New software opens a window into cellular links

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — Here’s the puzzle: Your police cruisers have Windows laptops with cellular cards. When they drive northbound on a specific highway, everything is fine, but when they go southbound, they’re plagued with dropped connections. Why?

Until now, that was a question IT groups couldn’t answer. Because, unlike corporate data networks, with plentiful monitoring and management tools, cellular networks are a mystery that the “five-bars” icon on your laptop does nothing to unravel. New Windows 7 software from NetMotion Wireless is intended to dispel that mystery.

NetMotion Wireless has released its Locality software: a Windows 7 agent for notebooks fitted with a cellular radio and a behind-the-firewall server application to process and analyze the network data collected by the agent. But it won’t be Windows-only for long. The Seattle, Wash., software vendor, best known for its Mobility XE mobile VPN software, will release Locality for Android by year’s end and is working on a version for Apple iOS.

That expansion will be important as a growing number of new tablets will come standard with both Wi-Fi and cellular, as the cost of cellular radios dips to $30 or less. AT&T executives recently said they are working with OEMs to ensure all tablets sold for its networks are fitted with cellular.

Locality uses various techniques to reach repeatedly into the laptop’s cellular radio, and GPS receiver, and pulls out an array of information about the cellular connection, or disconnection, and pass it on to the server for processing. The client also reports inventory details about the make, model, firmware of the radio and the client device.

“Compared with an enterprise wired or wireless network, cellular [connectivity] is largely invisible to enterprise IT,” says Andy Willet, senior vice president, sales and marketing, for NetMotion. “Our IT customers typically rely on anecdotal information form users or manually trying to tease out information from their carrier’s mobile bills.”

The Locality server turns the raw data into an array of reports. An online demonstration showed a general coverage map for NetMotion’s mobile carriers in the Seattle area, a different color for each carrier, created by Locality server by drawing on the data from cellular radios used by NetMotion employees on the go. Zooming into a block-level view, Willet clicked icons and selections to show coverage for Sprint by 3G type; and then showed a view of signal strength, with maximum and minimum values, and how these changed over time.

Willet shifted the view to show information about the cellular connections for a specific user: The maps and charts showed locations and data for such information as dropped and restored calls, and signal strength at different times of day.

Another view let him sift information to troubleshoot various problems, sifting through reports to determine where persistent problems occurred, and when; and whether dropped links were a problem with the user’s adapter card or the carrier’s network.

Locality is completely independent of NetMotion’s mobile VPN product. But, if you have the VPN, Locality can associate its data with specific applications running on the client device. The IT group can see what applications are running when problems occur or the impact of various applications on data usage both for individual users and in the aggregate, for example.

So what was causing the weird coverage anomaly for those police cruisers? According to Willet, the department pondered the data from Locality and hit on the cause: The cruiser’s roof-mounted cellular antenna was positioned next to a siren and light bar, which ended up between the nearby cellular base station and the antenna when the cruiser was heading in one direction. That was enough to make the connection flakey. Shifting the antenna to a different location kept it open to the base station signal in both directions.

NetMotion quietly began selling Locality to its customer base in late 2011. It’s made some tweaks and is now generally releasing it. Initially, the Locality client is available only for Windows 7 laptops, with Android support due later this year and iOS at some point after that.

Locality is licensed to the mobile device running the agent software. A perpetual license is US$80 per device. There is an optional annual maintenance contract.

(From Network World U.S.)

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