Review: Motorola RF Management Suite (Part 1)

By Lisa Phifer

July 30, 2008

This comprehensive four-in-one toolkit provides integrated end-to-end network management for large, distributed Motorola WLANs.

Motorola RF Management Suite
www.motorola.com
Pros: Single-point visibility; unusually broad functionality; beneficial integration.
Cons: Complex GUIs and workflows; somewhat challenging to learn and debug.

According to Sujai Hajela, VP and General Manager of Motorola's Enterprise WLAN Division, a wireless LAN deployment mixes sophisticated science with a bit of artistry. Motorola's RF Management Suite can help administrators calibrate that art, he said, by letting them manage their entire enterprise WLAN through a single console.

"Businesses that depend on their wireless networks don't care to manage point products individually. They want a holistic view of overall system health and the ability to control it," said Hajela. "By integrating our planning, monitoring, locationing, and security tools into one unified suite, we can deliver that kind of comprehensive, end-to-end RF management."

Everything but the kitchen sink

Like all WLAN vendors, Motorola provides element management for its 802.11 switches and access points. Administrators can configure those devices individually through SSL GUIs or Telnet and monitor faults through SNMP traps or SYSLOG events. But, while Element Managers are viable in small WLANs, they simply cannot scale to enterprise WLANs composed of hundreds of switches and thousands of APs.

Instead, large enterprise WLANs must be administered through network management systems—sophisticated supervisory products that interact with element managers to carry out the device-level tasks associated with overall network provisioning, maintenance, surveillance, and tuning.

For example, suppose you wanted to roll out a firmware upgrade to every AP in North America. A network management system could figure out precisely which switches and APs are affected, contact each device to schedule a firmware download, and then verify that all were completed successfully. While this indirection would be overkill in a small WLAN, it is clearly critical in a large distributed WLAN.

However, Motorola's RF Management Suite doesn't just automate routine WLAN maintenance tasks. Instead, it combines four stand-alone network management tools that address different parts of a WLAN's lifecycle.Suite.jpg

  • Motorola's LAN Planner starts by automating WLAN design, using predictive RF modeling to propose AP layouts that satisfy throughput and coverage requirements. Floor maps and associated RF characteristics generated by LAN Planner are then used by other members of the RF Management Suite.
  • After WLAN deployment, Motorola's RF Management Software (RFMS) lets administrators visualize each site's current health and past performance. RFMS can display monitored RF data on hand-drawn maps, but LAN Planner imports turn RFMS into a real-time trouble-shooting tool.
  • Motorola's Wireless Intrusion Protection System (WIPS) goes beyond the basic AP-generated rogue alerts presented by RFMS. WIPS uses AirDefense server software and Motorola hardware to analyze full-time sensor/AP observations, tracking and responding to security incidents and policy violations. [Editor’s note: Motorola announced this week that it will acquire AirDefense. Click here for more.]
  • Motorola's Mobility Services Platform (MSP) RF Management Edition is the glue that integrates the entire suite into one unified console.  In addition to automating maintenance tasks like backup/restore, the MSP feeds monitored alerts and polled data to RFMS, gathers security alerts from WIPS, and presents everything through a single hierarchical management dashboard (below).

Fig11-MSP-Dashboard_sm.jpg

 

Loosely coupled or tightly integrated

By covering the entire WLAN lifecycle, the RF Management Suite offers one-stop-shopping for Motorola customers.

Without this suite, Motorola customers could use any traditional SNMP NMS to gather traps and/or any third-party wired or wireless IPS to detect intrusions. Coverage might be no less complete, but it would certainly be disjoint from AP-based rogue detection and LAN Planner outputs. By purchasing an integrated suite, customers avoid the hassle of assembling piece parts and determining whether and how they fit together. Costs may even be reduced by running management components on the same server platform.

Furthermore, customers can start with individual components—for example, deploying the MSP to centralize operations in a large WLAN. Components like LAN Planner and WIPS can be added later as dictated by business needs and budget. But when we took the RF Management Suite for a test drive, we found that some components are more tightly integrated than others.

Specifically, we tested the MSP RF Management Edition—a version of the MSP that includes RFMS. In fact, these products were so tightly integrated that we could not evaluate RFMS as a stand-alone offering. The only way we could launch RFMS was by using the MSP to navigate to the desired site, then clicking the RFMS button for that site. All RFMS site, switch, and AP objects were populated directly by MSP discovery. This integration is clearly advantageous for customers that want to use both products to manage Motorola devices. However, some admins might still prefer direct access to RFMS.

WIPS lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. An AirDefense WIPS server is loosely coupled to the MSP by a single Security Manager node in the NOC tree (shown below). Unlike AP-generated rogue alerts, WIPS alerts don't get propagated to RFMS or combined with other events on the affected device's Health & Events panel. We found little benefit in viewing WIPS alerts from the MSP's dashboard—we always ended up clicking "Launch WIPS Console" to investigate alerts using the AirDefense GUI.

Fig12-MSP-WIPS_sm.jpg

Click to see a larger view.

Under the covers, closer integration exists between Motorola APs and the AirDefense WIPS server. Specifically, any AP-300 can be converted into a WIPS sensor by reconfiguring the upstream switch (manually or through the MSP). We used AirDefense to detect many security threats this way, but had no luck locating or blocking threats with converted AP-300s. Because we were unable to exercise these key WIPS features, we chose not to review this component of the RF Management Suite.

Finally, Motorola's LAN Planner lies between these two extremes. Site planning is completed before the MSP or RFMS get fired up, so there is no real-time interface between LAN Planner and the rest of the RF Management Suite. Rather, as each new site comes on-line, integration is accomplished by exporting the plan file and importing it into RFMS. Nonetheless, RFMS makes extensive use of the data imported from LAN Planner. We found the combination of these products more powerful than either would have been on its own.

Coming up next

To review Motorola's RF Management Suite, we took an unconventional approach.  Usually, we review products by installing them in our own test lab for an independent test drive. But a suite like this is best understood by managing and monitoring a much larger, distributed network than we could create on our own.

So we worked with Motorola to come up with a test environment that offered enough complexity and diversity to exercise the RF Management Suite—albeit from the opposite side of the country.

Motorola staff installed the MSP, RFMS, and WIPS software on a Motorola server—in reality, two virtual machines operating on the same laptop in California. We accessed that Motorola management server remotely via RDP.

We installed a pair of Motorola WS-2000 switches and three Motorola AP-300 APs here in our Pennsylvania test lab. We installed another Motorola AP-5131 next door, creating two local sites that we "designed" using LAN Planner. We also had MSP/RFMS access to a couple of remote Motorola sites that hosted additional switches and APs.

As testing progressed, this approach proved both insightful and frustrating. Insightful because it allowed us to truly experience the power and pain of remote WLAN management. Frustrating because we could not restart the management server or monitor management traffic as in a local test bed. We also ran into VM clock drift and dynamic IP update challenges that simply would not have occurred in a production installation.

Nonetheless, we ended up with a reasonably realistic environment for putting the MSP, RFMS, and LAN Planner through their paces. In the coming weeks, we will publish our reviews for those three RF Management Suite components.  Stay tuned...

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. She has been involved in the design, implementation, assessment, and testing of wireless products and networks for nearly 15 years.



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