Wireless Networking Adoption Stories

Meet the IT professionals at 3 organizations that epitomize ideal WLAN implementation.

May 21, 2004

21 Min Read
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But for this special report, we took a different tack, focusing less on the underlying technology and more on the implementation of wireless and the benefits realized by early adopters. For organizations that are just testing the waters--and that's most of you--there are plenty of lessons to be learned.

We compiled a long list of wireless LAN infrastructure vendors and solicited nominations of customers they considered candidates for best-practices recognition. We received 32 submissions from 18 vendors.

Not surprising, most of the nominees were clustered around vertical markets where WLANs have enjoyed significant success: health care, education, hospitality and convention centers. Unfortunately, organizations in other business sectors tend to be tight-lipped about their Wi-Fi initiatives, which are often viewed as competitive assets worth keeping secret.

A four-person team of Wi-Fi experts at our Syracuse lab whittled the original roster of 32 entries down to 12 organizations; we then conducted telephone interviews with the IT managers and staff responsible for the networks. Comprehensive analyses of the three organizations we considered most deserving of best-practices recognition are included here;

Different Businesses, Common Themes

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It's clear that the needs of health-care and education organizations differ significantly from those of, say, hospitality and retail. But as we talked to IT managers about their experiences, common themes arose that can be applied to a broad spectrum of organizations:

» Sensitivity to business goals: We were impressed by the degree to which wireless managers were sensitive to both the needs of users for simplicity and transparency and the business goals of senior management. Most were well-prepared to argue the case for wireless ROI. It was clear in many cases that wireless was viewed as a strategic technology all the way up the management chain, with the IT side often presenting a vision of what was possible and business managers determining how best to use the new infrastructure to achieve organizational goals. And this partnership extended to users. There was a understanding that IT's role in making the technology accessible to users was as important as building out infrastructure. There was also widespread acknowledgment that building a secure, reliable, centrally managed wireless infrastructure saved them from the unappealing task of tracking down and eliminating rogue wireless networks while opening up opportunities for new applications that would be impossible with a decentralized or ad hoc deployment.

» Pragmatic philosophies: Most organizations say they cannot dictate wireless standards on client devices. People we talked to saw the client as a moving target. Everyone felt the need to support 802.11b, but alternative standards, including 11g and 11a, also have been embraced. In environments where system capacity was a long-term concern, or where traffic must be prioritized, there was a greater tendency to embrace 5-GHz 802.11a, but as a supplement rather than a replacement for 2.4-GHz products. Managers in these environments prefer an infrastructure capable of supporting as broad a radio spectrum as possible, an approach that provides benefits for scalability, security and quality of service.

» Security: Many of the wireless network managers we spoke with are frustrated with the slow emergence of standards-based Wi-Fi security, but all found ways to meet their organizations' security standards without spending a ton of money or locking themselves into a single vendor. Even in health-care facilities, where HIPAA requirements mandate enhanced security, the technologists found workable solutions. Many alternative security strategies have been embraced, including IPsec VPNs, 802.1X, security gateways from vendors like ReefEdge and Bluesocket, and proxy-server offerings like NetMotion. Most understand that their future security models may change, but the solutions they've implemented are seen as adequate to meet local needs.

» Commitment to standards: All those we talked to embraced a philosophy of adhering to standards, and all feel comfortable with their preferred vendors' commitments in that regard. However, the specific standards varied. For example, some said they prefer a security architecture based on IPsec VPNs, a well-established remote-access security technology, while others said they feel that 802.1X-based systems, which protect transmission down to Layer 2, represent a more strategic, wireless-focused solution. Although standards are embraced, some organizations aren't averse to implementing proprietary extensions or third-party products, so long as they're not permanently locked into specific vendors.» Migration concerns: Many early adopters of Wi-Fi are now working with second-generation designs, and almost everyone is thinking about the future, considering strategies for migrating to new standards and also for scaling their environments to meet future bandwidth requirements. Some have moved away from older smart AP designs in large part because they aren't adaptable. It's clear that vendors capable of delivering a strong message about investment protection are best positioned to win new business. Nobody wants forklift upgrades.

» The vendor decision: Every person we spoke with has a clear sense of the dynamics of the Wi-Fi market, which is essentially made up of three sectors. First are the moderately successful, legacy smart-AP wireless vendors, such as Enterasys, Intermec, Proxim and 3Com. These vendors have considerable field experience and are working both to solidify their bases and to expand to new markets. Athough their products sometimes lack features, third-party overlay systems often make them viable.

