You can have my Cognio card when you pry it from my cold dead hands

There is a group of WiFi Professionals (me included) that just can’t let go of their Cognio based products. With the Cisco purchase in 2007 (which ultimately manifested itself in the CleanAir product) we have seen a slow but steady decline of high-fidelity PC based spectrum analyzers. We’ve seen people try to compete in a variety of ways; with lower fidelity devices (Metageek) or with the high cost BandSpeed based product (AirMagnet Spectrum XT) but it’s not rare to find a wireless professional still lugging around an old laptop to use their Cognio based (AirMagnet Spectrum Analyzer, Cisco Spectrum Expert, or Cognio Spectrum Analyzer) CardBus Card. It seems unlikely that we’ll see a USB based Cognio product anytime soon (if ever) so I thought it was high time to figure something else out.

Option 1) For years many of the lager laptops from Lenovo (and even Apple!) have sported ExpressCard slots. By using an Addonics ExpressCard34 to CardBus converter, you can load the Cisco Spectrum Expert software on in Windows and your card works just fine!

Pros)

  • It works!

Cons)

  • It requires an ExpressCard34 slot on your PC.
  • There are several converters on the market. Some work, some do not. Make sure you get one that maps the PCIe bus, not the USB bus.
  • It’s bulky the whole card fits outside of the machine and it’s not very pretty.

Cognio adapter in an Addonics converter

Option 2) The Sonnet Echo ThunderBolt to ExpressCard34 adapter will allow you to take the above Cognio/Express card solution and map it to ThunderBolt compatible interface on your laptop. This means that any MacBook past the Early 2011 MacBook Pro (which I’m using) or any PC with a ThunderBolt compatible interface (many modern Lenovo machines) now have a cable-attached (important for flexibility) way to use their Cognio, PC-based Spectrum analyzer on new hardware!

Pros)

  • It works without having a built in ExpressCard slot!
  • It’s cabled so you can move/relocate the whole bulky assembly to the back of your laptop lid easily.

Cons)

  • It requires a ThunderBolt port on your laptop.

Big, but relocatable thanks to the cable!

It should be noted that both of these solutions will not work through a hypervisor (VMWare Fusion or Parallels, for example) and require direct access to the PCIe bus – this means running Windows natively on your hardware. You Mac users, this means BootCamp. It should also be noted that many people call ThunderBolt many things and there are several varieties of the bus. Make sure it’s not a DisplayPort only interface!

In short, if you’re still lugging around an old laptop just for this (or any other wireless CardBus based adapter), you now have a solution that’s cheaper than an new AirMagnet card and far less bulky than carrying around that crusty old XP machine. It’s time to upgrade!

Make sure it's ThunderBolt!

The FCC.

Here in the states, we have a regulatory body called the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As it pertains to the Wi-Fi world, they tell us what channels we can use how obnoxious we can be (strength) in those channels. We have what you would consider to be a ‘blanket rule’ that basically states ‘within a given number of frequencies, you can do anything you want as long as you limit yourself to a maximum power’. A very intentional byproduct of these rules is the relatively low cost of WiFi components. Since we don’t have to submit everything we operate to the FCC for validation, we have no ‘validation costs’ to pass onto our end users. In short, the FCC, as a regulatory body imposes rules and restrictions on our use of wireless frequencies in the name of the greater good. This generally works very well, creating the ecosystem of ‘small cell’ give and take that we live in today. You are given the choice to make your own determination if analog video cameras, microwave ovens, X-Box controllers, etc should take priority or if your Wi-Fi should. Political challenges aside, we’re masters of our own domain.

So what happens when someone does something outside the norm? What happens when someone violates the FCC specifications? What happens when someone fires up 10 watt outdoor analog video feed in 2.4GHz and points it at the broad side of a hospital?

As it turns out, someone recently did just that. I was asked to assist with locating what was being detected as a whole bunch of analog video cameras that hogging up all of Channel 1 in 2.4GHz along the broad side of a hospital. As you could imagine, with a good 100 or so Access Points all excluding channel 1 (due to interference) from their channel plan, this meant that a two channel plan was all that was left (6 and 11). After much sleuthing, we determined that the signal was traveling well in excess of 10 city blocks! In my book, that certainly fit the bill for ‘obnoxious’. With more than a little hesitancy, I went to the FCC web page for complaints and filed one.

We're concerned with Wi-Fi Jammers.

We’re concerned with Wi-Fi Jammers.

Once my complaint went off into oblivion, I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t expect to hear anything from them at all. Instead, a few weeks later, I got a letter in the mail with the usual FCC ‘devices must accept interference’ text that you’d expect from a Federal entity. I was heartened by the fact that I got a response however, and there was a ‘for more information call this number’. They offered, I did. The nice Federal employee took my call, listened to my acknowledgement of the letter, listened to my insistence the letter was insufficient, and listened to my complaint that there was something going on that the FCC clearly needed to get involved in. She thanked me for my time and stated that she would escalate my case. This was the last I personally heard from them.

I was fortunate enough to have some contacts near the building that we suspected was generating the noise. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, they informed me that a FCC field agent showed up asking questions. Shortly thereafter, the video camera signatures stopped being detected, the channel cleared up, and things got back to normal at my customer.

The point of all of this is that you do have a friend in the FCC. They’re not the most communicative, timely, or ‘feel good’ organization I’ve ever worked with, but if you have no other choice, and you can prove reasonably that there is a strong need for them to get involved with a neighbor that being obnoxious, they will. Start to finish, once I engaged the FCC, it took roughly 2 months to get back to normal. Don’t expect them to be quick. Don’t expect them to believe you. Don’t expect them to understand what you’re saying. Do be patient. Do be persistent. Do be kind. You don’t want to make a Fed angry.

