Building with Mesh

By Naomi Graychase

June 13, 2008

A large construction company based in the southeast upgrades its wireless LAN to increase productivity, improve security, and save money.

To say that Kendyl Peebles, Director of IT for Clancy & Theys Construction Company is enthusiastic about his new wireless LAN is a bit like saying Imelda Marcos sort of likes shoes—it’s a bit of an understatement.

“It’s been, actually, a lifesaver for me,” says Peebles whose new 802.11a/b/g wireless network covers one office building, a warehouse across the street, a workshop more than 300 feet from the main office, and also offers secure remote access to contractors in the field.

The new WLAN, which uses APs and controllers from Aruba Networks, is a serious upgrade from Peebles’s legacy solution, which consisted of “little Netgear things” mounted on the ceiling. This juryrigged solution posed several important problems ranging from security and mobility to bandwidth and aesthetics.

“The only security was a WEP key and if we had a guest come in for a presentation, we’d go down and reconfigure their connection and put our WEP key in and get them connected and then try to catch them before they left, to take that out,” says Peebles. “When I bought all those little Netgear APs, they wouldn’t work up in the ceiling, so I put in power outlets and then hung them from the ceiling. The CEO was very unhappy about that, those black boxes hanging…and, of course, we’ve got job sites. Typically we’d have to wait two to three weeks after we got power to the construction trailer to get Internet and telephone out there. Any application you had open would disconnect if you went out of range of our little Netgear APs.”

Enter Aruba

After researching a variety of options, Peebles went with an Aruba Networks solution.

“I now have eight APs and two mesh nodes inside our main building; two mesh points, one in the shop and one in the warehouse, with nodes on top of each building; and an AP inside those two buildings. So, I now have network interconnectivity, and a hub with a small switch with wired connectivity.”

The upgraded network is worlds away from his hanging router solution.

“As I walk down the hall and I switch from one AP to the next, I never lose connectivity to the network. I can walk up and down those hallways and completely circle the main office, walk to the warehouse, to the shop and then upstairs and to the back of that building and never lose connectivity,” says Peebles.

Secure solution

When it comes to security, for this construction company with roughly 500 employees and more than $500 million in net annual revenue, sharing WEP keys is also a thing of the past.

“Each AP is two virtual APs, so virtually I have 16 APs in the buildings,” explains Peebles. “At any one AP, it will show up as two different points. One of those is called ‘CT Wireless.’ That one allows people to log in with a username and password that passes through a proxy server to interface with an active directory. The user is allowed access if they are in the active directory. On the same AP, there’s another virtual AP called ‘CT Guest.’

“I’ve got a fairly basic set up so that when somebody comes in, they can connect to CT Guest, but the first time they try to connect to a Web browser, it presents them with a form that requests a valid e-mail address and the name of the person they are a guest of. It gives me a little bit of tracking. If I look and someone’s connected with false information, I can pop them off. But the only thing they can do is get to the Internet--they can’t get to the network. One of the nicest things about the controller—it’s got a heck of a firewall. The controller is awesome.”

controller.jpg

Aruba's "awesome" MMC-3200 Multi-Service Mobility Controller.

Can’t afford not to

Peebles oversees the WLAN in Raleigh, NC, along with one IT colleague. The company’s other branches spread throughout the south, mostly rely on contractors for IT support. The new Wi-Fi network cost $21,000 to deploy—$7,000 less than it would have cost just to run fiber to one of his three buildings, says Peebles. According to Peebles, Aruba’s solution cost half what a well-known competitor’s solution with less functionality would have cost. Peebles is already seeing a return on his investment.

“It’s invaluable,” says Peebles. “The estimating guys, they have laptops when they are doing a bid and they all gather in a bid room. Now, instead of having multiple LAN drops and plug this in and that thing, these guys go in the bid room and turn a laptop on and they are connected. Marketing has benefited from it because of all the presentations that they can do by bringing the laptop into the conference room. Just turn it on and connect.”

Work flow is much-improved now that the WLAN is in place, particularly for employees working in the field, which saves time and money--based not only on man-hours and improved efficiency, but also on gas prices.

“They have been in the habit of using a sneakernet for a lot of files,” says Peebles. “One guy would drive back here and burn a CD or plug his laptop in and copy the files, and then drive back out and make changes and drive back. Or they e-mail files back and forth, which was confusing. Now, they don’t have to take the time to drive back and forth. I have Remote Wireless APs. The guys can connect to the DSL at the job site trailer and the AP opens up a VPN tunnel as soon as they connect, just as if they were here in the office. They log in through the active directory here in the office, so they get local connectivity to the Exchange server, local access to shared drives and local printers. If I had a little better DSL out there, I could have them running applications across it.”

Peebles also plans to save his company money by employing the WLAN to streamline processes for tracking equipment. Using bar codes, “we’ll be able to track anything from hammers and skill saws to ladders and dump trucks and pickups and bulldozers,” he says.

He is also excited about the new Mobile Remote Access Point (Mobile RAP, available next month), which is new software for use with the Aruba AP-70 Access Point. It allows you to plug in a 3G USB cellular modem and use the cellular for wide-area network communications.

“It has USB connectivity, so that I can put a broadband card in it from Sprint or Verizon and plug it in and provision it as an Internet access point. So as soon as the site trailer can get power, I can give the superintendent the AP and he can go plug it in and it VPN tunnels through the broadband wireless. I’m creating a kit for our superintendents going out in the field. If we can get power, we can get Wi-Fi,” says Peebles.

Happy days are here again

While Peebles loves everything about his new network, he is especially effusive about the level of customization available and about the Aruba engineers who assist him.

“These guys are wizards,” he says. “The really cool thing is that they are running a Linux kernel in each AP, they can actually—or I can even—use an emulation software and connect directly to the APs and get to a command prompt. There are many, many configurations that are unbelievable, awesome.”

The Clancy & Theys deployment uses the MMC-3200 Multi-Service Mobility Controller;  AP61 and AP70 Access Points; and Secure Enterprise Mesh and Remote Access Point software. Clearly, Peebles is happy with the results.

“I believe these mesh points, they are just great. I’m at a loss for words,” he says. And his CEO is, apparently, delighted, too.

“The thing that made our CEO extremely happy was when I took down all those little black boxes hanging from the ceiling. These new APs work extremely well up inside the ceiling hidden from view,” says Peebles.

For more on Aruba Networks, read “Aruba Acquires AirWave,” “Aruba Announces Explosion-Resistant APs,” and “Aruba's Modular Switch: Healing the Pain.”

For more on construction-related or multi-venue Wi-Fi deployments, read “Lincoln Center Offers Free Wi-Fi,” “Reaching New Heights,” and “Keys to Successful Muni Wi-Fi.”

Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-FiPlanet.  She is based in Western Massachusetts.
Originally published on .

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