Meru Networks has pioneered a new wireless LAN troubleshooting strategy that enables end-to-end user simulation in what resembles an out-of-band management system, and is the first in the space to offer such depth of monitoring and reporting.
"This new SAM, or Service Assurance Module, introduces this notion of a dial tone into the [wireless LAN]," said Andrew Borg, senior research analyst with Aberdeen Group. "It's a health check with very low bandwidth utilization … every hand-off of the data through all the layers of the network is being monitored for its health 24-by-7."
Meru's SAM platform takes advantage of a core differentiator in Meru's overall wireless LAN infrastructure: Its access points (APs) all operate in the same channel frequency. Most WLAN vendors take a microcell approach, and have their APs operate on different channels to limit interference. With Meru, the APs assign a MAC address to each client on the network, and that client is passed from AP to AP transparently. That way when a laptop is moved about an office, it sees just one giant AP rather than dozens handing it off across the network.
The SAM platform builds on this architecture by creating virtual client devices on each AP, Meru founder and CTO Vaduvur Bharghavan said. These virtual clients send synthetic transaction data to other nearby APs. The packets then traverse the network, from one to another, to a controller, into a wired LAN and through to Meru's management server E(z)RF Network Manager, where the SAM platform resides. The SAM is able to track the packets along the entire path since they are given metadata tags.
Ultimately the system analyzes constant packet transfer to establish a baseline of wireless network performance from end to end. It can also determine the source of any failures in the network. For instance, if the synthetic packet moved from one AP to another without a problem but failed to make it to the controller, the problem is traced to the trouble spot. The data can also be stored on the E(z)RF Network Manager server for forensic analysis.
Reducing wireless LAN total cost of ownership
Meru's SAM platform potentially solves a major operations challenge with broad deployments of wireless LAN technology, according to Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group.
"When people buy wireless LAN systems, they tend to worry a lot about capital expenditures," he said. "But the real expense is in owning and operating the system, making sure it's working properly, handling questions, support, and troubleshooting. So anything that vendors can do to automate that is a good thing."
Can an AP truly emulate an endpoint? Still it remains to be seen whether Meru's technology will work. After all, having an AP mimic an endpoint device might have some drawbacks, Burton Group Senior Analyst Paul DeBeasi cautioned.
"These access points are typically hidden in the ceiling," he said. "So it's an access point talking to another access point. That's an imperfect approximation from what a laptop might see sitting down in someone's desk. We've seen that you can move eight or 10 feet and have a different wireless signal depending on interference and things blocking your signal.
Playing catch-up in wireless LAN troubleshooting
If Meru's approach does work, it could solve problems that competing vendors haven't completely tackled with existing wireless LAN troubleshooting and management systems.
"Other vendors are doing things like airtime fairness, bandwidth steering, channel balancing and load balancing," Debeasi said. "Cisco has M-Drive and Aruba has Adaptive Radio Management … but the particular capability of sending background application-based transactions and then being able to go back in time to diagnose problems, no one else has anything like that."
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