INTEROP - Enterprise wireless users swap war stories

Enterprise IT managers who have rolled out wireless technologies in a big way reported this week at Interop that although the technology has come a long way, there is still work to be done.

For starters, they need better standards, easier-to-use devices and improved management.

"Management of these networks is the biggest problem, next to interference," said Frank Basso, assistant director of communications for Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. "Especially when you are using wireless outside, you need more insight into what is going on at all times," he added.

Basso uses tools from Trapeze Networks (http://www.trapezenetworks.com/en/homepage.asp) to provide Wi-Fi at the racetrack, parts of which vary in elevation by as much as 350 feet.The technology is used for race cars' onboard telemetry systems, the track's hospitality locations and the organization's IT systems, among other things. Basso put in about 30 of Trapeze's outdoor 802.11a and 802.11b/g access points, installed at various angles to overcome the interference caused by the cars going around the track..

Basso said that improvements in network design have reduced problems, but still he'd like to see vendors provide more intelligence in the tools he uses to track performance on the outside Wi-Fi network. Right now, he is talking with Trapeze about the vendor exposing SNMP in its gear to enable better management, but he also is putting open source management tools, such as Cacti and Nagios, to work tracking rogue access points, users on the networks, associations and interference.

"I have set up the monitoring to look for deltas, something new on the channel, such as more users on or a lot dropping off," Basso said. "There is a need for tools to help point us to the problem and see what's happening on the network before a lot of users are affected."

For Oliver Tsai, director of IT at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, wireless technologies from Symbol help him support three campus networks with as many as 6,000 client machines, 200 hundred servers and about 10,000 network nodes. He says 90 percent to 95 percent of the center's buildings use the wireless network, which lets clinicians tap electronic patient data from COWs, or carts on wheels, or use tablet devices at patient bedsides.

"There is no limit to the number of systems they can access," Tsai said. The hospital uses wireless handsets designed for healthcare that are tied to a virtual switchboard, which can be configured to send messages to those who need to be notified in different scenarios. The hospital also plans to put wireless voice technologies in place. To do this, Tsai would have to design separate Service Set Identifiers and segment virtual LANs (VLAN) for the voice and data traffic, he said.

"Our users have had convergence for years. It's time for us to provide the underlying foundation on the wireless network," he said. The hospital organization also will be looking into dual-mode phones -- those that let users leave the premises and continue to be in touch -- to let physicians and administrators be connected around the clock.

Tsai also is eyeing real-time location services that would help administrators track patients and objects.

"Our chief of surgery expressed concern to the IT department that the operating team didn't know where a patient was," Tsai explained. "Wait time for surgery is a huge cost for hospitals. and real-time location services could help us cut that time."

Tsai said the biggest shortcoming in wireless technology today is a lack of good standards. He says he has client devices that can't necessarily handle Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) or WPA2, without him manually upgrading the client-side configurations. Tsai said he is holding out for a consistent version of 802.1n, a draft standard with the IEEE that allows for Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output antennas to enable data rates of 100Mbps and more.

"Beware of vendors who claim they are compliant with standards, because the wrong decision can be very costly and waste a lot of your time," Tsai said.

Mazda Raceway's Basso agreed. "Write standards compliance and interoperability into the contracts, specify that you will get your money back when they don't work the way they are promised to," he said.

Mike Greene, telecommunications manager at Crawford Communications uses his wireless network, which links desktop and mobile devices, to support a 24/7 facility for about 350 customers in the cable television business.

Greene decided to put technology in place from Ascendant Systems that would work with his 6-year-old PBX to let employees dial extensions and ring multiple devices, better guaranteeing that they will get a human voice instead of voice mail. The PBX routes calls through the Ascendant system, which applies preset policies depending on the user. For instance, the system can link all users on a conference bridge to help them troubleshoot performance issues jointly. The system also lets users transfer calls to their cell phones, which the wireless network supports, to desk phones, which use land lines. The result is a more productive staff, Greene said.

"It's a lot more efficient and [the system] supports multiple device platforms, so we could use pretty much whatever we wanted," Greene said. "That was important because with wireless, a product comes out and you think it's the best and then two years later it's junk."

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