Next are WLAN start-ups, including Airespace, Aruba, Chantry, Meru and Trapeze, companies that provide sophisticated wares but introduce some element of risk related to long-term vendor viability. the risk element is real, but many IT managers we spoke with feel that the "we try harder" phenomenon is at work, with smaller vendors being more focused on addressing customer needs, often making product changes based on buyer input.

Finally, there's Cisco Systems, which continues to dominate in market and mind share. Although Cisco has fallen behind in technology, its modular-radio AP product offerings are perceived as upgrade-friendly and rock-solid reliable. It's also a very comfortable business relationship for companies whose wired infrastructures are Cisco.

Here then, in alphabetical order, are our top three picks for best practices:Organization: Dartmouth CollegeKey Contact: Brad Noblet, Director of Technical Services

Key vendors: Aruba, Cisco, Telesym, Vocera, Video Furnace

Key metrics: 560 Cisco 350 APs; 100 Aruba 52 11a/11b/11g APs; planning to expand to 1,500 APs during next 12 to 18 months

Dartmouth College has a long history as a pioneer in computing technologies. It was an early adopter of time-sharing systems in the 1960s, and the BASIC programming language was developed here. Not content to rest on its laurels, Dartmouth is developing a reputation as a visionary in wireless networking. Interestingly, the primary goal articulated by Brad Noblet, Dartmouth's director of technical services, was development of a converged set of digital network services that included support for voice, data and video. The main reason wireless is being pursued so aggressively is because users want it. Once you give them wireless, that's the way they connect--even if the Ethernet jack is only 5 feet away!

Dartmouth underwent an upgrade to its wired network backbone just a couple of years ago. The largely Cisco-based network is designed to support a planned migration away from a legacy Ericsson PBX and toward an IP voice infrastructure. Dartmouth also plans to replace an aging campus CATV system with IP video services. The idea is to bundle a set of voice, data and video services and deliver them cost-effectively. The savings are compelling, Noblet says, from both reduced capital and slimmer operating costs. And the beauty of it is, these savings will be invested in new technology.The Dartmouth wireless network, which was installed beginning in 2000, consists of a mix of Cisco and Aruba devices. The legacy network comprises 560 Cisco 350 APs.

Although Noblet has good things to say about the reliability of the Cisco gear, he has concluded that it wasn't a manageable solution and didn't deliver the services he required. So last year, he began looking for alternatives and landed in Aruba's camp. He has deployed the Aruba devices in appliance mode, using both Layer 2 VLAN technology and Layer 3 GRE (generic routing encapsulation) services to connect APs virtually back to Aruba switches. Dartmouth has deployed about 100 Aruba APs, with plans to implement more. At the same time, Noblet is keeping tabs on new WLAN product offerings from Cisco.

In light of its goal to deploy converged voice, data and video services over the wireless network, Dartmouth concluded early on that scalability would be a key design element. Thus, it embraced a microcellular design that will blanket the 150-building campus and outdoor public spaces, with a multiband wireless network encompassing both 2.4-GHz 11b/11g and 5-GHz 11a. That will require the installation of thousands of APs, which Noblet is prepared to handle using in-house labor. With a few years' experience, his technicians and engineers have gotten good at it, and the Aruba system lets the RF environment dynamically respond to changing physical and traffic conditions.

A range of university data services are carried over the network, with e-mail and interactive messaging making up a sizable component of the overall traffic. VoIP traffic is also growing rapidly. Dartmouth has deployed a Cisco Avvid system as well as wireless VoIP services using technology from Telesym and Vocera. The Telesym system provides users on Windows, Pocket PC, and, in the future, MacOS with soft phones that work over both wired and wireless networks, delivering audio of such high quality that the system has been used to deliver streaming audio broadcasts of campus events. The Vocera system is being deployed in a number of pilots, including the IT organization; the campus facilities management group; and the School of Business, which is using the system to facilitate virtual group voice interaction among students.

Noblet is optimistic about the future and sees the industry evolving in a timely manner to meet his needs. He is very high on the Aruba wireless system, which addresses fundamental management, security and quality-of-service issues. He's also encouraged by a growing array of tools that let him design networks as well as monitor and troubleshoot existing systems. And he says he's hopeful that the combination of better converged applications and higher-bandwidth systems will let him realize his vision of rich wireless services for all members of the Dartmouth community.Organization: The Indiana Heart HospitalKey Contact: Christine Cerny, Manager, Enterprise Networking

Key Vendors: Cisco, Spectralink

Key Metrics: 70 Cisco Aironet 1200 APs; 110 Spectralink Wireless IP Phones

The Indiana Heart Hospital (TIHH), opened in 2003, is a 210,000-square-foot medical facility located in northeast Indianapolis. For several years, administrators have been working toward a filmless and paperless hospital, and the wireless network is a key element of their technology strategy. A year ago, it sometimes took clinicians the better part of a day to gather all the paper charts for a patient. Today, doctors, nurses and other staffers scan the patient's wristband and gain access to all relevant data. Timely and more accurate data means higher-quality patient care--and, in some cases, saved lives.

