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New tools corral WLAN radio waves

By , Network World
July 19, 2004 12:15 AM ET

Network World - A host of new management products are giving network executives tools to control the most elusive element of wireless LANs: the radio waves that actually connect clients to access points.

Most are being touted as security products because they detect, and in some cases disconnect, rogue WLAN access points and users, and show traffic patterns that might reveal an attack or a malfunction. But there are other benefits that spring from this ability to "read" radio frequency waves, including tracking the affect and location of RF interference, visualizing real-time behavior of wireless networks and fine-tuning WLAN settings to ensure optimal throughput.

The new RF tools differ from traditional network management applications, which focus on Layer 3 and rely on the fact that IP-addressable devices are physically attached via a wire to the network.

These new products use radios to scan the air, pull data from the radio chipsets in WLAN devices, and expose via GUI displays and alarms what's happening on the Layer 1 wireless connection. As such, they go beyond the capabilities of expensive, specialized and bulky wireless protocol analyzers and spectrum analyzers traditionally used in wireless engineering.

These RF tools let administrators see details such as IP headers, identify new devices that start transmitting, measure the signal strength and radio power settings of access points and client network interface cards, check if Wired Equivalent Privacy or other encryption options are turned on, detect man-in-the-middle attacks and identify electro-magnetic interference.

Much of this data can be passed to enterprise network management applications such as HP's OpenView via SNMP. These RF tools let network managers make changes such as adjust the radio power level, or block access to a rogue access point, or force some clients to disassociate from one access point and reconnect to another to balance traffic loads and improve throughput.

New products

The newest products range from full-blown RF management systems, to offerings sized for either small or large WLANs, to incremental improvements in existing products. The products include:

  • Bluesocket's BlueSecure is a stand-alone monitoring system with dedicated sensors that read traffic on 802.11a, b and g networks, and that do some initial data processing. It supports Power over Ethernet.

The ratio of sensors to access points changes depending on variables such as the number of users and the proximity of access points: One sensor for every three to six access points is the rule of thumb.

The BlueSecure Server application, with a GUI, collects, analyzes and presents the data and lets network managers configure alarms. It runs on Windows XP or 2000. The new product for now is completely separate from the vendor's flagship WLAN security gateway.

BlueSecure sensors cost $695. The server software costs $3,000. It is scheduled to be released next month.

  • Highwall's Model 500 Sentinel mimics the higher-end Model 1000. The main difference is that the 500 incorporates a single sensor, whereas the high-end model can connect to many, dubbed Highwall Scouts.

The idea is that one Model 500 box can cover all or most of a single office or small business, largely because of the company's own antenna design. Software settings can change the size and shape of the antenna's scanning area, and Highwall says the design boosts the accuracy of identifying the locations of WLAN devices.

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