802.11ac: Preparing to Troubleshoot
Lee H. Badman
August 05, 2013
While the 802.11ac is still not a ratified standard (the IEEE has a November deadline to make it official), the WLAN industry isn't one to wait for such formalities. Many vendors have announced early 11ac products, and vendors and customers alike are starting to live as if 11ac was already here.
OK, so we're an impatient lot. But even if you're ready to run out and invest in pre-standard APs and other gear, you still need tools to manage and troubleshoot your shiny new 11ac network. That means upgrades to your tool set, particularly when it comes to packet capture. To sniff 11n, your old a/g analyzer didn't cut it; with 11ac it gets even more complicated.
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Compared to previous WLAN technologies,11ac supports more streams, faster data rates and wider channels. It also has a crazy mix of client devices that all wear the 11ac label despite vastly varying performance. To analyze packets based on 11ac, you need a purpose-built tool written to handle all of 11ac's fun little complexities, as these may well tell the story of whatever problem is brewing that led you to capture packets in the first place. This is where Wild Packets' OmniPeek 7.5 comes in.
[The upgrade to the latest WLAN standard means a chance to evaluate your current provider. Check out three reasons to consider a switch in "802.11ac: Time to Change Vendors?"]
The company upgraded its OmniPeek software back in April to support 11ac. WildPackets uses 11ac access points as part of the sniffing framework. This is useful in a couple of ways. First, for Aruba, Cisco, and Meru customers, installed access points can be configured as OmniPeek "custom remote adapters" that give you long reach and huge horsepower by acting as if they were the WLAN adapter on your analysis PC. I have a copy of OmniPeek 7.5 installed on a virtual server that I can point at any of my APs (along with other tools like Cisco's Spectrum Expert) for a handy view into hundreds of APs' worth of WLAN without leaving the office.
Second, when used in a more tactical role in the field, a laptop running OmniPeek can use an11ac access point as a sniffing adapter by directly connecting to it via Ethernet cable. The premise: 11ac is so "big" that typical USB adapters on the market can't keep up for analysis --you need the horsepower of a full-blown AP.
Leveraging installed infrastructure as the forward tip of the troubleshooting spear lets a capable engineer or two to remotely cover far more ground than a team of well-intentioned but lesser-skilled techs could do after rolling vehicles to the site.
Given 11ac's complexity, and the rising prominence of wireless as the primary access method for users, good WLAN support becomes that much more critical. As you map out a strategy for an 11ac deployment, make sure you're also thinking about the tools you'll need to keep your WLAN in proper order.