Review: Ekahau Mobile Survey for Android

Tuesday Dec 7th 2010 by Lisa Phifer
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If you've been depending on a cheap smart phone stumbler and shying away from pricier dedicated survey hardware, Ekahau's Android-based site survey tool takes a little from both in terms of convenience and functionality.

Full Product Name, Model: Ekahau Mobile Survey
Manufacturer's URL: http://www.ekahau.com/
List Price: $299
Pros: Turns smartphone into real-time monitor, at-a-glance status, ESS integration
Cons: Map and rogue ACLs require ESS, screen size limitations, pricey for standalone use

Wireless LAN administrators often need to monitor RF activity for purposes of security auditing, performance analysis and operational trouble-shooting. To accomplish this, most admins carry at least a couple of "net stumblers" -- basic (usually free) programs that run on Wi-Fi enabled laptops and mobile devices, ranging from WinCE to iPhone.

But few sophisticated commercial WLAN monitoring and analysis tools have been released for mobile devices. 802.11n has been slow to emerge on mobile devices, mobile SDK APIs have been a moving target, and graphics have been hampered by limited real estate. As a result, products in this arena have tended to be dedicated or purpose-built devices -- such as Fluke's AirCheck tester and BVS' YellowJacket-BANG analyzer.

This week, Ekahau decided to take a crack at this market by releasing Ekahau Mobile Survey ($299), a commercial toolkit for Android-based smartphones (and soon tablets). Supported devices include the Samsung Galaxy S, Google Nexus One, HTC Desire/Desire HD/Desire Z, HTC Evo 4G and MyTouch 4G, and Motorola Droid X/2/original -- essentially, any phone or tablet running Android 2.1 or later with at least 480x800 screen resolution.

WLAN survey pocket power

To be truly useful for busy WLAN admins, a toolkit like Mobile Survey must be easy to install and use. After using it for a few days, we conclude that Ekahau largely achieved these goals.

We installed Mobile Survey by downloading the v1.0.5 APK file from Ekahau's website onto a HTC Droid Eris running Android 2.1. Customers can buy a program license from Ekahau itself or through Ekahau distributors and resellers. Although Android Marketplace sales might be a nice addition, we believe that Mobile Survey will appeal largely to Ekahau Site Survey (ESS) customers and may end up being purchased in product bundles.

After installation, Mobile Survey can be launched directly from the Android programs menu, or by tapping the supplied Mobile Survey widget. The widget (below) is surprisingly handy, offering at-a-glance signal strength, data rate, and association status. This info is paired with play/pause buttons that control the program's real-time monitoring feature. Here we found a small pre-release bug - play/pause buttons did not become active until the phone was restarted.

Ekahau's Wi-Fi survey app on an Android phone

If you plan to use active monitoring, connect to the desired WLAN (SSID and perhaps AP) before running Mobile Survey. This is necessary because Mobile Survey does not provide an embedded link to (or direct control over) the Android phone's Wi-Fi settings. Integrated Wi-Fi connection control would be a nice addition - especially because admins often want active measurements to be taken when associated to a specified AP.

Under the covers with Mobile Survey

Upon program launch, Mobile Survey displays a series of tabs: Test, Map, APs, Log, and Configuration (below).

Ekahau's Wi-Fi survey shows a series of tabs

The APs Tab offers results similar to many basic "net stumblers": a scrollable list of discovered APs, identified by MAC , ESSID, channel, security mode, and SNR . But Mobile Survey goes further by classifying APs: green for associated, red for suspected rogue, black for everything else. For ESS customers, AP classification is based on the Access Control List (ACL) contained in an imported Site Survey Project file -- we expect admins would find this filtering very useful. However, for non-ESS-customers, Mobile Survey uses AP MAC and ESSID to guess possible rogues. We had variable results with the latter -- mostly dead-on but occasionally not. If desired, rogue alarms can be disabled using the Configuration/Requirement Profile menu.