Here are some good times to engage the FCC:

  • You can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that something beyond your sphere of influence is causing harmful interference to your Wi-Fi network.

Here are some good times to not engage the FCC:

  • Your ER department won’t buy new Microwave ovens
  • Your security team is installing analog video cameras
  • Your customers are bringing gaming consoles onto your property and using them
  • Your co-worker put a 20dBi antenna on a 200mW radio outside (although, this is a good way to get them called on you!)
  • You believe you have external interference, but don’t have a Spectrum Analyzer to prove it

If you need a Spectrum Analyzer, head on over to the MetaGeek folks and check out their Wi-Spy Mini or their Wi-Spy DBx for a good cost effective way to tackle interference issues. If they get too big, rest assured that Big Brother is out there – just a complaint form and a couple phone calls away…

The Unstoppable MetaGeek – now with CleanAir!

Rarely does such an organization come around that expresses it’s agility and prowess with as much regularity as MetaGeek. The most recently of which is their ability to use Chanalyzer Pro (their premium Spectrum Analyzer software) to talk to the Cognio chipset in a Cisco CleanAir Access Point. PC based Spectrum Analyzers have had a sordid history to say the least. Way back when, Cognio made what you would call ‘the best of the best’ PC based Spectrum Analyzer. This took the place of many of the bulkier, more expensive Spectrum Analyzers and proved to the world that a) it was important to get Layer 1 visibility for enterprise WLANs and b) that they could make it affordable for most services based partners. Everyone OEM’d the Cognio analyzer, AirMagnet, Fluke, and WildPackets. Along came Cisco. They purchased Cognio, killed off all of the OEM agreements, rolled the hardware into their Access Points, and started selling the Cognio product with the Cisco name on it (Cisco Spectrum Expert). Unfortunately, they didn’t do much with the CardBus product and let the non-AP components stale. The aging interface form factor left quite a few holes in the market and along came a few people here and there to make it all shake out like this (generally):

  • Cisco Spectrum Expert: Highest resolution, CleanAir AP and CardBus form factor, Cognio based
  • AirMagnet Spectrum XT: Middle resolution, USB form factor, bandspeed based
  • AP based Spectrum Analyzers: Low resolution, integrated into many APs, Atheros based
  • MetaGeek Wi-Spy: Low resolution, USB form factor, keyboard controller based

Ryan and team over at MetaGeek did an excellent job of using very affordable components to give us an alternative to the aging CardBus adapter and the newer, more expensive AirMagnet adapter. They were an awesome product for the money but never really achieved huge market penetration due to the fact that the Cognio and bandspeed products still offered higher resolution. With the Cognio hardware all locked up in the Cisco Access Points, it seemed inevitable that we’d never have a good way to access it. Imagine our surprise when at this years Cisco Live event, MetaGeek was there – showing off their integration between Chanalyzer and the CleanAir Access Points! Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the *exact* same Cognio hardware, high resolution Spectrum Analyzer goodness that we all know and love from the old days. When I first heard about this, there was much trepidation about MetaGeek perhaps not being able to address the ‘full power’ of the Cognio (ahem, CleanAir) chip in its rawest form, but I’m here to tell you, when compared side by side with a legacy CardBus based Cognio adapter, the data is identical! The user interface is the updated, Chanalyzer interface with all of the modern enhancements they’ve made over the years with the WiSpy products, but you’re using the high-fidelity data that Cognio gives us. Here’s how it works:

You can connect to a CleanAir AP that is autonomous or lightweight (registered to a WLC) and it can be either servicing clients or in dedicated ‘SE-Connect’ Mode. You get the highest resolution, widest image when it’s in this last mode so let’s start there. Log into your controller, select your AP from the wireless tab and change it from ‘local’ to ‘SE-Connect’. Click Apply and let the AP reboot and join back to the WLC.

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 9.02.03 PM

Once it’s joined back, select the AP again and you’ll find both the IP address of the AP and something called the NSI key:

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 9.08.06 PM

Lauch Chanalyzer Pro with CleanAir and goto the File Menu. Select the intuitive ‘Connect to a CleanAir AP:

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 9.12.25 PM

Once you do that, enter the values from the AP page that you previously saw including the IP address, NSI key and a friendly name for this AP:

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 9.13.07 PM

Once you’ve done that, mash the Connect button and you’ll start to see the familiar Chanalyzer Pro interface with all of the wonderful resolution we all grew so fond of all those years ago! For reference, I ran Chanalyzer Pro with CleanAir on the same machine at the same time as a Cisco Spectrum Expert instance (using the CardBus adapter). Aside from the waterfall flowing up in the Cisco product, and down in the Chanalyzer product, you’ll see striking similarities in the respective waterfall views:

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 9.21.24 PM

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 9.21.41 PM

and at the same time, getting all of the other awesome details out of the Cognio SaGE like interferer auto-classification and AirQuality Index. Proving once again that MetaGeek are the top kids on the block when it comes to innovation and integration – but don’t take my word for it, head on over to MetaGeek, grab yourself a copy and give it a spin!

Full Disclosure: As an delegate of the Wireless Field Day event, I was given a copy of Chanalyzer Pro with CleanAir to play with without promise or commitment to write anything – much less something positive. 🙂 MetaGeek is a regular supporter of the Tech Field day events and generally makes awesome products and is regularly engaged in Social Media – you should go follow them at @metageek and catch up on the NoStringsAttached Show where Blake Krone and I also talk with MetaGeek about Chanalyzer with CleanAir!