Wireless sparks enterprise network innovation

Network executives are getting creative with mobile computing. They have to, because they’re coping with rapidly changing technologies in networks, handheld devices and application development.

Enterprise mobile projects tend to be highly focused, start small and look for concrete payoffs, which could be in hard dollar revenue or savings but also in customer satisfaction and employee productivity, according to attendees and speakers at this week’s annual Gartner Mobile & Wireless Summit.

Acuity, a Sheboygan, Wisc. insurer, is evaluating how to give field claims adjusters wireless access to corporate applications, possibly with a laptop fitted with a cellular NIC, said Tina Pokrzywinski, director of IS. “We’re due for a technology upgrade,” she said. “And our CIO said, ‘Wireless is coming and we need to be ready.'”

Although some attendees at the Orlando event were still focused on the basics of how to deploy secure WLAN infrastructures, others are looking beyond the net.

“If you look around, a lot of the people here are IT infrastructure people,” said Paul Kurchina, program director for IT at TransAlta, a Calgary, Alberta power generation company. “But the [wireless] infrastructure is almost boring to me now. The really interesting thing is, ‘Okay, now that I’ve got this network, what can I actually do with it?’ It’s about applications.”

Again and again, where wireless net access exists, end users themselves are finding new ways to exploit, according to attendees.

TransAlta, for example, is deploying WLANs at several generating plants to let field maintenance workers outfitted with Symbol rugged handhelds link with backend equipment and repair databases, ordering systems, and a new mobile workflow application. The system has cut the time for many maintenance checks and tasks in half, according to Kurchina.

Almost as soon as the system was deployed, said Kurchina, workers were suggesting new applications. “They’re dreaming up solutions on their own,” he said. One idea was to attach a US$5,000 802.11b sensor to an aging machine. The sensor’s data let TransAlta extend the life of the equipment by six months, a huge return on investment. The company is now rolling out more wireless sensors.

Columbus Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, has hundreds of handheld devices, from smartphones to PalmOS handhelds to Dell laptops. Many of the PalmOS PDAs still synchronize via the user’s PC or an Ethernet dock, but more of it is being done wirelessly. Hospital executives can now synchronize scheduling and other data via Samsung and Treo handhelds over Verizon’s 1X cellular net, in less than 60 seconds, said Schon Crouse, a PC support analyst with the IS group.

Exploiting the hospital’s Cisco WLAN, emergency room nurses now take preliminary patient data using a wireless laptop mounted on a cart that’s wheeled from one triage room to another. Data is collected faster, more accurately, and is available immediately. Schon said the time needed to triage a patient has been cut in half.

Westar Energy, a utility based on Wichita, Kan., is running a mobile workforce management application over a 2400-baud radio system from Motorola to Panasonic ToughBook laptops mounted in trucks. The software has made job scheduling, dispatching and reporting faster, although the radio link itself is a far cry from broadband capacity.

“We don’t transmit a lot of data,” said Sam Funk, technical coordinator for mobile data. WLAN access points are being added to regional sites from which the workers are deployed. The WLANs let the trucks download big files like maps or photos, and lets network administrators manage the laptops.

Westar’s is also now talking with the City of Wichita about partnering on a wireless broadband net, to be based on 802.16 WiMax radios due out later this year. The city wants to build the network for its public safety departments. “We’d have broadband coverage at least in the metro area,” said Funk.

Another company, Northrop Grumman, has been using WLAN bridging technology for a kind of slow motion mobility at three shipyards.

Ships are built in modular sections that move in stages through the shipyards. A variety of portable buildings, from 200-person offices to small tool supply rooms, have to move with them, said J.D. Longmire, sector manager for networks and telecommunications, Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, based on Pascagoula, Miss.

In late 2004, the company eliminated the costs and delays of constantly re-laying Ethernet and power cables by using a point-to-multipoint wireless link, created by pairs of the Cisco Aironet 1300 Access Point/Bridge. The bridges link the shipyard’s wired LAN with small LANs in 15 moveable buildings. The bridging unit on each building is wired to an Ethernet switch that supports PCs and Cisco’s VOIP desk phones.

The wireless bridges are being rolled out as part of what the ship systems group calls the comprehensive wireless saturation plan, said Longmire. “The basic concept is to provide a comlete wireless and VoIP infrastructure that will allow data/voice connectivity where it is required, including aboard the ships,” he said.

The infrastructure will underlay a growing portfolio of applications and systems: barcode readers, remote data entry, telemetry systems for power, pressure and temperature monitoring, and supplanting wired applications and systems such as timekeeping and dumb terminals.

Related links:

Faster wireless rates coming soon

Is Wi-Fi worthwhile or a wireless waste?