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New tool diagnoses dual-mode access points

Diagnosing wireless LAN problems usually requires special tools, but the latest product from Network Instruments offers hardwired and wireless LAN monitoring -- including dual-mode 802.11a/b access points -- all in one. One network admin says the tool helped him fix a 6-month-old problem in a few hours.

As wireless local area networks become more prevalent, so do problems specific to those networks. Now a single product can troubleshoot both the wired and wireless LAN across multiple air links.

Network Instruments LLC recently updated its network monitoring and protocol analysis tool, Observer. The Minneapolis, Minn., company was the first to extend its hardwired-LAN product to the wireless LAN, and it is now the first to offer a tool for dual-mode 802.11a/b access points.

While 802.11b is the dominant wireless LAN standard today, access points that incorporate both 802.11b as well as the higher speed 802.11a are likely to become popular.

With added wireless capability, network administrators can not only track network performance but also view the entire network on a single screen, which can be a great benefit to IT departments, said Michael Disabato, an analyst with the Midvale, Utah, research firm, the Burton Group. Network Instruments is the only vendor that can enable its users to monitor a wide area network, local area network and Wi-Fi network all at once, Disabato said.

The system can also help with some of the security problems inherent with wireless networks. Network administrators can use Observer to detect rogue wireless access points that can cause significant security holes, said Roman Oliynyk, CEO of Network Instruments.

Keith Nelson, a chief engineer with a Lockheed Martin Corp. facility in Atlanta, used Observer to help troubleshoot problems with networked flight simulators. The graphics on the visual display had been jerky and unusable for months, he said. Using other tools, he had been unable to pinpoint the problem.

Nelson used Observer to record the data stream and play it back on his own machine. When he couldn't detect any problems with the data stream, he soon determined that the problem was not with the network or the data, but with the flight simulator itself.

"Within a couple of hours, we fixed a problem that we'd spent six months trying to figure out," Nelson said.

Nelson said that with the additional wireless capability, he can better troubleshoot connectivity problems. For example, he said, it's easier to determine whether other signals are causing interference and packet loss on the wireless LAN, and he can tell which channel those other signals are using. That way, he can modify his own access points to avoid the interference.

Products such as these are not for every company, Disabato said. Smaller companies with only a few access points will not get a sufficient return on investment. But medium-to-large enterprises with more complex networks are more likely to benefit from using such tools.


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