Michael Garrett calls Alaska Power & Telephone’s microwave network “a whole new ball game.” But with careful planning, the company has achieved high availability for its broadband and Wi-Fi customers.
Nov 11 2010

Wireless Wonder

Businesses find benefits in building wireless networks to keep employees working while on the go.

Install, troubleshoot, replace, repeat. Install, troubleshoot, replace, repeat. It was a familiar drill for Manhattan Apartments.

When the managers of the Midtown New York City real estate company launched its wireless network, they opted for a low-cost consumer router, which did the trick — for a while. Before long, though, the network was pushed to its threshold, and it had to be replaced. Every few months, it was the same drill. It was time for a change.

“I told my staff, ‘Find out how they do it at airports and Starbucks,’” says Jonas Sigle, property and infrastructure director. They looked into low-end, midlevel and high-end products before choosing a SonicWall solution. Three years later, the product has more than justified its cost by slashing maintenance time, improving security and simplifying management of the network. “It’s more reliable and vastly more stable” than the previous configuration, Sigle says.

As notebooks, smartphones and other wireless devices become standard tools in and out of the office, businesses are putting a lot more thought and resources into their wireless networks. Even at a company such as Manhattan Apartments, where wireless isn’t mission-critical because there’s a separate wired network housing all of its essential data, employees and visitors expect reliable wireless access. Fortunately, a modest investment of time and money can go a long way toward building a better wireless network.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of findingthe chink in your armor. Maybe you need to add access points or management tools. Perhaps it’s time to start upgrading to 802.11n equipment. Figure out what works and what doesn’t work now. Where are the logjams? If you’re having serious performance bottlenecks, you might want to have a heart-to-heart with your network service provider or consider switching to a new one, says Laura DiDio, principal analyst at Information Technology Intelligence Consulting (ITIC).

Once you have a handle on what’s gone wrong in the past, look into the future, DiDio adds. Figure out why you need wireless now and what you might use it for in the next three to five years. If you’re not already virtualizing, will you soon do so? What about Web 2.0 or video conferencing? Make sure your wireless network can support your most demanding applications. “You want to build a network that’s going to last,” DiDio says, “because you don’t have the time, expertise or resources to keep doing this every few years.”

Get Out the Map

Once you’re clear on the business goal, sketch out what your wireless network will look like. Will it be used in a large open space, such as an 11,000-square-foot loft in Times Square, or will it cover multiple offices or buildings?

It took Alaska Power & Telephone (AP&T) years to map out a path for the wireless network it uses to provide broadband and Wi-Fi to its customers. Because there’s very little fiber in the company’s coverage area, which extends more than 1,200 miles, IT staff had to figure out a way to build a microwave network that spanned southeast Alaska’s islands, mountains, rainforests and tundra. In the process, they had to learn about power, battery life, and ice and wind loads.

AP&T established the Southeast Alaska Microwave Network, now 350 miles long, on 18 mountaintops. Each site consists of a foundation, tower, buildings, generators, and Alcatel radios and MPLS routers. “It’s a whole new ball game for us,” says Michael Garrett, executive vice president of the company and chief operating officer of AP&T’s telecommunications operations, yet they’ve managed to maintain “five nines” (99.999 percent) reliability.

Although AP&T offers its wireless network to customers, it faces many of the same challenges an IT team deploying an internal wireless LAN must confront. To build a wireless network of any scale requires that you look at your physical attributes, says Bryant Smith, AP&T’s director of Internet services. Do you have line of sight or near line of sight between access points? Are there trees or walls between them? Choose your equipment based on those attributes, he advises.

Find the Right Partner(s)

Wireless is a must at Buffalo Studios. The social-network gaming company is housed in a Santa Monica, Calif., building that’s wired throughout, but the staff primarily uses wireless.

“We’re a very dynamic team,” says Project Manager Nicola Geretti, who heads up IT. Since setting up shop earlier this year, employees have been working on a beta version of the company’s first game, racing to perfect it for its fall launch. “We’re very busy,” Geretti says. “You have one chance, and if you blow it, then people aren’t going to come back. You need to gain their loyalty.”

Initially, Buffalo Studios used a small-business DSL connection from Verizon that worked fine. But the staff quickly outgrew that solution. One day, when Geretti situated three new employees on the network, he instantly began fielding complaints from team members who were losing their wireless connections. Within days, he added a cable network with a stronger Cisco router as a fail-safe, and he hasn’t had any problems since.

What are the top three steps businesses have taken within the past two years to boost their wireless network?

1.  Installed 802.11n hardware (switches,  access points)

2. Upgraded antennas
3. Switched to a new network management platform

SOURCE: CDW survey of 356 BizTech readers

“Wireless tends to be a little less reliable,” Geretti says. “But it allows for immediate deployment,” which is a huge advantage for a fast-growing startup such as Buffalo Studios. “Through wireless you can increase the size of your office exponentially in a very short amount of time.” Having the second wireless connection — not to mention the separate wired network — has given him the reliability he needs in his network.

“It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition,” ITIC’s DiDio agrees. For many companies, a unified network consisting of wired and wireless offers the best of all possible worlds.

Manhattan Apartments also maintains wired and wireless networks, and it goes to great lengths to keep them separate. There’s no file sharing between networks, and wireless LAN users can’t see the wired network. “I’m not worried about anyone hacking into the network,” Sigle says of the arrangement.

When he upgraded his network, he switched from wired equivalent privacy (WEP) to Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) encryption. Sigle also uses Media Access Control (MAC) address filtering, and he can run more reports with the SonicWall product. That way, if there’s a high amount of bandwidth being used, he can determine if the problem is coming from a particular computer.

“You’re going to need reliability, scalability, ease of use, security and ease of management,” DiDio says. Many of the tools that large corporations use for their wireless networks can help small businesses. The trick is determining which ones are worth the cost for your situation.

“You don’t want to skimp,” she says, “but if you have a champagne taste with a soda pop budget, you’ll be out of business in a hurry.”

Rick Dahms