Professional tools – Ekahau

As I started to take up the mantle of WiFi human for a university campus, it was mentioned that we had “the Ekahau laptop”. This turned out to be a woefully under powered old netbook with Ekahau Site Survey installed. Nobody knew how to use it. So I learned.

Fast forward a few years and I’m an Ekahau Certified Survey Engineer who’s designed and surveyed a lot of our campus using this tool.

Ekahau Site Survey is, as the name suggests, a survey tool. It’s also a WiFi design tool. I’ve used it extensively for both tasks and it’s probably one tool I’d struggle to do without.

One of the strengths of ESS it’s relative simplicity. At the most basic level you import a floor plan, set a scale and then you’re ready to use this for predictive design work, or a real world survey.

Surveying is a matter of walking around a building, while clicking on your location on the floor plan. There’s a technique to this of course, but it really is just a matter of walking the floors.

To use Ekahau Site Survey as a design tool you’ll need to draw on walls, doors, filing cabinets and other attenuation areas as appropriate. Then you can place APs on the plan and ESS will show you what coverage can be expected.

What should be obvious about both predictive and survey data is the pretty visualisations generated by ESS will show you exactly what you’ve told it. If you put junk data into your predictive model by saying all the walls are drywall with a 3dB attenuation, your design isn’t going to work very well when it turns out you have 10dB brick walls. So it’s important to have some idea of the building construction and, ideally, have taken measurements.

Likewise with the survey side, if you’re inaccurate with your location clicking or walk 100m between clicks and force ESS to average the data over too large an area, you’ll get a result that’s not as useful.

In short, you do need to know how to use the tool – just like anything.

A quick mention of WiFi adapters. ESS works by scanning the selected WiFi channels (all available in your regulatory domain by default) and recording information and received signal strength of the beacons transmitted from access points. It’s necessary to have a compatible WiFi adapter that can be placed in monitor mode. Low cost options are available. If you give ESS two or three adapters it will spread the channel scan across these, allowing data to be gathered more quickly. ESS will also use the built in WiFi of your laptop to ping an IP or perform speed tests against an iperf server.

I started with a single USB interface, which I used to bash on door frames, before upgrading to a quick release (lego glued to the laptop lid) USB hub with three interfaces connected. This made the laptop lid too heavy and it would fall backwards.

To counter these first world problems, but also to allow for other interesting functionality, Ekahau made the Sidekick. It’s a neat box containing two dual band WiFi radios (802.11ac), a very fast spectrum analyser, processing capability and storage, and a built in battery.

For surveying Sidekick isn’t a necessity but it makes life much easier. The data gathered is more complete, the laptop battery lasts longer and the spectrum analyser capability turns ESS into a powerful troubleshooting tool.

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