TIHH's wireless network is a multiband system with data carried over an 802.11a infrastructure and voice traffic running over 802.11b. Wireless services are available everywhere in the facility. All the 70 Cisco 1200 APs support 11a, but 11b is implemented on only 20 APs because of its superior signal propagation characteristics. TIHH has just begun implementing Cisco's Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE) to handle configuration management and network-monitoring functions.Users access the network using a range of devices, including notebooks and tablet computers mounted on mobile carts, touch screen-based fixed workstations, PDAs, and WVoIP (wireless VoIP) phones from Spectralink and Cisco. For data services over 802.11a, TIHH uses a Cisco 3030 VPN concentrator. For voice handsets, it uses a combination of MAC (Media Access Control) address restrictions and WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), managed through Cisco Secure ACS, along with router-based ACLs that limit 11b traffic to supported voice applications only. According to TIHH, this security implementation meets HIPAA standards.

Of the 10,000 voice connections supported in the facility, about 12 percent of dial-tone is IP-based. The WVoIP phones are used in a variety of ways. Nurses check out phones when they come on duty, and patients can reach the on-call nurse's phone from their bedside call buttons. Team leaders and clinical staff specialists also can be reached quickly in an emergency. True to its family focus, TIHH maintains a floating pool of about 20 phones that are loaned to family members so they can be reached within the facility in case of emergency. The hospital is investigating the possibility of providing patient family members with guest wireless access, a service that would make it possible for them to maintain contact with business associates while in the hospital.

TIHH is a customer of GE Medical Systems and uses GE's Centricity Information System. Centricity provides the hospital with advanced diagnostics, medical imaging and clinical information systems accessible over the wireless network.

TIHH began implementing wireless LANs in another facility in 2000, and over the past four years it has gained valuable experience. Among the most important lessons learned are the value of a detailed site survey, the importance of addressing security issues early in the design, and the necessity of effectively managing expectations and helping users understand the symbiotic relationship between wired and wireless networks.Organization: Retail Ventures

Key Contact: Dennis Moore, Director of Enterprise ArchitectureKey vendors: Cisco, ReefEdge, Nortel

Key Metrics: Five to 13 APs in 116 stores; as many as 7,000 concurrent wireless users across all stores

Retail Ventures, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, is a diversified retailer that operates Value City Department Stores, DSW Shoe Warehouse and Filene's Basement. All Retail Ventures chains make use of wireless networking, but the Value City chain is the largest and most sophisticated. The primary application for wireless is a distributed POS (point-of-sale) service, which includes cash registers, handheld scanners and RF phones. Notebook computers also are supported for management, and there are plans to incorporate WVoIP phones. The initial POS upgrade plan called for a wired network, but Dennis Moore, the company's director of enterprise architecture, provided a persuasive argument regarding the ROI of a fully wireless system.

Retail Ventures designed a wireless system that integrates what it considered to be best-of-breed smart APs with intelligent gateways that enforce policy and provide value-added network services at store locations. Retail Ventures chose Cisco 1200 APs running 802.11b with a network designed to support wall-to-wall 11 Mbps. Because such an approach requires a dense deployment of APs, each store location is equipped with between five and 13 devices. The decision to use Cisco APs was based on the company's over five years' experience running a variety of different wireless systems, including Cisco Aironet. Although less-expensive products were available, Retail Ventures felt that Cisco delivered the best combination of performance and reliability, both of which were deemed critical given Retail Ventures' operational requirements for high availability.

In conjunction with the Cisco APs, Retail Ventures has deployed two ReefSwitch 100A gateways operating in high-availability mode within each store. The ReefSwitch devices provide security, management and mobility services, while a single ReefSwitch 100A running ReefEdge Multi-Site manager software at HQ lets the company manage gateways in all its stores from a central NOC. ReefAccess probes are also used to monitor the RF environment. Store locations are tied back to headquarters over a VPN WAN consisting mostly of DSL connections.Although Retail Ventures was impressed by ReefEdge's high availability and security subsystems, the multisite architecture was the most compelling benefit. Central management was deemed critical, and the available command-line interface facilitated development of custom scripts. In addition, the zero-configuration architecture has proved to be a big advantage, both in initial system rollout and in ongoing support.

