Sniffing WiFi and the iPad

How could I not? With every technology writer (and some non-tech writers) from here to Marrakesh covering Apple's latest miracle how could I not post something about how the iPad may affect those of us who sniff WiFi for a living? Well, here's a few things about WiFi analysis and the iPad to consider given what we know about yesterday's introduction and the current capabilities of the iPodTouch/iPhone.

All commentary about the iPad and WiFi sniffing should be prefaced by noting how ambivalent veterans of WiFi surveying and analysis must be about this thing. On the one hand, it's exactly what we've always wanted. It's thin, it's light, it has a touch screen, its batter lasts forever and it has horsepower. That's basically what we've always wanted out of previous generations of tablet computers that have always come up short in one or more of those areas. The problem is that it runs the iPhone OS instead of a real (read: multitasking) OS. Why, Apple? Why? Why must you taunt us by delivering the form factor we've prayed for and attaching it to an OS that is incapable of professional sniffing? (I'll stop now before I start to sound too much like Salieri.)

Limitations or not, there are some interesting things about the iPad pertaining to WiFi sniffing. Here's a short list:

Live Site Surveys

The Holy Grail of professional WiFi tablet use. Tablets are tailor made for live site survey applications like Fluke Networks' AirMagnet Survey and Ekahau Site Survey. The combination of a relatively large screen, a flat form factor and a touch screen is what makes walk-n-click heat mapping surveys so well-suited for devices like the iPad. In some of my surveying work we've used a tablet, though not always. The tablet we had was quite heavy so it was a chore to carry it around for long periods of time. There were also times where you just wouldn't need a tablet, such as when you just wanted to establish a normal WiFi association as part of final testing.

For live site surveys to be an option with the iPad, an application like the aforementioned ones from Ekahau and AirMagnet would have to be released for the iPhone OS. There is nothing close to those applications presently, but with the iPad presenting such an attractive form factor it's possible that we'll see some movement there. I realize that there aren't too many iPhone apps that cost $2,000 or more (the typical range for a professional live site survey tool), but if the iPad gains some enterprise market share we could see something happen.

Protocol Analysis

At this point, we don't even have professional-grade WiFi protocol analysis on OS X. AirMagnet WiFi Analyzer, WildPackets OmniPeek and even Wireshark with CACE Pilot and Airpcap (which will be reviewed soon, I promise) all are Windows-only. So what could possibly make me even dream that a good protocol analyzer for the iPad will show up? In a word, iWork. Apple is creating scaled-down versions of their productivity suite for the iPad, which indicated to me that they think that some people will want to use the iPad in places besides their living room couch. If some enterprising WiFi analyzer vendor finds that the transition to the iPad is relatively pain-free, it is possible that we might get something really useful for sniffing.

I do want to make clear that I don't expect a high-quality WiFi protocol analyzer to be available for the iPad in the near future. Today the best we've got for the iPhone OS is probably WiFiFoFum, and that's really just a basic stumbling tool. I'd sure like to be able to grab an iPad when trying to solve complex WiFi performance and connection problems, but the reality is that I'll probably be stuck trudging around with my notebook.

Discovery Tools

Discovery tools, which are better known as stumblers, are applications that scan the air without putting the WiFi adapter into monitor mode (if you don't know monitor mode, that's another topic that's on my list of things to cover for this blog). These tools are kind of nice if you want to confirm that your access point is in the air, but they really aren't appropriate for most professional sniffing tasks. Still, they may fit the iPad quite well. At this point the iPad seems to be more of a fun device than a hardcore admin tool, so maybe stumblers fit.

As mentioned above, WiFiFoFum is probably the best stumbler running on the iPhone OS. I would wager, however, that the release of the iPad will prompt some developers of OS X-based sniffers to modify their products for use on the new device. My favorite OS X-based stumbler is probably iStumbler (though admittedly, I rarely use it).

Realistic Expectations

All of this sniffing stuff with the iPad is fun to speculate on, but what you probably want to know is what you can realistically expect. I expect that we'll get a few more discovery tools and that at least one of them will equal the quality level of iStumbler. I expect that we won't see a professional-grade protocol analyzer, but I do expect to see a version of Wireshark. I don't expect to see a professional-grade site survey application either (as nice as that would be), because I am expecting a Broadcom chipset to be used for the WiFi interface and Broadcome does not allow their adapters to use monitor mode.

So there you have it. That's what I expect from WiFi sniffing on the iPad and that's what I'd like to see.

I'd also like to leave one more note that I've been lax in doing updates but I'm planning on getting back to my once a week schedule. My next planned update is that long-promised review of Wireshark with CACE Pilot and Airpcap, so check back in a week for that.


  1. Not every type of surveying tool is available for OSX, but this is:

  2. I like Eakiu, but it's really more of a spectrum analyzer than a site survey tool. A true WiFi site survey tool is usually referred to as something that allows you to print out a full heat map of coverage after you walk around and do your survey. Eakiu is great for locating interference sources, but it lacks that heat mapping capability.

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