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7 Best Tools for Monitoring Wireless Networks

Wireless networks are more common than ever. There used to be a time when connecting a computer to a network meant running cabling to it and equipment placement—especially in corporate environments—was often dictated by network jack availability. With the advent of portable devices such as laptop computers, users started to want to move about with them. Finding network jack was often a problem. With wireless networks, this is no longer the case. One is free to go anywhere and use devices with no other connectivity option that wireless such as modern tablet or smartphones.

But monitoring wireless networks poses a new challenge. How do one monitors something that can’t even be seen? Much like any other monitoring task, it’s actually just a matter of using the right tool for the job. And this tool is called the WiFi analyzer. It can take different forms and run on different platforms but they all have a common goal, provide some information about the status of a wireless network. Analyzers running on portable devices such as smartphones or tablets can be particularly interesting as they can be brought to any location for on-the-spot troubleshooting. Today, we’re presenting some of the best tools we could find for monitoring wireless networks.

We’ll start off by discussing the specific challenge of monitoring wireless networks and how it is different from monitoring wired ones. We’ll then describe what WiFi analyzers are, how they operate and why you may need them. Then, we’ll discuss WiFi heat maps as they are an essential tool when planning wireless network deployments. And finally, we’ll review some of the best tools we could find. We’ll first have a look at tools running on Windows and then we’ll cover Android-based tools that you can use on-the-go.

The Challenge Of Monitoring Wireless Networks

Monitoring wired networks is easy—kind of. You simply need to use a monitoring tool that can read your networking devices’ interface counters. Buth things are different with a wireless network. You don’t have physical interfaces to monitor. And you probably don’t care much about the bandwidth utilization of each connection.

Monitoring wireless networks can mean different things too. On one hand, it could be the actual monitoring of airwaves to discover what signal is available and, more importantly, the relative level of desired as compared to parasitic or unwanted signals. On the other hand, monitoring can also mean the capture and analysis of wireless access points operational parameters. Thing like signal strength, available channels, number of current connections, and a whole lot more can easily be gleaned by wireless analysis tools.

WiFi Analyzers To The Rescue

The term WiFi Analyzer is quite broad and generic. To put it simply, it is anything that can be used to analyze WiFi traffic, data, and/or signals. Every maker of such software seems to have its own idea of what it is and what it should be. In one sentence, WiFi analyzers are tools that can let you “see” WiFi networks. For example, in a location with several WiFi networks, each using a different SSID, a WiFi analyzer will list what SSIDs are available and, most of the time, the strength of each SSID’s signal.

Some WiFi Analyzers go deeper and can identify a source of interference that might be hindering a WiFi connection. Those tools are very useful as diagnostic tools. Some WiFi analyzers collect data about all WiFi networks they can find and display that information in a useful manner. Most WiFi analyzers boast some sort of visual display depicting WiFi networks. Others present data in a table format.

There are two general types of WiFi analyzers. Those which capture WiFi radio waves emitted by WiFi access points and those which connect to access points using SNMP or other means to read their operational parameter. The best tools combine both techniques, offering the greatest level of detail.

The Need For Monitoring Wireless Networks

Much like it is for wired network monitoring, wireless network monitoring helps you keep a watchful eye on what’s going on. And just like their wired network equivalents, They’re useful in assisting with troubleshooting issues with your wireless networks.

Let’s pretend that users are complaining of frequent slowdowns or disconnects on the wireless network. The most common cause for that type of behaviour is simple, something–most likely another WiFi network–is interfering with the operation of the network. A typical WiFi analyzer would let you let you quickly identify the source of interference. I, for example, have used them once to discover that the next-door tenant in an office building had a much more powerful wireless network operating on the same channel as ours. Once the problem was clearly identified, fixing the issue was a simple matter of reconfiguring my WiFi access points to use another channel.

Another use for WiFi analyzers is to measure the signal distribution over its coverage area, be that within a house, an office or even outdoors. Wireless networks use radio-signals and, although they can go through walls–to a certain extent–some building structures can block them perhaps not completely but enough to attenuate them beyond reliable usability. A WiFi analyzer running on a portable device such as a tablet or smartphone can be used to walk through an area and identify weaker spots or spots with no coverage at all. If you’re into the planning phase of a wireless network expansion project, a WiFi analyzer in invaluable in helping you determine where to add the new access points for the best possible coverage.

