High Wireless Act

FRAMINGHAM (07/31/2000) - Trying to convert Carnegie Mellon University's campus in Pittsburgh to wireless technology had information technology staffers climbing around buildings, measuring each room for radio coverage and checking what walls were made of and where the furniture sat.

Mysterious interference in one building was finally traced to a commercial paging tower a few blocks away, operated by a local business.

"Radio signals can bleed through floors inside buildings," says Lisa M. Picone, one of the two data communications technicians who led the installation.

"There's a learning curve to understanding what the buildings are made of and how it affects radio coverage. We had to come up with our own design criteria."

Picone and colleague Mark Campasano teleconferenced with Lucent Technologies Inc. in Murray Hill, N.J., for training. Lucent also provided antennae and other equipment and exchanged software with the university, making it a showcase for its wireless technology.

Lucent's experts made some site visits to help technicians get the project into the ether. They added a wireless router, an Ethernet with switches, and fiber-optic cable to the buildings, among other infrastructure.

Upgrading infrastructure is the main challenge in going wireless, as KeyCorp found. "Like most banks, we've got a huge legacy involvement," says Bob Rickert, executive vice president and chief technology officer at the Cleveland-based company.

In 1995, KeyCorp started using remote computing for relationship managers who deal with corporate customers, allowing them to work remotely on laptops. They make their sales calls, then dial in to update their sales forecasts and download call reports.

Using Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes as the platform allowed the IT department to operate in a local mode and required training and discipline in testing those systems. But IT people want those new skills.

IT professionals have to be fluent in the technology and creative in applying it to create solutions to the problems that arise when they unplug and go into the ether. Advice and answers are out there, though, and vendors are eager to help show the advantages.

"If you are pushing down that Internet path, you will get the skills you need," Rickert says. But, he cautions, "you can get into the catch-22 of waiting until you have a live project that needs the skill. Then it's too late to train and you have to hire contractors. You never have the chance to build the skill among your employees." KeyCorp has about 1,500 IT employees.

A wireless LAN pilot from Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose is one of the possibilities KeyCorp is working on, but the bank isn't ready to take that change to external customers yet.

"Most customers aren't really comfortable beaming their bank statements around and trading over the air wirelessly yet," Rickert says. Web page form and content have to be modified for small handheld devices. "We want to be ready, and we want to get it right," he says.

Carnegie Mellon spent 18 months installing the Lucent Orinoco 802.11 wireless network to cover more than 90% of the 100-acre campus, indoors and out, totaling more than 2.8 million square feet in more than 30 buildings.

Vice Provost and CIO Tracy Futhey found that the team of technicians and engineers installing the wireless LAN faced new challenges in initial network design, network management, monitoring and troubleshooting. The demands on user support were essentially the same as with a wired network.

Weekly design review meetings with other network professionals helped in working through design challenges. "It's scientific, but there's also an art to it," says Campasano. "You have to get the feel of what the building's like."

Each building, floor and office had to be carefully measured for radio coverage because each had unique characteristics. The cable-plant manager worked with the installation team to design cable routes. Physical-plant managers worked on power supplies, which were then contracted out. The other department managers suggested alternative layouts to improve coverage or efficiency of access point locations.

New Networks Require Innovation

Technicians had to be innovative in managing and monitoring the network. "The tools and utilities to manage wireless networks are not as mature as those for wired networks," Futhey says.

"Wireless LAN management tools are still lagging behind in supporting large-scale enterprise-size deployments," says Chuck Bartel, director of operations and project director of Carnegie Mellon's wireless network, known as Wireless Andrew. "Most tools assist in the management of small-scale deployments of 10 to 20 access points, but large-scale, campuswide deployments require tools that allow for the easy reconfiguration of multiple [access points] from a central management station."

Having helped the campus go wireless, Picone recommends dedicating enough employees to work exclusively on a wireless project. She and Campasano continued their daily responsibilities maintaining the existing network for the campus while they worked on Wireless Andrew.

"It is important to develop staff who are your primary experts," says Bartel.

"But the entire network staff needs to learn to install and support the new [wireless] LANs to minimize burnout of the key staff members and allow the entire staff the opportunity to develop skills in this exciting new area of networking."

But the achievement was worth it. "Everyone can be in touch with a meeting or a class from anywhere on campus," Picone says. "We always have a wireless connection with our laptops."

"Our IT staff have been very gratified by the overwhelmingly positive response to the network from our user community," says Futhey. "Wired networks have been around long enough that they've become a utility that no one really takes time to praise anymore. But the wireless network has thrilled people with the new technology. They give our staff a lot of positive feedback, and that's provided additional motivation and recognition."

Willard is a freelance writer in Los Osos, Calif.

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