While it's usually desirable to have a completely homogeneous WLAN deployment, it is also perhaps unrealistic to assume this state of affairs can be maintained for an extended period of time.
While it's usually desirable to have a completely homogeneous wireless LAN deployment, it is also perhaps unrealistic to assume this state of affairs can be maintained for an extended period of time. Advances in basic WLAN technologies often dictate going out to bid for an enterprise's second or third WLAN system, with no guarantee that the current vendor will once again prevail. Mergers and acquisitions can present network operations teams with facilities using yet another WLAN system. And an argument can be made that establishing a vendor-independent WLAN management framework from the beginning will ultimately reduce costs, lower training and other overhead expense, and provide a degree of administrative continuity.
Archive of Network World tests
But it's also fair to ask whether a single network management platform can address a multi-vendor scenario with sufficient features and flexibility to obviate the need for the vendor-specific management applications that today accompany all enterprise-class products (see story on WLAN management expectations).
To get a handle on this opportunity, we set up a small heterogeneous lab configuration and asked the only three vendor-independent WLAN management vendors – Adventnet, AirWave (recently purchased by Aruba Networks) and WaveLink – to participate. Only Aruba's AirWave division responded affirmatively, and submitted its AirWave Management Platform (AMP) release 6.0.9 software for testing. Adventnet did not respond to repeated requests, and Wavelink cited an upcoming software release that was outside of our timeframe for this project as its reason for not participating.
In plowing through the huge set of capabilities inherent in the product (plus a couple of optional features), we found that AMP is both easy to install and very good at monitoring WLAN equipment in a multi-vendor environment on an ongoing basis. They can easily serve as the primary management console once basic configuration of all functional WLAN units is performed. The current release of AMP essentially requires that access point and controllers be configured and operational before AMP's important capabilities can be used.
Test configuration and objectives
Our test configuration, while compact, allowed us to examine how well Airwave supports a multi-vendor environment. We used gear from AirWave's supported-products list. That gear included two HP ProCurve 530 APs, two Proxim 4000 APs, and an Aruba Networks MMC-3600 controller with two Aruba AP120s. We connected all units to an Ethernet switch, and used a notebook PC running a browser for our console.
We tested the appliance version of AMP, which comes packaged as a CentOS-based (Linux) dual-Xeon 1U server. We almost always recommend using a management appliance if one is available so as to minimize the opportunity for setup and configuration problems. We needed to download the latest version of the software for the appliance and burn a CD, but installation overall was no more complex than with a pure software product. Basic configuration of the management platform requires little more than setting an IP address and entering software license data; we were up and running in about 30 minutes from start of the installation.
The first step in configuring AMP is defining groups so that members of a given group can be managed together. For simplicity we used just one group called "Access Points". Groups have associated configuration templates, which allow for the bulk configuration of access points, and we left this at its default setting.
The next step was to get all of our devices entered into AMP, but we met with only limited success. AMP can auto-discover WLAN elements the company lists as supported. We had success in auto-discovering (but not auto-configuring) the standalone access points, but the Aruba controller required a little manual tweaking, the problem being traced to the need to enter an SNMP community string and authorization credentials into both the 3600 and AMP. In a production environment, the inventory of equipment can (and most likely would) be entered as a batch (via a .csv file), eliminating any variables that might creep into the auto-discovery process.
Basic configuration (setting static IP addresses, SSIDs, authorization and SNMP information) of the Proxim and HP access points and the Aruba controller ultimately had to be performed by the administrator before connecting these elements to the network, as we found that the AirWave platform has very limited ability to perform basic configuration of access points. After basic configuration and upon discovery by AMP, the system informed us of mismatched configuration parameters, as the device configuration in each case didn’t match the template. Correcting all mismatches again generally required direct access to each device. This issue could also be corrected via modification to the template, assuming such was acceptable to local management specifications and policies. Note “mismatched” is more of a warning message than an error, as our network would still operate regardless.
While AirWave Tech Support informed us that it is working to improve this element of the product (which might, for example, be addressed by something as simple as automated login via the command-line interface or Web interface on each device), we concluded that AMP is much better suited to monitoring and reporting functions than to initial configuration.
And AMP really shines in keeping a close eye on the WLAN once all managed devices have been configured and entered into the system. The main page of the GUI shows network status – across all access points and controllers, regardless of vendor - at a glance. There’s thus no need to fire up multiple incompatible tools from multiple vendors and attempt to monitor the installation is what otherwise might be chaos – the real benefit from using AMP.
We also explored monitoring down to the device level, using charts that showed number of users connected to and average bandwidth of each access point to evaluate overall network performance. The flexibility in monitoring and reporting on whatever might be of interest across vendor WLAN equipment is what gives AMP its true value.
Granted, we had a very small test network, but easy access to this information can be critical when the productivity of an entire organization is on the line. AMP also reported when access points went offline, in our case triggered by a simple unplugging them.
Diagnostic capabilities are quite broad - we were able to look at access point performance, for example, including signal quality, bandwidth, client count and radio parameters like retries and failures. Such could be useful in low-level troubleshooting, which is often required when physical changes are made to the environment - a metal cabinet being moved, for example.
AMP defines nine types of reports, including: Wireless Network Usage, Inventory, Uptime, Device Summary, Capacity, New Rogue Devices, Configuration Audit, New User and User Session reports. All of these can be scheduled and customized as desired. A detailed event log is also, as expected, part of the package. All reporting functionality worked as advertised.
AMP offers two optional features often delivered as applications external to WLAN management tools: RAPIDS, which detects rogue access points, and VisualRF, which provides location and mapping services. We found RAPIDS to be just as effective as other rogue detection systems we have used, allowing multiple filter levels and simple notification and reporting. We didn’t set up VisualRF because of the limited scope of our network, but such functionality is very valuable in identifying the location of failed devices and in evaluating RF coverage.
In terms of scalability, AMP also includes a Master Console and Failover Servers. The former provides top-level visibility for multiple AMP servers (as might be found in very large networks) while the latter offers a degree of fault tolerance. AirWave claims support for multi-architecture (Wi-Fi, mesh and WiMAX) configurations, which we didn’t test, and also has a valuable helpdesk function, which manages trouble tickets and which was quite useful in noting issues we needed to resolve during testing.
A comprehensive manual is included (as a .pdf), but the lack of a table of contents or an index makes it difficult to navigate. We created the opportunity, as we generally like to do in equipment tests, to converse with Airwave’s support personnel via both e-mail and on the phone. Staff there was highly responsive, professional and very helpful in dealing with our questions, mostly relating to initial configuration strategies and resolving the auto-discover issue noted above.
Still, we’d suggest that AirWave add a concepts-and-facilities guide to AMP to its catalog; we suspect such would reduce the need to contact Tech Support just to get running. We’d also like something along the line of wizards to help with basic configuration tasks; there’s a lot of switching between menus and pages that could be reduced with a little more automation or at least consolidation of command pages.
Analysis and conclusions
Apart from the limitations in configuration, which are unlikely to be critical in most shops, we were overall impressed with the Airwave Management Platform. It’s easy to install, easy to use, quite comprehensive in the services it offers, and applicable to a broad range of WLAN products.
Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. He’s been working in wireless for more than 17 years, and is an internationally recognized consultant, author, and technology analyst. He can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mathias is also a member of the Network World Lab Alliance, a cooperative of the premier reviewers in the network industry each bringing to bear years of practical experience on every review. For more Lab Alliance information, including what it takes to become a member, go to www.networkworld.com/alliance.