Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wireshark WLAN Traffic Statistics and IO Graphs

Protocol analysis skills continue to be increasingly important for network engineers in all fields, especially for wireless engineers. As the 802.11 protocol continues to increase in complexity, maintaining interoperability while implementing support for numerous optional features becomes critical. Even more critical is having the skill set to investigate, diagnose, and resolve issues.

Engineers attempting to learn protocol analysis techniques often start with free tools that allow them to get comfortable looking at packets and expected versus abnormal behavior. However, this often comes at the expense of sophisticated analysis features which can greatly simplify the process and reduce analysis time. This can be both a blessing and a curse at the same time. It's a blessing for engineers because it forces them to learn the fundamentals of protocol analysis without the aid of automated tools that abstract the underlying protocol operation. This is a good thing (despite initial grumblings by those learning). It can also be a curse, because engineers often need to resolve issues quickly and efficiently, where sophisticated analysis tools can help identify and determine the root cause much faster.

Smart IT organizations will implement a mix of both scenarios, purchasing the (expensive) analysis tools for experienced engineers and the support organization, while training junior engineers or those new-in-role using the fundamentals approach.

The first step is for an engineer to learn and understand the fundamental Wi-Fi protocol exchanges such as active scanning, association, 802.1X/EAP authentication, the 4-way handshake, as well as various packets of interest including 802.11 power management techniques, retransmissions, fragmentation, medium reservation (RTS/CTS), and protection mechanisms. Easy identification of these exchanges can be achieved using Wireshark coloring rules and display filters as previously discussed.

In this post, we will continue our look at free methods to enhance Wi-Fi protocol analysis using incrementally more sophisticated analysis techniques. In subsequent posts, we will explore professional analysis tools that can automate many of these techniques.

Wireshark WLAN Traffic Statistics
The WLAN Traffic Statistics tool provides engineers with a high-level overview of the networks (BSSIDs) that are observed within the capture.

Navigate to the Statistics menu, then select WLAN Traffic.

Wireshark WLAN Traffic Statistics View
The top frame displays network traffic volumes by BSSID as a percentage of packets observed, as well as breakdowns for common wireless frame types such as beacons, probe req/resp, authentications, and de-auths. This information can be useful to identify which base stations and SSIDs are most active in the area and time the packet capture was taken.

By selecting a network from the top frame, a list of traffic within the BSSID is shown in the bottom frame. This can give engineers valuable information about top talkers within the network and can be useful for identifying bandwidth hogs, problematic clients, or clients having issues indicated by excessive probing or de-auth behavior. This can also be a rough measure of quality of service based on packet transmissions on the network. However, be sure NOT to use this as a measure of airtime fairness, as most vendor algorithms are based on byte-level fairness to override packet-level fairness inherent in the 802.11 protocol.

If you want to limit WLAN traffic statistics to a subset of packets in the capture, apply a display filter for the desired traffic, then open the statistics tool and check the box that states "Limit to display filter". This allows more focused analysis on subsets of data within the packet capture.

If you find a network or station of interest, Wireshark does provide some basic drill-down filtering capabilities by right-clicking on the entry, as show below.

Wireshark's Basic Drill-Down Filtering
Wireshark IO Graphs
The Wireshark IO Graphs tool allows engineers to graphically represent data within the packet capture for more intuitive analysis of information. This can be useful to graph the occurrence of events or packet exchanges over time, or to graph the relationship between multiple types of packets over time. This automates many analysis scenarios, eliminating manual compilation of such data.

Navigate to the Statistics menu, then select IO Graphs.

Wireshark IO Graphs
For example, the graph above shows the relationship between wireless data frames (line graph) and wireless retransmissions of data frames (bar graph). This allows the engineer to graphically observe network health over time and identify periods of degraded performance due to retransmissions. Here we see a spike of retransmissions around time mark 13:51:28 in the packet capture.

IO Graphs use the same syntax as display filters and coloring rules, so virtually any field or information within a packet capture can be graphed. Also note, that if the filter is modified you must un-select and re-select the Graph1 through Graph5 buttons to the left for the new filter to be applied and shown.

Additional Wireshark Features
In addition to WLAN traffic statistics and IO graphs, take time to explore the use of other built-in analysis tools. These include:
  • Enabled Protocols - used to decode various protocols for interpretation and analysis. Be sure to enable wireless protocols such as IEEE 802.11, LWAPP, CAPWAP, EtherIP (EoIP), RADIUS, EAPoL, EAP, and WLCCP. This will aid analysis of encapsulated protocols used in lightweight architectures as well as common wireless protocols either over the air or on the wire.

  • Endpoints - to identify top talkers and data volume per station, based on either frames or bytes.

  • Set Time References - used to mark packets and adjust time displayed in subsequent packets based on the marked packet. Useful for marking the beginning of a client roam and calculating the time required for an individual roam event. It's also useful for quickly setting time references on all first packets of roaming events to at once (tip - set a display filter for EAPoL Start or EAP Request Identity frames), or to see how long a client was associated to each AP before roaming.
Sample Roam Time Calculation Using the Wireshark Set Time Reference Feature
Also, combine output from multiple tools to provide focused analysis. For example:
  • Identify the BSSID and/or station transferring the most frames in the WLAN traffic statistics tool, apply an appropriate display filter to limit the scope of analysis, then review the frame and byte level data using the Endpoints tools.

  • Identify a period of time where there are a large percentage of 802.11 retransmissions in the IO Graphs, apply a display filter to narrow the packet range to just that time interval and only retransmitted frames, then view the WLAN Traffic Statistics limited to displayed packets to see what BSSIDs or stations were having the most problems. This will help identify if there is an issue with one station (hidden node, localized interference by STA, bad hardware, multipath, etc.), all stations on one access point (failing AP, localized interference by AP, installation error, etc.), or if there are problems with multiple APs and stations in the area (larger source of interference, environmental issue, etc.).

Revolution or Evolution? - Andrew's Take
Using free tools such as Wireshark are great for engineers that need to learn how protocols operate by experiencing them first hand. Also, by knowing some of the advanced features of such tools, both beginning as well as seasoned engineers can perform more in-depth and sophisticated protocol analysis.

However, there are limitations to free protocol analysis tools. They often have problems opening and analyzing large packet captures, difficulty or complexity in identifying and narrowing the focus of analysis, and limited ability to perform trending analysis. They also take time to learn and master.

In subsequent posts, I will explore more professional (paid) tools that eliminate some of these limitations, and automate sophisticated analysis techniques to reduce the learning curve required to accomplish similar tasks.


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  1. great post! will be reading on for the other tools available

  2. Excellent post Andrew, shows off some great features of Wireshark.

    I look forward to the next post about professional level packet analyzers!

  3. Thanks kees and Steve for the feedback!

  4. No problem, just trying to support a fellow blogger!

    Besides, I'm currently trying to decide on a WLAN protocol analyzer myself. Either Wireshark/AirpCap (With CACE Pilot later on) or Omnipeek Basic. I've been using Wireshark on LAN's for years so I'm a lot more familiar with it, but Omnipeek's GUI is much more cleaner in my opinion. I've spoken with a few people and everyone has their own opinions, and I'm willing to listen (or read in this case).

  5. Hello, i use wireshark to capture 802.11i EAPOL packets in windows 7 with RT73 USB,however i fail to capture any EAPOL packet. How can i capture the EAPOL packets in windows 7? Thank you very much.

  6. Hello, i use wireshark to capture 802.11i EAPOL packets in windows 7 with RT73 USB,however i fail to capture any EAPOL packet. How can i capture the EAPOL packets in windows 7? Thank you very much.