In spite of the shared heritage, 802.11 is not Ethernet. It has a number of additional protocol features, each of which can cause problems. Fixing problems on 802.11 networks sometimes requires that a network administrator get down to the low-level protocol details and see what is happening over the airwaves. Network analyzers have long been viewed as a useful component of the network administrator's toolkit on wired networks for their ability to report on the low-level details. Analyzers on wireless networks will be just as useful, and possibly even more important. More things can go wrong on an 802.11 network, so a good analyzer is a vital tool for quickly focusing troubleshooting on the likely culprit.
Avoiding problems begins at the planning stages. Some analyzers can report detailed statistics on RF signal strength, which can help place access points. Analyzers can help network administrators avoid creating dead zones by ensuring that there is enough overlap at the edges of BSSs to allow for timely transitions. As wireless networks grow in popularity, they may need to support more users. To avoid performance problems, administrators may consider shrinking the size of access point coverage areas to get more aggregate throughput in a given area. In the process of shrinking the coverage areas, network administrators may go through large parts of the deployment plan all over again and depend once again on their analyzer.
With the limited bit rates of wireless networks, performance is likely to be a problem sooner or later. Performance problems can be caused by cramming too many users into too few access points, or they can be related to problems happening at the radio layer. The designers of 802.11 were aware of the problems that could be caused by the radio transmission medium. Frame transmissions succeed reliably. Most implementations will also retransmit frames with simpler (and slower) encoding methods and fragment frames in the presence of persistent interference.
Interference can be a problem for 802.11 network performance. In addition to the direct effect of trashing transmitted frames that then require retransmission, interference has two indirect effects. Poor transmission quality may cause a station to step down to a lower bit rate in search of more reliable radio link quality. Even if slower transmissions usually succeed, some measure of throughput is lost at the lower bit rates. 802.11 stations may also attempt to fragment pending frames to work around interference, which reduces the percentage of transmissions that carry end-user data. 802.11 headers are quite large compared to other LAN protocols, and fragmentation increases the amount of header information transmitted for a fixed amount of data.
On many networks, however, only a few applications are used. Do performance complaints indicate a general network problem, or a problem with a specific application? Network analyzers can help you find the cause of the problem by examining the distribution of packet sizes. More small packets may indicate excessive use of fragmentation in the face of interference. Some analyzers can also report on the distribution of frames' transmission rates on a wireless network. 802.11b networks are capable of transmitting at 11 Mbps, but frames may be transmitted at slower rates (5. 5 Mbps, 2 Mbps, or even 1 Mbps) if interference is a problem. Stations capable of high-rate operation but nonetheless transmitting at lower rates may be subject to a large amount of interference. Performance depends on radio capacity. Stations that have stepped down to lower rates may not require a great deal of throughput for data service, but the slower rates require a great deal of time on the radio medium. Some analyzers can report the radio utilization as distinct from throughput, which is valuable in tracking down certain types of performance problems.
To solve interference problems, you can attempt to reorient the access point or its antenna, or place a new access point in a zone with poor coverage. Rather than waiting for users to report on their experience with the changes in place, you can use an analyzer to get a quick idea of whether the changes will help alleviate the problem. Some analyzers can provide extensive reports on the RF signal quality of received frames, which can help you place hardware better the first time around. Avoiding repeated experimentation directly with end users makes you look better and makes users happier. Shortening troubleshooting cycles has always been a strength of network analyzers.
Analyzers also help network administrators check on the operation of unique features of the 802.11 MAC. While it is possible to capture traffic once it has been bridged on to a wireless backbone network and analyze it there, the problem could always be on the wireless link. Are frames being acknowledged? If they are not, there will be retransmissions. Are the distribution system bits set correctly? If they are not, then address fields will be misinterpreted. If a malformed packet is seen on the wired side of an access point, it could be mangled at several points. A wireless analyzer can look at frames as they travel through the air to help you pin down the source of the mangled packet. Malformed frames may be transmitted by the client or mangled by the access point, and it is helpful to pin down the problem before requesting assistance from the vendor.
802.11 Network Analyzers
802.11 network analyzers are now quite common and should be a part of any wireless LAN administrator's toolbox. Most 802.11 network analyzers are software packages that use an 802.11 network card. No special hardware is required because 802.11 network cards supply all the RF hardware needed to grab packets.
A network analyzer should be part of the deployment budget for any wireless network. The choice to buy or build is up to you, although I anticipate that most institutions will rely primarily on commercial products and leave development and bug fixes to the network analyzer vendors, especially because commercial analyzers can be purchased, installed, and made useful much more quickly.
AirMagnet (http://www.airmagnet.com) and AiroPeek from WildPackets (http://www.wildpackets.com) are the two best-known commercial wireless analyzers. I have used both extensively in the Interop Labs when troubleshooting various wireless problems.
Introduction to Wireless Networking
Overview of 802.11 Networks
11 MAC Fundamentals
11 Framing in Detail
Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)
User Authentication with 802.1X
11i: Robust Security Networks, TKIP, and CCMP
Contention-Free Service with the PCF
Physical Layer Overview
The Frequency-Hopping (FH) PHY
The Direct Sequence PHYs: DSSS and HR/DSSS (802.11b)
11a and 802.11j: 5-GHz OFDM PHY
11g: The Extended-Rate PHY (ERP)
A Peek Ahead at 802.11n: MIMO-OFDM
Using 802.11 on Windows
11 on the Macintosh
Using 802.11 on Linux
Using 802.11 Access Points
Logical Wireless Network Architecture
Site Planning and Project Management
11 Network Analysis
11 Performance Tuning
Conclusions and Predictions