Sep 03 2013

Facing the Challenge of New IT in Old Buildings

IT workers grapple with the difficulty of deploying wireless technology in 100-year-old buildings.

Fenway Park is a legendary ballpark that has played host to 11 World Series. It’s where Ted Williams, batting for the Boston Red Sox, hit home run after home run. It’s also really old — more than 100 years old, in fact.

While 100 years of baseball history makes for an impressive legacy, it also means that adding modern marvels like wireless networking to buildings that were constructed before the Internet was even conceived can be incredibly challenging.

Red Sox IT Director Steve Conley talked about the challenges of outfitting Fenway with wireless in a recent GigaOm article.

To be clear, Fenway has Wi-Fi now, said Red Sox IT Director Steve Conley, but most of that capacity is soaked up by “back of office stuff” — the press boxes, in-seat services, and the ticket gates. “It’s a tricky proposition, but every stadium will be a hotspot. It’s just a matter of when and how easy it will be,” Conley said in an interview.

Two years ago, the Red Sox installed Verizon’s distributed antenna system (DAS) technology to accommodate all those smartphone tweeters in the stands, but even putting in that gear — and the Meru Networks routers for Wi-Fi — was a challenge for a ballpark that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Conley has likened finding spots for all these connectivity points to an Easter egg hunt, and if you’ve ever been to the crooked interior warrens of the park, you know what he means. “With these things, we just put them in a NEMA box and paint ’em green, and find a place for them,” Conley said.

The Red Sox aren’t the only ones facing IT challenges in old buildings.

At Bucknell University, the IT team was forced to get creative when it decided to outfit the university’s 19th century buildings with wired and wireless Internet.

“People don't realize the hardest piece to install is the wiring to plug in access points,” says Eric Smith, assistant director of networking and information security at Bucknell University, in an article in EdTech: Focus on Higher Education. “A campus like ours has 150-year-old buildings. They were not designed to pull Ethernet cables from one side of a building to another. You burn up a lot of time and expense to get cables from A to B.”

The issue of outfitting legacy buildings with modern IT is also a challenge on a smaller scale with small and medium-sized organizations.

This is best illustrated by a 2010 forum post on overclock.net, in which a user by the name of EarlGrey described the challenge he faced in adding a small wireless network to a building that used to be a small-town bank. Banks often have thick concrete walls, which makes adding wireless difficult.

Here’s an excerpt of his post:

I'm tasked with setting up a small personal wireless network in what used to be a small town bank. The bank's IT department did a number on their server room and phone lines when they moved out so little is left of their original setup and I'm not allowed to do any remodeling.

In order to get ADSL internet functioning at all in this building I will most likely have to place the modem and wireless router close to the fusebox where the phone lines enter the building. In between this area and the room which will hold one or two PC's are several walls some of which make up the old safe, so those are quite thick.

What kinds of challenges have you faced in deploying new IT in old buildings? Let us know in the Comments.