Get to know your a, b, g's: AirMagnet Trio

AirMagnet's indispensable Wi-Fi toolset just keeps getting better.

Product name: AirMagnet Trio 3.0
Company name: AirMagnet, Inc.
Price: $3495 (software) + $150 (AM PC Card, optional)
Platforms: Windows XP/2000, Pocket PC 2002/2003
Adapters: a/b/g from AirMagnet, NetGear, Proxim
a/b from AirMagnet, Cisco, Nortel, NetGear, Proxim

Bottom line: AirMagnet's indispensable Wi-Fi toolset just keeps getting better.

In a nutshell: Intuitive, friendly, full-featured Wi-Fi analyzer now supports tri-mode WLAN site survey, alerting and trouble-shooting from your laptop.

Pros:

  • Still one of the easiest-to-use WLAN toolkits around
  • 3.0 adds support for 802.11g, Vivato, multiple SSIDs per AP, RF coverage and signal distribution analysis and 16 new security/performance alerts
  • Same friendly GUI now enables both ad hoc WLAN analysis (with AM Trio) and 24/7 intrusion detection (with AM Distributed)

Cons:

  • Supported adapters growing, but still somewhat limited (especially PPC)
  • Laptop and Handheld and Distributed and Reporter are separately licensed products, so negotiate a package deal if you want the whole nine yards
  • If you need application-level traffic analysis, look elsewhere

Description:

Now that retail shelves are stocked with 802.11g products, it's time to update your Wi-Fi toolbox. Trio 3.0, the latest release from AirMagnet, now lets you discover, analyze and trouble-shoot new 802.11g devices operating on (or near) your company's WLAN.

In theory, 802.11g can deliver 5 times the speed of 802.11b. In practice, mixed-mode, pre-standard and non-standard 802.11g devices are causing WLANs to fall far short of that promise. Trio can help you locate and trouble-shoot these culprits -- for example, alerting you to stations that constantly flip-flop between 802.11b and 802.11g, or to neighbor APs that are sending beacons without the protection feature required for safe b/g coexistence. Trio's dashboard now displays APs using all three 802.11 standards on a single screen, with drill-down to view AP configuration, associated stations, traffic details and AirWISE alerts.

AirMagnet has long sported a solid set of diagnostic tools, including an AP/station finder and a pair-wise association monitor/debugger. Trio expands the existing DHCP tool and adds two new tools: Coverage and Signal Distribution. The Coverage tool can be used during a site survey to monitor signal strength and noise, logging results and comparing them to configured expectations (e.g., Service Level Agreements). The Signal Distribution tool can help you spot multi-path, a problem that may not be apparent when viewing average SNR but causes rapid variations that result in poor performance.

Trio also adds a few new security alerts to support Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) features like the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) and 802.1X with Protected EAP (PEAP). AirMagnet has a healthy (but non-extensible) set of built-in alerts that can flag security policy deviations, active attacks and possible performance problems. Most of Trio's alerts can be forwarded to a central AirMagnet Management Server when using AirMagnet Distributed. An optional AirMagnet Reporter can then extract information from the Server's database for trend analysis. Distributed and Reporter are both purchased separately, but they build on the same infrastructure, creating a uniform platform for companies that need both ad-hoc WLAN analysis and 24/7 monitoring.

I've used AirMagnet for well over a year on both Pocket PC and Windows XP platforms. Upgrading my laptop to run Trio went smoothly -- existing features continued to work well, and new features lived up to my expectations. Although Trio is clearly making big strides in the right direction, there are still a few features on my wish list.

For example, when moving to Trio, I upgraded from a NetGear WAB501 a/b card to AirMagnet's new a/b/g card. I am also happy that I now have the option to use my own Proxim ORiNOCO a/b/g card with Trio. However, since all the supported a/g adapters are 32-bit card bus adapters, the Handheld version is still limited to 802.11b. This is really more a limitation of the PPC, but I look forward to the day when that's no longer true and I can stop lugging my laptop around on site surveys.

This caveat aside, if you're looking for a full-featured, easy-to-use portable WLAN analyzer and diagnostic toolkit, I highly recommend AirMagnet Trio. At $3495, Trio is competitively-priced with other commercial WLAN analyzers. Sure, that's a heck of a lot more than shareware analyzers like Ethereal. But, frankly, this is one of those cases where I think you really do get what you pay for.

About the author: Lisa Phifer is vice president of Core Competence, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and management technology. She is also a site expert to SearchMobileComputing.com and SearchNetworking.com.

This was first published in December 2003

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