Wi-Fi Location Rolling Review: Ekahau Bets On Active Tags

Want to use your WLAN to track high-dollar assets? Ekahau, the second entry in this series, has a no-fuss solution.

February 9, 2008

8 Min Read
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Like many of its rivals in the Wi-Fi location market, Ekahau is a young company. In its response to our request for information, it emphasized that its real-time locationing product works with most enterprise Wi-Fi networks, a reassuring point for organizations that are looking at location to solve a business problem but want to avoid the long deployment times and high infrastructure costs inherent in overlays. Ekahau's ability to accommodate most WLAN scenarios without having to reach out to partners will appeal to IT groups that want to keep things simple.

Ekahau's T301 tags support two-way traffic

It's also refreshing that, unlike some competitors, Ekahau doesn't shy away from accuracy claims. Most Wi-Fi location vendors depend on exciters or choke points to enhance the precision and timeliness of location tracking, but Ekahau swears off most of these methods and emphasizes its Ekahau Positioning Engine and active tags.

Location systems generally take one of two approaches to pinpointing location. In a tag-centric, or associated, model, tags actively take power readings of surrounding access points at controlled intervals or based on predefined events, like tag movement, then report to the location engine by associating with an AP and transmitting, like a regular Wi-Fi client. It's two-way communications.

Alternatively, tags may work in simpler beaconing mode, where they "chirp" at fixed intervals. The Wi-Fi infrastructure understands this abbreviated packet, which contains the tag's unique identifier and perhaps some state information, and appends the measured power reading of the tag before sending it to the location engine.

Ekahau tags may be programmed to perform in beaconing mode, but the company expects that will be the case in less than 10% of its 2008 deployments. Rather, Ekahau favors a tag-centric approach to calculating location, which it says is more accurate than the beaconing route most rival Wi-Fi location vendors favor. A key ingredient is the Ekahau Location Survey software, which is used to calibrate the system. With ELS, a technician performs a site walk-through, recording his route into the network along the way. This data is then integrated into the location model that the engine uses to spit out coordinates.


CLAIM: Ekahau provides the best accuracy via a tag-centric approach to calculating location, without exciters or choke points. This two-way data flow also facilitates greater interactivity between tags and management system.CONTEXT:

With Wi-Fi locationing, your WLAN enables asset tracking while tightening security by extending NAC to tailor access based on a user's location. Partnerships and integration with corporate applications is key for usability.CREDIBILITY: Ekahau is taking risks by emphasizing Wi-Fi as a superior platform and by its heavy tag focus. Its infrastructure-agnostic approach makes the system very palatable for heterogeneous environments, however.

The debate over whether an associated or a beaconing approach is superior is just one element in the technical sparring going on among Wi-Fi location vendors. No one disputes that a two-way associated system allows for niceties such as visual and audible alerts on tags as well as two-way text messaging and wireless, remote software updates. Less clear is the model's effect on performance, security, and management complexity.

In this case, the devil is in the details, and there are lots of them.

Physics tells us that RF signals flow equally well from an access point to a tag as from a tag to an AP. If a tag operates in associated mode and has a granular and well-calibrated receiver, those advantages are tempered by dynamic changes in environmental conditions and output power variations among APs. Many enterprise WLAN vendors support dynamic RF control, which means output power can change over time, but Ekahau says that doesn't significantly affect accuracy. Most significant to the accuracy claims of the tag-centric approach is the use of site survey software to gather the actual state of the RF environment, calibrate it, and feed that into a realistic location algorithm. Ekahau argues that poll-based systems that require a controller to look to each access point and gather a client's RSSI incurs a time-skewing effect that a client-centric approach doesn't have.

However, there are also beaconing systems that send one or more beacons out on multiple channels that are nearly instantaneously received and passed on to the location engine.