WiFi Heat Maps

Talking about wireless network planning and coverage, another super-useful tool is called a WiFi heat map. A WiFi heat map is a visual representation of how each WiFi access points radiate its radio signal. It will show you where the signal is the strongest and where it is the weakest.

Some WiFi analyzers do include that functionality either built-in or as an add-on and many heat map tools are also available as stand-alone software. Those tools typically rely on polling data from your existing wireless access points and controllers to build the heat map. However, most will also support manual data entry, a useful feature when planning a future implementation. Most will also let you import a floor plan of your space—or create one—where you indicate the location of the access points that the software will use to build a visual representation of the signal distribution as an overlay on top of the floor plan.

Most suppliers of enterprise-grade WiFi equipment offer some form of heat map tool but one of the best is a vendor-neutral product from SolarWinds aptly called the SolarWinds Heat Map. It is part of SolarWinds’ flagship product: the Network Performance Monitor–or NPM–a top-of-the-line network monitoring tool. Starting at just below $3000 the tool might not be within reach of everyone but NPM give you much more than just the heat map. You can find all the details about the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor by visiting the SolarWinds website.

SolarWinds WiFi Heat Map

The SolarWinds Heat Map will let you create custom wireless heat maps which can help you find dead zones where there’s poor or no connectivity. This tool will poll your access points to read their signal strength and other important parameters and indicate the quality of the connection in any location. The tool will lay the heat map on top of a floor plan of your location which you can either import or create within the software, giving you a physical overview of the wireless signal propagation.

The Best Windows Tools For Monitoring Wireless Networks

Windows is the operating system most commonly used by network administrators so we’ll start with the tools that are available for that platform. Luckily, Windows is the running platform of the best tools available. Let’s have a look at four of the best products we could find.

1. SolarWinds WiFi monitor (FREE TRIAL)

SolarWinds, the same company which brought us the Heat Map software mentioned above is well known for producing some of the best network management tools. Its Network Performance Monitor consistently scores among the best SNMP monitoring tool. And SolarWinds is also famous for its free tools, each addressing a specific need of network administrators. Two examples of these free tools are a simple TFTP server and an excellent subnet calculator.

SolarWinds WiFi Monitor - Summary View

The SolarWinds WiFi Monitor is one of the best WiFi analyzers one can find. Just like the SolarWinds Heat Map, it is part the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor package. This tools will discover your wireless access points and add them to the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor so they can be monitored. The SolarWinds Wi-Fi Monitor will let you set alerts, it will monitor your infrastructure and it will create reports on several parameters such as IP addresses, device type, SSID, channels used, and the number of clients currently connected. Client details include client name, SSID, IP Address, MAC Address, Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI), time connected, data rate, and bytes received and bytes transmitted.

Price for the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor—wich includes both the SolarWinds Heat Map and the SolarWinds WiFi Monitor start at just under $3 000 for up to 100 elements to slightly above $32K for unlimited elements. If you’d rather try the product before purchasing it, a free 30-day evaluation version can be downloaded from the SolarWinds website.

2. NetSpot

NetSpot is another one of the best WiFi analyzers on the market. Originally created for the Mac platform, the tool has been ported to Windows. The tool collects operational data from you access points including channel width, MAC address, signal quality, and even network encryption providing some of the best visibility over the operation of your wireless network.

NetSpot Screenshot

NetSpot’s detailed heat map is one of the product’s best features. It doesn’t stop there, though. When it comes to features, it leaves nothing to be desired. It will, for instance, help you assess WLAN interference. Another strong point of this tools is its reporting engine. It combines ease of use with an unprecedented depth of available information.

One great thing about NetSpot is that it is about as good for home users as it is the professional network administrators. And as a matter of fact, it is available in two versions. The Home edition is priced below 50 dollars while the Professional edition sells for around 150 dollars. No matter which version you choose, you are almost certain to get your money’s worth.