If the APs Tab and a status widget were all that Mobile Survey offered, we would be hard-pressed to pay $29 for this program - much less $299. Fortunately, that is most definitely NOT the case.

Take the Map Tab. ESS customers can upload an ESX (Site Survey Project Export) file to the phone's root directory, then tap this screen to import a site map, complete with AP locations. Mobile Survey color-codes nearby authorized APs: green connected, blue visible, grey for everything else. Tap on any individual AP to view MAC, SSID, channel, security mode, and SNR.

A map makes it easier to visualize what might otherwise be a lengthy AP list and of course find them when walking a facility. While this map is not a heatmap or real-time rogue locator, it does put monitored AP metrics into very helpful context. This is particularly useful in a mobile tool where one needs to zero in on target APs quickly and accurately.

Real-time results

Unlike the Map Tab, which applies only to ESS customers, the Test Tab delivers valuable results of interest to just about any admin. Using a requirements profile, the Test Tab (below) presents real-time active or passive test results in a very easy-to-consume way. Moreover, those results represent in-situ experience of a real Wi-Fi client device (albeit an Android phone that is probably less powerful than most laptop Wi-Fi clients).

Ekahau's Wi-Fi survey app performing a test.

Side-by-side columns display SNR, data rate, packet loss, roundtrip delay, and rogue presence, updated in real-time and/or at monitoring intervals. By comparing current status (Now) to profiled requirements (Limit), each metric is color coded to highlight problems. An overall Network Status clearly indicates whether any metric is out-of-spec. This makes it easy to see whether a particular type of Wi-Fi user would likely experience trouble when associated to the same AP from the same location as the smartphone running Mobile Survey.

However, what makes this monitoring feature really zip are configurable requirements profiles. Simply use the Configuration Tab to select from a list of built-in profiles: Basic Connectivity, Email/Web, High Speed Connectivity, Voice, or RTLS. If no profile represents a target constituency, just modify the underlying criteria: minimum signal strength/data rate and maximum round trip delay/packet loss. This Tab can also be used to specify a host to ping for delay/loss (by default the nearest gateway) and monitoring frequency (by default 120 seconds).

These metrics are not terribly abstract - for example, Mobile Survey isn't going to monitor Voice support by sending VoIP protocols or measuring MOS score. However, they do make Mobile Survey more flexible than a basic net stumbler or ping tool. Combining them with scheduled measurement makes for an automated tool that generates alarms whenever requirements are not met. Those alarms can be viewed using the Log Tab or emailed upon request. Drill down on any alarm to see additional detail or add tester annotations (a handy feature).

Handy helper

During our Mobile Survey monitoring, we encountered just one real hiccup: our Droid Eris is slightly smaller than the minimum screen size, preventing us from turning monitoring off within the program itself. Fortunately, we could still use the widget to start/pause monitoring, which we found important to preserve our phone's battery life. (After all, a key benefit of Ekahau's approach is that the Android phone used to run Mobile Survey is still usable as a phone!)

Mobile Survey clearly provided more insight than readily-available free/inexpensive Android (or iPhone or WinCE) "stumblers" or ping tools. More importantly, it supplied this insight in an easily-consumable form. This is a critical factor in any mobile tool, where testing is somewhat ad hoc and useful results are needed quickly, with minimal user input. ESS customers will definitely get more from Mobile Survey due to ESX file integration for maps and rogue ACLs.

However, our brief test drive with Mobile Survey left us wanting more. At $299, Mobile Survey costs far less than a dedicated hardware tester. But, even at this price, we'd have to think twice about purchasing Mobile Survey for stand-alone (non-ESS-integrated) use. On our wish list: clients associated to each AP, ability to send configurable kinds of test traffic, and ability to save periodic monitor results to a file for future use.

Overall, we found Mobile Survey a promising foundation -- and a very positive indication about the role that Android (and other mobile devices) can play in sophisticated mobile WLAN analysis and trouble-shooting. We hope to see Ekahau continue to extend Mobile Survey for stand-alone use -- and perhaps offer attractively-priced bundles to ESS customers.

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