Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Missing Feature in WiFi Solutions: Performance Testing

In this article I suggest a nice feature that would provide a useful WiFi vendor differentiation and a valuable tool for administrators of WiFi networks.

As a WiFi network value added re-seller (VAR) I visit a lot of customers, interacting mainly with the poor, down-trodden folks who comprise the IT department of an organisation. They are generally responsible for fending off the daily barrage of complaints about "the network".

In general, they are mainly concerned about two factors when it comes to their wireless network: coverage and performance. There are many other factors that they should probably be concerned about, but these are the two factors that tend to keep users off their back if they are both taken care of.

Verifying WiFi coverage for an average IT administrator is generally very simple. They simply do a Google search download a tool such as Metageek's inSSIDer and visit the area where users are complaining. Even if they don't manage to use dedicated tool such as inSSIDer, they will generally check the 'number of bars' displayed on a wireless client to get an idea of signal strength in an area. They will very quickly be able to determine if they have a coverage issue by verifying signal levels around a particular area.(Note: this isn't the only factor to consider, there may be other issues such as non-WiFi interference from security cameras, microwave ovens etc., but that's a discussion for another day). 

However, once coverage has been verified, then comes the more challenging issue of testing performance over the wireless network. The number one way I tend to see end users testing their WiFi network (especially on tablet or smartphone devices) is to fire up an app such as SpeedTest.net and verify the throughput to the Internet. Whilst this approach is easy to get a quick assessment of how throughout might look, there are a lot of holes in this approach, not least because it relies on both the bandwidth and current utilization of your Internet pipe. In many organizations, the results vary based on time of day (i.e. number of users on the Internet). It also provides no differentiation between the various components that the test data may traverse (i.e. wireless, wired and Internet).

There are several options that could be deployed by IT administrators, such as setting up an iPerf server somewhere on the network. They could then grab a copy of iPerf off the iTunes store or the Play store (Android) to do some throughput testing. However, I generally never see anyone using this approach, (I'm guessing as most folks don't have the time, knowledge or inclination to do it...).

For me, the answer is simple: WiFi vendors should build performance testing features in to their products.

Here are some high-level thoughts on how this might look: 
  • A server process along the lines of iPerf built in to each AP or controller
  • A reserved IP address (nominated at install-time) on each SSID (or even a hidden test SSID) for testing
  • A wireless-vendor created user app that could be downloaded from your favorite app store. This would allow IT admins to test the WiFi performance using various presets (e.g. voice/data etc.), taking away the complexity of the myriad of confusing options in tools like iPerf
Given the current processing power of the hardware of current WiFi solutions, how hard could this be!?!?

The benefits for IT admins of a feature of this type are enormous. It would certainly help to prove whether or not "its the wireless network", or whether the perhaps they need to look elsewhere. An approach like this would be a nice differentiator for a wireless vendor, as I'm not aware of anyone providing this kind of function integrated in to their solution (let me know if I'm wrong about this).

The marketing benefits of an app like this for a vendor are hopefully self-evident (brand awareness, targeted ads/messages). I suspect that the screen real-estate for WiFi testing tool vendors would be very appealing too - imagine the attraction of advertising to a user who is currently suffering a WiFi issue!

In addition, this type of functionality could be very useful to those of us perform wireless surveys,perhaps providing an easy method of  performing active surveys if an iPerf server was available as an integral function of WiFi infrastructure kit.

Well, that's my ten cents/pennies worth (depending on where you live). It would be nice to see a vendor implement something along these lines...anyone..? "Bueller, Bueller, Bueller....."

Update 25/08/13: Since posting this, I had some feedback on twitter from various folks (@revolutionwifi, @wifikiwi, @dszp) about some vendor products that have iPerf  (or similar test features).

I believe that Aerohive has iPerf available from the CLI on some of its products, Ruckus has the 'Zap' utility and Aruba has some form of client test utility. I don't get to use Ruckus or Aruba, but I'll be having a closer look at the Aerohive iPerf server.

Looking on the Apple app store, the Ruckcus 'Zapper' app looks very promising and is probably well worth checking out if you have a Ruckus network.

Despite these few items, the landscape for client testing across many vendors is still not exactly 'great' and these is a lot of work to do to enable end-users to easily evaluate their WiFi network performance.