GeekTools: SolarWinds Wireless Heat Maps

Ever changing environments are the biggest problem that wireless engineers face. A new site can be surveyed, and based on that, an ideal wireless design can be created for the space providing perfect signal, overlap, and SNR; the wireless engineer leaves the site, SolarWinds NPM Wireless Heat Mapsmoving on to the next assignment, and that perfect design last through the weekend. Now the engineer is located in a different state, working on a different project, and is getting calls from the customer.

“Hey, we have problems, and I need you to fix them.” the customer says.
“Ok, can you describe the problem for me?” the engineer ask. Secretly, the engineer is shocked the customer is calling for any reason other than to laude the engineers talent, foresight, and general awesomeness.
“None of our customers can connect in the waiting area.” states the customer with disapproval.

Generally, troubleshooting this type of problem is straight forward. A quick look for interferers, a check to ensure all equipment is still functioning, and a general eye for anything that has changed. As a nod to the possibility of a changed environment, a simple question is asked.

“Has anything at the site changed? the engineer queries.
“Of course not” is the answer the customer provides, voice now dripping with disappointment.

Thus, the engineer continues to dig further.

Large enterprise organizations who deploy Cisco hardware generally keep maps for each facility in Cisco Prime. Smaller organizations without the budget or time to assign to Prime can find themselves looking for a different solution.

SolarWinds has a new solution that is part of NPM 11.5 and it is worth investigating. They now offer wireless heat maps. The simplicity of setting up the heat maps makes it easy for under-staffed shops to use the tool effectively. Import the floor plan, set scale, and then drag the AP’s supplied by the Cisco WLAN Controller onto the map into the correct locations. Once the AP’s are placed, the software makes a best-guess of wireless coverage. This is a standard but flawed practice.

The issue lies in physical placement of the AP’s within their environment. The AP’s are all at ceiling height, above cube walls, water features, whiteboards, and many other sources of signal degradation. The clients are on a much lower plane, and therefor see a different footprint.

SolarWinds solves this issue by allowing an engineer to place known clients on the map, and then use those to further improve the heat map. This provides a tool that can be used to understand what is happening at standard client heights, where signal matters.

“Oh look, now I see a huge null in the coverage.” the engineer says. “Are you sure there haven’t been any changes near the AP I placed by the receptionist desk?
“Oh, that’s right. We hung the sign this weekend” says the customer.
“That large metal sign that was in the shop area last week?” ask the engineer.
“Yeah, that’s the one, We suspended it from the ceiling right over the receptionist. It looks awesome. That wouldn’t cause this problem would it?”

The engineer proceeds to bang his head against the desk with a dull thud, thud, thud.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those responsible*

Watch SolarWinds discussing their wireless heat maps at Network Field Day 9 here: (Heat map discussion starts at 19:40)

-I participated in Network Field Day 9 as a delegate. As part of that participation, the cost of all travel and accommodations were covered. Additionally, some companies chose to give delegates small gifts for their participation. These accommodations do not in any way constitute a requirement for coverage, good or bad. In short, I am an opinionated jerk,  I was invited despite that, and anything I write is purely my own opinion. Special thanks to Tech Field Day, for the service they provide to engineers and vendors. If you would like to be a delegate at a future event, you can learn more here.  

Hey Apple, Help Us, Help You!

When the iPhone debuted on the AT&T network, AT&T was clearly not expecting the demand that was created. They were caught off-guard by the influx of customers, and more importantly they were surprised by the data consumption of users, who had purchased a device created to consume data. Problems were reported at a ridiculous rate, and rumors abounded everywhere within the Tech blogs that Apple was threatening to take their ball phone and go home to Verizon if AT&T didn’t do something fast.

In the mean time, Apple began working on ways of optimizing the iPhones use of the carriers network, and kept pushing AT&T for improvements. It took AT&T a couple years, and a LOT of money to build their network up. Some people will argue that if the iPhone had not been made available on other carriers that AT&T would still be having issues.

Apple studies, lives and dies by user experience. They knew that a poorly performing network would reflect on their device. It was not enough to simply blame the network. If the network wasn’t available, then features of their phone weren’t available either.

With that in mind… Apple DOES NOT provide developer access to wireless API’s in IOS. Troubleshooting WLAN issues for IOS devices can only be accomplished from the infrastructure side. Without jailbreaking an iPhone, there is no way to access RSSI, SNR, or other WLAN statistics.

Which device is best for troubleshooting iPad connectivity issues on a WLAN? If you answer anything other than “another iPad”, go directly to jail, do not pass go, and do not collect $200. This is an oversight decision that Apple needs to quickly reconsider.

Apple, we are the network. Without WLAN Engineers, iPads and iPhones won’t function correctly on corporate networks. Without the proper tools, WLAN engineers cannot support IOS devices when there are issues on the WLAN. Without tools, our network problems reflect on your devices. Help US, help YOU.

Explaining wireless overlap to non-techies.

Yesterday I was called about a problem in a new warehouse where I had recently rolled out wireless. I knew what the problem was before I ever logged into the wireless LAN controller. My organization leases approximate two thirds of a large warehouse, and the remaining space is occupied by various organizations. Those various organizations are broadcasting from 29 unique AP’s all crowded into the 2.4Ghz space.

I knew the issue, because I had raised the red flag before the project had even begun. I explained the problems that would be experienced, due to the other networks,  and that there was little I could do to mitigate the problem. I was able to work with the building owner to disable AP’s that existed on our side of the warehouse.

Since I had already explained the problem once, I thought I would take a different tack. I typed out a quick short story that explains the overlap problem, and sent it off. It seems the story made a positive impact and helped the manager understand the root of the problem. I thought I would share this to help bridge the gap between engineers and business managers, that need to understand wireless problems.

Bob is excited to finally be going to the XYZ annual conference in Podunck, Al. This year, the conference is bigger than ever, and he was lucky to even get a ticket. When he arrives, he learns that all sessions will be taking place in room 1, room 6, or room 11. Since he paid extra, he has two days of additional classes which he can choose to attend, and quickly fills his schedule.

On the first day, each session is taught from the stage, with the latest in PA equipment. The speaker is easily heard, and the presentation is clear and effective. Bob ask a few questions, and gets answers he both understands, and appreciates. He leaves feeling like he has learned an incredible amount in a very short period of time.

On the second day, more people have arrived at the conference, and he is surprised to find that each room has two classes going on at the same time. There is now a stage at each end of the room labeled A and B. Also, since the focus of the second day is Q&A, audience participation is paramount for the day to be effective. After breakfast, Bob gets a seat near Stage A, and while Stage B is distracting at times, he is still able to understand things that are being said. After lunch, however he isn’t so lucky. Near the middle of the auditorium noise from the Stage B often overwhelms the sound from stage A. Also, when the Stage B audience participates, he gets distracted, and forgets the question he wanted to ask the presenter on Stage A. Once he finally remembers, and gets the attention of Stage A, it is clear that they can’t understand him, so he repeats his question multiple times. Finally the presenter understands the question, but Stage B creates so much noise that Bob never hears the answer. Bob leaves that day feeling frustrated.

On the third day, everyone has arrived. Bob is horrified to learn that each room will have 4 sessions running simultaneously. The scene is pure pandemonium, and Bob does something smart…he spends the day playing golf.