7signal's WLAN Performance Tools: Intriguing But Expensive
Lee H. Badman
August 19, 2013
If no one's complaining about your wireless network, it must be fine, right? Maybe not. Whether you really know how well your WLAN is performing comes down to the quality of your tools. A company called 7signal wants to give you a new way of looking at your wireless environment.
The 7signal framework is essentially a diagnostic overlay for existing wireless networks. It continuously gathers RF-level information in a given area to help administrators identify problems before users notice them. Though I've yet to lay hands on 7signal's products, I've had a number of briefings with its senior technical team and sat in on the 7signal presentation at the recent Wireless Field Day 5 event in San Jose.
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The 7signal product portfolio centers around Sapphire Eye, which is a funky-looking sensor. One Sapphire Eye can monitor the airspace serviced by approximately half a dozen access points. It becomes a client that interacts continuously with the Sapphire software on 7signal's server to exercise and trend the WLAN with great detail.
[WLANs aren't the only IT system that needs troubleshooting. If you're having VoIP issues, check out "Debugging Cisco Voice: How To Streamline The Process."]
Sapphire Eye tests several hundred key performance indicators, including a series of synthetic transactions to simulate client FTP, HTTP, SIP and so on. It can also perform packet capture, RF and spectrum analysis, and a battery of troubleshooting tests.
I use Cisco's CleanAir technology for RF analysis, so it was interesting to see how 7signal might compare. One drawback to CleanAir is that it can be overwhelming when it comes to alerts in certain situations. For instance, lots of APs acting as sensors pick up tons of transient offensive signals (Bluetooth, passing MiFi routers in vehicles, and so on) that generate alarms but aren't really a problem you can fix. However, to tune out these alerts means you might miss real problems, and so the CleanAir dashboard stays cluttered with unimportant alerts that you need to weed through to find real trouble.
I think targeted deployments of 7signal would be better at characterizing the health of local RF domains, show real-world troubles lurking just under the surface and recommend tweaks to your configurations to improve the overall health of your WLAN.
Another advantage of 7signal over CleanAir is that it supports synthetic testing. I've been asking Cisco for years to bake a "virtual client" function into its WLAN product that lets me do the synthetic testing that 7signal does from its Eye device. So far, the response has been deafening.
However, despite 7signal's appeal, the cost is off-putting. The company seems to price its product differently for each customer, but the price information I got was on the order of thousands of dollars for a small environment. I'm not sure I could justify the cost to gain an incremental increase in analysis capability for an environment that gets very few trouble tickets to begin with. That said, even if you're not quite ready to splurge for 7signal, this is certainly a tool set worth watching.