CTS 202: Building A Wireless Lab

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The purpose of having a lab

Why do we build our own labs? For many of us, it started with certification. It allowed us to learn about our jobs. We wanted to get better at what we do every day. Learning is a big part of what we do to become experts.

Having a lab allows us to test features or double-check specific behavior. It’s a way of experimenting and breaking things. Eventually, the lab will help you become more confident in your work.

Which equipment to do you need?

The type of equipment you need will depend on what you work with. You’ll want to select the vendor you work with most.

But to get started on a small budget, start with your home Wi-Fi. It doesn’t take much to get started. If you just want to learn a little more about Wi-Fi, you don’t actually need a specific lab. Your home network can be THE lab you start with. You can still perform some packet captures and learn about how Wi-Fi works.

Over time, that lab will evolve. You will make it grow as you need it to. Here’s a quick list of useful equipment to have:

  • Router
  • Firewall
  • Switch (PoE+ so you can power some APs from it) with Gig ports
  • Access Points (multiple from same vendor or from multiple vendors)
  • Controllers (these could be virtual)
  • Server to host some VMs
  • WLAN Pi

Tips on getting affordable equipment:

  • Ask colleagues, friends, or peers to borrow equipment
  • Check eBay for used equipment such as Cisco Aironet 3502i or 3602i. They are generally under $100.
  • Use your company or VAR to see if you can leverage NFR (not for resale) programs
  • Talk to vendors to borrow equipment

Software is also an important part of a lab. There are different types to consider such as the AP and controller firmware. This allows you to learn how APs join controllers. You can learn how to upgrade controllers and understand the process.

Cloud works a little differently but it’s still important to understand how the AP operates.

Just a reminder you’ll need to acquire a license somehow to get access to the software if it isn’t free.

Other labs include virtual machines for:

  • RADIUS server
  • NAC solutions such as ISE or ClearPass
  • Virtual controllers such as the 9800-CL
  • DHCP and DNS servers
  • Windows Server for Active Directory integration

Other software include applications for MacOS and Windows:

  • AirTool
  • Wireshark
  • WiFi Explorer
  • WiFi Signal
  • iTerm
  • Ekahau
  • TamoGraph Site Survey
  • NetSH commands
  • WLAN Pi
  • Metageek
  • Omnipeek

The configuration

A lab will always get messy but it is useful to keep it as simple as possible whenever you can.

Work on a process to maintain things such as:

  • Network diagram of how you want your lab to be
  • Configuring equipment regularly
  • Backup of configuration
  • Possibly script out initial installs if you’ll do them often

Our Labs

François’ Lab

  • Firewall / VPN server / Router: FortiGate 60E Firewall (used for DHCP as well)
  • Switches: 1x UniFi 16 ports and 1x Cisco fanless 12 ports + a couple of netgear dumb switches
  • Controllers: 1x Cisco 2504, 1x Cisco C9800-CL (as a VM) and 1x Aruba 7008
  • Access points: multiple access points from different vendors (Aerohive, Aruba, Cisco, Mist, EnGenius, Ubiquiti, Fortinet)
  • Server: NAS from Synology, Intel NUC running Ubuntu
  • Other: WLAN Pi, Apple TV, Alexa Speaker, ChromeCast, Jetson Nano, Netbeez sensor

Rowell’s Lab

  • Firewall/VPN/Router: FortiGate firewall or Meraki MX firewall
  • Switches: Cisco 3560-CG switch or Meraki 8 port switch
  • Controllers: 1x 2504, 1x 3504, 1x C9800-CL
  • Access points: Aruba, EnGenius, FortiAP. Mist, Cisco, OpenMesh
  • Servers: FreeRADIUS, Ubuntu, Synology NAS
  • Other: WLAN Pi, Amazon Dot, Jetson Nano, NetBeez

What is the most interesting piece of equipment you have in your lab!

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About the Author
Rowell, CWNE #210, is a network engineer in Higher-Ed. He enjoys working with wireless networking technologies and loves to share and engage with the community. You can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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