Barring a potential performance advantage for Ekahau in regards to a tag-centric approach, what other effect might associated mode operation have on a network? First, in associated mode, each tag needs to associate and authenticate, which requires at least four 802.11 frames. Then there's the method of updating location. A beaconing tag normally sends out a single beacon or packet every location update, but associating tags send out many more packets. Again, not a notable concern in small deployments, but if your WLAN uses a centralized data plane and/or operates over a WAN, you could feel a hit.Finally, tags operating in associated mode need IP addresses. Dynamic addresses can be assigned via DHCP, but that will add even more traffic to the network. Assigning a fixed IP address to each tag eliminates that load but introduces another attribute to maintain. Ekahau's tags support multiple access profiles for internetwork mobility.

To Ekahau's advantage, because its tags associate with the wireless network, they don't require the enterprise WLAN system to understand proprietary beacons or chirps. For companies whose WLAN vendors have yet to integrate beaconing support, Ekahau may be the only viable locationing choice.

Rolling Reviews present a comprehensive look at a hot technology category, beginning with market analysis and wrapping up with a synopsis of our findings. See our kickoff and other reviews in this Wi-Fi location series at Rolling Reviews.

Tag, You're It


FEATURED PRODUCT:Ekahau. Tags start at $50, with discounts for volume; location endpoint client software is an open model.ABOUT THIS ROLLING REVIEW:We issued an RFI to vendors that provide Wi-Fi-based location appliances or software modules. We want to see who has the technology and partnerships to enable Wi-Fi location with a minimum of integration headaches. We'll ask vendors to describe their architectures, what pieces of the puzzle they solve, and where their partners fit. We'll also analyze security.ALREADY TESTED:AeroscoutNEXT UP:InnerWireless.OTHER VENDORS INVITED:Cisco Systems, Meru Networks, Newbury Networks, Motorola (Symbol Technologies), Trapeze Networks, and WhereNet

Ekahau's tags are available in two form factors: a thin model about the height and width of a playing card, and a smaller key-chain-size edition. Ekahau says the new T301 comes with a 60% to 65% improvement in battery life. Tag selection, while more limited than AeroScout's lineup, is likely sufficient to meet most needs. To secure traffic between the tag and the AP, Ekahau's tags all support industry-standard WPA2-PSK; 802.1X is being worked on.

Ekahau has excelled at getting its client software integrated with application-specific devices such as Polycom's Wi-Fi phones and Symbol's bar code scanners. It doesn't hurt that the company has an open licensing program that essentially delivers the software free.

Ekahau's Positioning Engine plays the customary role of managing tags, storing maps, calculating coordinates, configuring business and event rules, and communicating with other applications via XML-based APIs.Ekahau can't claim Cisco Systems as an official partner, so it can't take advantage of Cisco's appliance, its tags aren't CCX certified, and its name doesn't appear on the Cisco-approved partners list--a significant weak point. But it does have other important collaborators, notably in health care, a key market for Wi-Fi location vendors. A recent win is the Carolinas HealthCare System, a large provider covering North and South Carolina. Five of about 20 locations were up and running at press time, with several thousand tags deployed for equipment tracking. Siemens, also well-known in the health care market, is a location services and site survey partner.

Scalability isn't a significant concern, whether the Ekahau system is run in beaconing or associated mode. The company says a correctly configured server can track as many as 10,000 objects and process around 600 locations updates per second, more than sufficient for most deployments. Pricing is primarily based on tags required, not on square footage covered. A system that would track 1,000 assets comes in just under $150,000, while one half that size is $89,500.

Ekahau was founded in Finland in 2000 and is now based in Saratoga Springs, Calif., with offices in Reston, Va., and Hong Kong. The company is privately held with a mixture of private and venture-capital backed funds (many Finnish) and industrial investors (3M, for example). Its latest venture capital round raised $12 million, which is being used to support geographic expansion, sales, and development.

A Time For 802.11n?

Applications--such as location--that depend on your WLAN could benefit from 802.11n, if it's done right.


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