network equipment, the Ekahau Pro software can build a default heatmap of the likely Wi-Fi coverage you’re getting. That makes your first scan a validation rather than a discovery process and helps find problems more quickly.
If the site is brand new with no network infrastructure installed, then the Ekahau software can still be used to compare different makes and models of Wi-Fi equipment using the Auto Planner. This generates what-if coverage heatmaps based on the data Ekahau has on the equipment as well as the construction values that IT has attached to the floor plan. Once your floor plans are set, you simply choose your wireless infrastructure make and model, the desired transmit power, as well as the channels and channel bandwidth you’d like to use. Auto Planner then generates a default coverage map for optimal signal strength to all areas. IT professionals can then modify the map and its elements until they have a setup they feel they can implement, and now that map provides not only a very accurate list of components and cost but also a performance baseline they can test against for troubleshooting.
Survey Scanning With Sidekick
Performing your scan is basically about taking a careful walk through your office. This is part one of a two-step process. Walk first to gather data, then analyze that data in step two. Fortunately, it’s a very quick process even when compared to other spectrum analyzers as we’ll explain below. That’s good not only because it saves time, but also because it means you can perform multiple data collection walks very easily. That makes Ekahau Pro exceptionally useful as a differential analyzer. Gather one round of data, analyze it and adjust your network configuration accordingly. Then just take another walk through the office to see exactly what your changes have wrought. And don’t skimp on the walking. Ekahau has made that much easier with the new and aforementioned Sidekick device. This is the latest Wi-Fi measurement device that Ekahau offers, and its impressive.
Basically, the Sidekick is an all-in-one Wi-Fi measurement and testing tool designed to troubleshoot and test Wi-Fi networks. And because it supports passive scanning, it can scan not only traffic but devices without forcing IT managers to install an agent on every scanned device, like you might have to do with a standard network monitoring tool, such as Vallum Halo.
Prior to the Sidekick, Ekahau was offering a combination of external Wi-Fi adapters and separate spectrum analyzers. Sidekick incorporates these capabilities into a single device. It also increases the speed and accuracy of the spectrum analyzer (either active of passive), adds integrated antennas, and gives the device its own 8-hour battery, so you’re not draining the device to which you’ve got it attached. Once connected to a device running the Ekahau software (which can be a Mac or PC as well as an iPad or even an iPhone), you simply keep the Sidekick with you during your walks and it does all the data collection.
And that data collection is both considerable and fast. The Sidekick’s radios are both more sensitive than previous Ekahau spectrum analyzers and they do a much faster sweep across 2.4- and 5GHz frequencies compatible with all current 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac networks. Ekahau says it’ll release compatibility with upcoming Wi-Fi standards and protocols via software updates. You can also access its trouble shooting tools during your walking sessions, but we didn’t test those.
Analytics are one of Ekahau’s prime selling points, so it makes sense the company would pay attention to reporting. Ekahau Pro has a rich and largely automatic reporting engine. We loved it, but it’s possible that real Wi-Fi networking gurus might want a little more customization. The data that Ekahau gathers is largely homogeneous as far as data types and context goes, so it’s easy for the company to offer standard reports that its solution can “fill in” automatically. You’ll find report categories across network analysis & optimization, troubleshooting, capacity planning analysis, spectrum analysis, and more.
We found the default report that Ekahau presented to us as part of our Fergenschmeir RFP both useful and fairly easy to parse even for us laymen. It contained not only site scan and spectrum data both in numeric and graphical heat map formats, but also suggested capacity planning advice and the bill of materials necessary to implement it. Ekahau walked us through generating the report, which consisted of selecting the reporting templates the user wanted to include, adding any custom elements or data, and then generating the full report in either Microsoft Office or Adobe PDF formats. Again, we’ve seen reporting tools with more customization capability, but what Ekahau generates automatically should suffice for all but the most unique situations.
One of Ekahau’s primary customers are network consulting outfits. The software even caters towards this audience with tools to manage multiple customer accounts and networks. That means if you’re a smaller business looking to get the benefits of the solution along with third-party expertise, you’ll be paying a service cost rather than product pricing.
Medium-sized and larger businesses, however, should be able to justify the basic solution cost fairly easily since Ekahau is priced competitively for what it delivers. Even standard network monitors like What’s Up Gold or MangeEngine OpManager, are priced on a per-device basis, costing $2,656 per 25 devices for the former and $1,995 per 50 devices for the latter.
By contrast, Ekahau charges on a solution basis in one of two ways. The basic combination of the Ekahau Pro software and the Sidekick device can be had for $7,495. However, you can also opt for an Ekahau Connect Subscription, which costs $1,595 per year and includes the Ekahau software (survey tool and analyzer) for both iPhones and iPads, a packet capture tool, access to a cloud space for project collaboration, full customer support, and even access to on-demand training.
Ekahau’s training deserves a special mention, too. The company offers a certificate program that’s quickly become one of the more popular IT certifications out there for wireless network professionals. According to user reviews, these courses are in-depth and don’t just cover using the Ekahau platform, but also provide a solid grounding for IT professionals just looking to gain a better understanding of wireless networking. Ekahau offers classes both on-line and on-site, and PCMag Labs intends to audit a few in the near future.
Ekahau isn’t a general-purpose IT management tool, but rather a solution intended for Wi-Fi networking specialists to use on significantly-sized installations. Considering that most every medium- to large business these days has such a network, Ekahau can certainly bring value to a wide swath of customers across not only third-party wireless consultants but in-house wireless IT professionals, too.
What impressed us most about Ekahau Pro was its depth of data on current business-grade Wi-Fi network infrastructure. These let Ekahau build a highly accurate map of PCMag’s current Wi-Fi performance based simply on device location and pinpoint trouble areas even our own IT staff was unaware of. It quickly found our rogue router–plus two other rogue transmitters we didn’t even know about. It also identified overlap areas with our neighbors on the floors above and below us. The entire process took about an hour of surveying around and 20 minutes of data analysis.
For companies with large investments in Wi-Fi infrastructure, of anyone planning to make those investments, Ekahau can pay for itself both as a capacity planner and a highly accurate day-to-day troubleshooting tool.