3. Acrylic Wifi

Acrylic Wifi is considered by many to be the best free WiFi analyzer for windows. This wireless network scanner will perform detailed security and coverage analysis for WiFi networks in a very short time. It is a fast tool. It will let you scan for access points and build a table with all the relevant AP details. Core metrics such as MAC address, SSID, RSSI, channel, and vendor are included. The tool also has a monitor mode where it will monitor individual network packets. You can use this mode to locate hidden networks, among other uses.

Acrylic WiFi Professional Analyzer

But announcing that Acrylic is a free tool was a bit of a stretch. This tool is available in tow versions. There is a personal version which is free but can only be used for personal use. The software is also available in a Professional version for commercial use. There’s even a Law Enforcement version which is not generally available and can be used for forensic analysis. There’s also a separate Acrylic Heat Map software that you may want to add to your package to get this much useful functionality.

4. InSSIDer

InSSIDer sells for under twenty dollars. However, you shouldn’t let its low cost fool you. This is an excellent product, not just a good deal. It will pull all available data from your access points and allow you to view everything from encryption type to signal strength and channel.

InSSIDer Screenshot

In addition to its amazingly low price. InSSIDer is also one of the easiest to use. The user interface allows one to you click a specific WiFi network to reveal a drop-down menu of all the information that can be displayed about it. You can choose between SSID, signal, channel or network type. This simple user interface is excellent for new users but professional administrators may find it somewhat limited. This tool is possibly better suited for home networks or smaller business networks. But then again, you can’t expect a twenty-dollar tool to compare to a multi-thousand dollar one.

The Best Android Tools For Monitoring Wireless Networks

Running wireless analyzer tools on a mobile device has a number of advantages. You can, for instance, easily take your tool to any location where you need it. Of course, tools for mobile platforms are of the airwave-scanning type. They typically won’t connect to access points and read their operational parameters but the information they can collect over the air can prove invaluable when troubleshooting wireless networking issues. Here are some of the best tools we could find.

5. WiFi Analyzer

If you search for a WiFi analyzer on the Android Play Store, WiFi Analyzer is likely to be the first one that pops up. With over 10 million installations, this is a very popular tool. And there’s a reason for that popularity: It is that good. The tool will scan the airwaves, identify nearby networks and create a visual representation of the current situation.

WiFi Analyzer Screenshot

And as pretty as this visual representation is, it’s also useful. It will, for example, let you quickly identify oversaturated channels. The WiFi Analyzer‘s main screen displays a real-time representation of the signal strength of each network it can find. Another screen allows you to display a graph of signal strength over time. You can also zero in on a specific network by SSID and see a live signal strength gauge. This gauge can be used as you walk through a room to find weaker and stronger sports. And for those who are not into pretty graphs, you can also view network data in a tabular form.

The WiFi Analyzer is an ad-supported free application. This means that you’ll have to cope with on-screen ads but they are just small banners that are displayed at the bottom of the screen. Ignoring them should hardly be a problem with all but the smallest screens.

6. OpenSignal

OpenSignal is likely the most versatile apps on this list. It features a rather unique detailed map. This tool doesn’t just analyze WiFi signals, it can display a physical map of nearby WiFi hotspots and cellular towers-hose from your service provider and show you where the connection quality is the best.

OpenSignal Screenshot

OpenSignal is possibly best for users who want to monitor and optimize their personal WiFi and mobile signal coverage. We’re including it on our list because it is also an excellent WiFi analyzer. It will collect somewhat basic wireless network information which is OK if you are just looking for the fundamentals. The app is available for free and is not ad-supported.

7. ManageEngine WiFi Analyzer and Surveyor

ManageEngine is another well-known name amongst network administrators. The company offers a wide array of network management tools. The ManageEngine WiFi Analyzer and Surveyor can be used to effectively monitor signal strength and display channel graphs on all available WiFi networks. You can use the tool’s WiFi monitor to detect slow WiFi networks and identify channel interference and poor signal strength. You can also use the app’s built-in WiFi scanner to scan for all the WiFi networks in your environment.

ManageEngine WiFi Analyzer Screenshot

Using its surveyor mode, the ManageEngine WiFi Analyzer and Surveyor can survey the signal strengths of WiFi networks. Other features worth mentioning include letting you export heat map and signal strength reports of the survey result. This is an excellent free app that is not even ad-supported.

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