Cisco CleanAir Delivers Networkwide RF Analysis

Cisco Systems' new CleanAir Technology delivers spectrum analysis and RF troubleshooting across the WLAN, promising historical forensics, remote diagnosis, accurate source identification and location, and automated remediation actions by the network. CleanAir utilizes specialized hardware embedded within new Aironet 3500 series access points, along with a new version of Cisco's Unified Wireless Network software on the back end to deliver this functionality.

LAS VEGAS, Nev.-At the Interop IT Expo and Conference, Cisco Systems unveiled new CleanAir Technology comprised of spectrum analysis and diagnosis tools designed to help wireless administrators maintain more stable and consistent wireless LAN performance. Comprised of a new line of Aironet access points with specialized embedded detection hardware and new software revisions for Cisco's data center wireless control elements, CleanAir promises a unique and comprehensive diagnostic solution to the problem of non-WiFi radio interference.

In a recent survey of more than 600 of its customers, Cisco revealed that 78 percent of its customers consider the wireless LAN to be a mission-critical resource-indicating the increasing importance of the WiFi network for those surveyed. Meanwhile, 54 percent of respondents indicated RF interference was causing problems with their WLAN, while an additional 18 percent had no idea if that was the case.

To address the dichotomy between the importance of the WLAN and the lack of insight into its overall health and performance, Cisco announced its new CleanAir initiative designed to provide its customers with increased visibility into non-WiFi sources of RF energy and interference via spectrum analysis of both of WiFi's unlicensed spectrum bands. Baked into the network infrastructure, CleanAir aims to provide administrators with granular, detailed and accurate RF information to aid troubleshooting and analysis, while also providing the WiFi network the aggregate intelligence to perform automated interference avoidance actions as well.

Spectrum analysis is not a new thing, but the technology has commonly been found in standalone, laptop-based hardware and software setups. With these tools, RF experts needed to walk the halls of the affected site and take readings of the RF environment, a lengthy process that is divorced from remediation actions as the software was not integrated into the network itself.

Adding spectrum analysis capabilities to access points also isn't a new idea. Aruba Networks recently added the feature to its access points, and Motorola AirDefense products had the capability several years ago. But those companies implemented spectrum analysis in software, using typical WiFi radios to perform the detections.

Cisco's CleanAir differentiates itself by adding specialized spectrum analysis ASICs into their new line of access points, the Aironet 3500 series. By implementing spectrum analysis in hardware, the new APs promise the ability to uniquely identify and track multiple interferers, locate and place them on a map for visualization, and assess each interferer's unique impact on WiFi performance. In this way, administrators can easily gauge an interferers effect on network performance, identify what type of device it is and then accurately pinpoint where it is for quick removal.

Cisco's CleanAir is based upon the technologies purchased as part of Cisco's 2007 acquisition of Cognio. Cisco's Spectrum Expert, which is comprised of PC-based management software and a specialized PC Card for spectrum detection, was licensed for use as part of Fluke Networks' AirMagnet Spectrum Expert. Although AirMagnet continues to sell the Spectrum Expert hardware and software, the company released its new Spectrum XT hardware and software combination earlier this year.

With its detections performed with specialized hardware, Cisco CleanAir may be able to more accurately identify the type of device causing the interference than would be possible with a software-only implementation. Cisco representatives claim that software-only implementations may be able to detect RF energy but can't get enough detail about the interference or its source, particularly with multiple interferers present.