Although the Retail Ventures network doesn't provide as high a level of management integration as some we've seen, it lets the company support a range of wireless technologies while maintaining a single overall security model. This is important because such a setup makes it much easier to integrate new store chains, which often use different wireless equipment, into the wireless architecture without the need for immediate forklift upgrades.

Key lessons learned in this deployment covered both technology and management. On the technical side, Retail Ventures tried to maximize its flexibility using a modular design based on industry standards wherever possible. Moore also found that designing a system that minimized configuration and management costs was key to driving acceptable ROI. Retail Ventures played it safe by going with Cisco for APs, but Moore says the risk in partnering with ReefEdge has paid off because the vendor has been attentive to his needs, something a larger supplier might not have been able to do.

DAVE MOLTA is a NETWORK COMPUTING senior technology editor. He is also assistant dean for technology at the School of Information Studies and director of the Center for Emerging Network Technologies at Syracuse University. Write to him at [email protected].

Organization: AribaKey contact: Kevin Smith, manager, IT Global Services

Key vendors: Aruba, Cisco

Key metrics: 44 Aruba 802.11a/b/g AP's, Aruba 5000 switch, 200 unique laptop and PDA users, 100 concurrent users

Ariba is a leading developer of enterprise spend-management software. With more than 200 wireless notebook and PDA users at its headquarters, a large proportion of them technology professionals, the demands on the technical staff are significant. Had the IT staff failed to respond to user demand for wireless services, it was almost certain that rogue implementations would have sprouted up throughout the facility, compromising security and limiting flexibility, according to Kevin Smith, manager of IT Global Services. Early on, Ariba implemented a conventional smart AP architecture but later replaced it with a Trapeze switched WLAN system. Smith says he is impressed with the system's simplified management and multilayer security capabilities and its easy integration with the Cisco wired network. Ariba also takes advantage of the system's integrated troubleshooting tools and real-time RF adjustment capabilities. Smith estimates that the new system has reduced operational expenses by more than 50 percent while delivering enhanced services to users.

Organization: Baptist Health System of East TennesseeKey contact: Rick Simpson, senior system specialist

Key vendors: Proxim, Wavelink, Symbol, 3Com, Alcatel, Dell

Key metrics: 113 Proxim AP-2000 APs, 2,675 active users, 85 percent of clinical staff uses network

It's been a busy year for the two-person IT support team at Baptist Health System of East Tennessee (BHS). Getting 113 new Proxim AP-2000 APs installed in that time period is an impressive feat. The crew at BHS has been supporting wireless LAN applications since 1998, so the upgrade was a welcome one. BHS took advantage of Proxim's dual-radio design to provide support for both 802.11a and 802.11b. The former is used for high-bandwidth clinical applications and the latter to support low-bandwidth applications and PDAs that require 11b support. A clinical documentation project drove deployment of wireless services, but the range of applications has expanded in recent years. Simpson says management is convinced that the wireless network has resulted in direct benefits in terms of the quality of patient care. Although the WLAN infrastructure is new and demonstrates management's willingness to fund ongoing enhancements, the technical staff has made smart use of a variety of public-domain wireless tools, including Kismet, NetStumbler and Ethereal. Future plans include delivering wireless services to patient family members.

Organization: City of Daytona BeachKey contact: Grady Meeks, director of information systems and services

Key vendors: Airespace, Netmotion, SMC, T-Mobile

Key Metrics: 24 APs (plans to deploy over 100), 120 police cars supported, .5-mile coverage radius per cell

The City of Daytona Beach (CDB) may be best known for its sandy beaches and the Daytona 500, but this community of 85,000 residents (about 20,000 from local colleges) takes an extremely progressive posture when it comes to technology limitations. Faced with a forced migration from legacy CDPD systems used for law enforcement, CDB implemented a combination GPRS/802.11 wireless system built around the NetMotion middleware environment, which allows secure and seamless mobility between multiple wireless network types. Using fiber that had been run to 120 traffic-control cabinets, CDB has deployed Airespace wireless APs mounted on utility poles inside weatherproof enclosures. Each outdoor AP provides a coverage range of approximately .5 miles. Today's applications focus on facilities management, police and fire protection. Plans are being discussed to extend coverage to key tourist areas, including the local marina.

