APs to Sensors and Back Again

Some makers of Wi-Fi infrastructure equipment want to embrace sensors, while others seem to have sensors thrust upon them. No one is complaining.

For instance, this week, Newbury Networks, along with announcing a new “early warning” version of its Wi-Fi Watchdog product, also said it’s working with Cisco Systems to make its Aironet 1100 and 1200 access points into sensors for scanning the air.

Colubris Networks, on the other hand, went looking to turn its 330 APs into sensors. In fact, they licensed the entire software line from AirTight Networks to make their first big play into enterprises with a line of monitoring and security equipment built upon existing and new Colubris equipment.

Carl Blume, Director of Product Marketing at Colubris Networks, says, “We recognized as a company that [to succeed in] the enterprise market, our solutions needed to be augmented with additional RF planning and deployment capabilities so they could install the right number of access points and have the security capabilities to mitigate attacks, and location capabilities to isolate threats as well as exploit mobility — that’s what most of these customers have Wi-Fi for.”

AirTight’s SpectraGuard family will become part of the Colubris InCharge RF Manager appliance and the InReach MAP/Sensor (based on the company’s MultiService Access Points, or MAPs). Running separately or with other Colubris APs, the system will ward off threats such as MAC spoofing, rogue APs, Denial of Service attacks, and more. The Manager appliance will sell for $10,000 to support 50 to 100 sensors, and an enterprise level unit will go for $18,000 and support 100 to 200 sensors. Sensors sell for $800 each.

Colubris will also be reselling the AirTight SpectraGuard Planner software, rebranded as the Colubris InCharge RF Planner. It’s used to visually map out a network using a detailed floor plan, before you even have to buy any equipment.

For Cisco, having its popular and ubiquitous Aironet access points turned into sensors for monitoring and security is nothing new. The company said last year its Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE) for managing the WLAN includes an intrusion detection system (IDS) for finding rogues and other security problems, which could be put to use by companies like AirDefense and AirMagnet.

AirMagnet, in fact, had been working with Colubris to provide security functions through Colubris APs, but AirTight displaced them.

It’s all part of a shift by Wi-Fi security companies that use overlay networks with their own sensors — a costly option that essentially requires installation of a new WLAN infrastructure of sensors just for monitoring — to making the existing APs do the monitoring, at least in part. Other companies moving this way include Network Chemistry, which this past summer started offering Sensor Agent Software free to any vendor that wanted to build it into APs.

Newbury’s $9,995 Wi-Fi Watchdog/EWS (Early Warning System) is meant to be a less expensive entry point for companies that may have a no Wi-Fi policy — it carries just a subset of the features of the full Watchdog. “It’s a result of us looking over our largest customers and discovering that these guys are buying this before they put in a Wi-Fi LAN, to look at what’s in the air around them prior to deployment,” says Newbury spokesman Chuck Conley.

Newbury’s software interface with the Cisco Aironet products (on both the full Watchdog and EWS) is at the application programming interface (API) level. It doesn’t require any new firmware. However, the Aironet APs must be in either Wi-Fi AP mode or sensor mode; they can’t handle both. It’s still an overlay; it’s just using the same infrastructure equipment at the WLAN.

“We’d like to get rid of the conflict and have Newbury offer pure software, with Cisco as the pure infrastructure, with no specialized APs,” says Newbury Networks CEO Michael Maggio. “Cisco, we think, wants to support both monitoring and access point mode at the same time, eventually. That would be good for us as well.”

The opposing argument from Colubris, in a nutshell, is that its MAP/Sensors have two radios inside, both of which are dual-band, so the hardware can support both monitoring/threat response and AP functions simultaneously. “We’ve got dedicated RF management— it’s not part of a switching solution,” says Blume, making a comparison as well to WLAN switch vendors like Aruba, Trapeze and even Cisco.

Even AirTight, which sells its own sensors, admits that the hardware is only slightly cheaper than a Colubris sensor, which is going to be fully upgradeable to a full AP by the first quarter of next year. “You might have portions of a building with a new Wi-Fi policy or using a different [non-Colubris] vendor, and that’s where our sensors would be placed,” says Dennis Tsu, Vice President of Marketing at AirTight.

This gives security companies like AirTight, Newbury, AirMagnet and others the option of getting out of the hardware sensor biz and pushing customers toward infrastructure guys that they can work with.

“A new customer today that wants EWS,” says Newbury’s Maggio, “we’d recommend they use Cisco Aironets, so when they roll out wireless service, they’ve got the access points in place. The idea is to preserve the investment.”

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