Organization: LaQuinta Corp.Key contact: Brett Molen, CTO of STSN

Key vendors: STSN, Colubris, SMC

Key metrics: 71-hotel deployment in 3-1/2 months, 100 percent wireless coverage in every hotel's public spaces

Last December, La Quinta Corp. decided to implement network services, both wired and wireless, in its 71-hotel La Quinta Inns and Suites business in North America. By the end of March, the system was fully operational, thanks to a partnership with STSN, a provider of wired and wireless broadband services to the hospitality industry, and Colubris Networks. STSN provides secure gateway and network services at all locations. Colubris CN-300R APs, which provide high-power 200 mW radios, are available in public spaces at each hotel. STSN's back-end systems support advanced security services, including one-to-one NAT, that protects users not only from Internet attacks but also from potential attacks by other hotel patrons.

Organization: Pacific ExchangeKey contact: Bruce Burke, director of network engineering

Key vendors: Airespace, Cisco, HP

Key metrics: 12 Airespace APs, 2 Airespace 4000 switches, 80 users

Pacific Exchange (PCX) is a San Francisco-based market where investors meet to buy and sell options on more than 1,100 stocks. PCX began deploying wireless to facilitate its trading applications in the 1990s using Proxim's RangeLAN technology. Newer applications dictated a higher-performance system, and after struggling with an ill-fated upgrade to Proxim's 802.11a Harmony system, PCX took another look at available product offerings and chose Airespace in the fall of 2003. Now in full production, PCX has deployed 10 Airespace APs across two switches. What impressed PCX most about Airespace was its ability to provide a centrally managed system capable of meeting high-bandwidth, high-density application requirements. Burke says the ability to tune the RF environment in a very granular manner is a compelling advantage, and though PCX has encountered a few glitches during deployment, he reports that Airespace has been very responsive to his needs.

Organization: Port of Seattle with Tideworks TechnologyKey contact: Clinton Jones, IT project manager, Tideworks Technology

Key vendors: Vivato, Psion Teklogics, Cisco

Key metrics: 4 Vivato APs covering 200 acres, 100 concurrent users

The Port of Seattle uses four Vivato 2.4-GHz outdoor WLAN switches to provide wireless network access to an area of more than 200 acres in its marine container terminal. The network supports more than 100 concurrent users, and the primary application is Tideworks' Traffic Control, a logistics application that facilitates the optimal storage of containers. Mobile devices include a range of laptops, PDAs and specialized devices from Psion Teklogics. Despite an extremely RF-hostile environment that is constantly changing as metal containers are moved, Jones says the Vivato systems have delivered very reliable network service.

Organization: Purdue UniversityKey contact: Julie Kercher-Updike, assistant to CIO

Key vendors: Cisco

Key metrics: 1200 Cisco AP's, coverage in 140 buildings, peak usage of 700 users, 200 unique users per day

Purdue, located in West LaFayette, Ind., is one of the nation's premier research universities with more than 38,000 students and 14,000 faculty and staff. Purdue Air Link (PAL), the university's wireless network service, comprises 1,200 Cisco 1200 access points. The wireless network provides service to more than 2,000 unique users every day, with peak utilization of more than 700 concurrent users. Security is provided using load-shared Cisco 3030 VPN concentrators. University management is pleased that the many interoperability and security issues posed by earlier ad hoc efforts to deliver wireless services have been largely resolved through the deployment of a pervasive, centrally managed system, but Kercher-Updike recommends that such large-scale deployments be pursued as a multiphase project.

Organization: San Antonio Community HospitalKey contact: Jan Snyder, senior network consultant

Key vendors: Trapeze, Telesym, Spectralink, Vocera

Key metrics: Eight Trapeze Mobility Exchanges, 120 Mobility Points

Located in Upland, Calif., San Antonio Community Hospital (SACH) is an independent 350-bed hospital with 2,000 staff members and 400 physicians. SACH is in the middle phase of installing 120 APs and eight Mobility Exchanges from Trapeze Networks. Applications include patient-information systems, a digital imaging system and wireless VoIP applications. SACH chose Trapeze because it liked the system's Ringmaster virtual survey tool, overall management capabilities and high-availability services provided through dual-homing of APs.

Organization: University of GeorgiaKey contact: David Matthews Morgan, associate director for network planning

Key vendors: Bluesocket, Enterasys, Cisco

Key metrics: 30 Bluesocket gateways, 420 access points, 2,000 unique logins during Q4 2003

The University of Georgia, located in Athens, is home to 34,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff. Its wireless network consists of 420 Cisco and Enterasys Networks APs that provide service within buildings and in outdoor spaces. Because UGA subscribes to a decentralized model in which individual schools and colleges construct and maintain their own networks, the institution settled on a wireless network design using Bluesocket wireless gateways. The gateway approach meets central campus security standards while providing a choice of wireless equipment to individual units.

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