Xirrus Wi-Fi network provides new ways of working at Brent Council

Wi-Fi system is promoting greater efficiency and mobile ways of working among council staff, while use of the library by the public has rocketed thanks to improved wireless connectivity, Stephan Conaway, CIO at Brent Council, tells Wireless editor James Atkinson

Xirrus Wi-Fi network provides new ways of working at Brent Council

Brent Council in north London has invested in a new Wi-Fi network provided by Xirrus covering its new headquarters building and library, along with the borough’s leisure and care centres. The network is available to the council’s 2,600 staff and those who visit its buildings.

Speaking to Wireless last week (15 January 2014), Stephan Conaway, chief information officer at Brent Council, says: ‘We ran a wireless system before, but it was not comprehensive, so when we built the new civic centre we also went out to contract for a new Wi-Fi system.

‘We tried to break away from the existing mind set of deploying wired networks and just hanging some wireless technology off it. Local and central Government is quite opposed to going wireless and corporate networks are not taking it that seriously,’ he says.

Conaway reveals that rival vendors were quoting between 240-300 access points (APs) to provide the necessary coverage and capacity. However, Xirrus was able to do the same job with just 70 APs, which provided obvious cost-benefits as fewer arrays meant considerably less cabling, switch ports and energy usage. In addition, the council wanted to minimise disruption to its operations. The Xirrus installation was completed in less than three weeks.

‘The Xirrus design clusters radios into their APs [arrays range from two-radio chassis to 16-radios], so that meant far fewer APs and they are only a half to a third populated at the moment, so there is a lot of room to expand,’ observes Conaway.

Advantages of distributed architecture

Conaway was also attracted to Xirrus by its distributed architecture which puts controllers at the edge of the network, thereby avoiding a single point of failure. ‘That makes a big difference in throughput and capacity, as you are not forcing everything down a small funnel past some point and a switch configuration,’ he says.

He also notes that the Xirrus system is highly configurable. ‘They are willing to look at changes and control options, so we did admire their general approach, which was “we are here to solve your problem”, instead of, “here’s our product - take it or leave it”.

‘They are just about big enough to take a risk with and have enough sales so we weren’t concerned,’ he continues. ‘We’ve had no adverse comments since the network went live and that’s the best thing you can say – no complaints – it’s performed pretty much as predicted. That itself is the biggest point – that it was up and running with very few issues or failures of any kind. It handles 3,500 of our devices laptops, tablets, smartphones, plus hundreds of visitor devices.’

Conaway reports that Xirrus supplied him with a couple of arrays before the deal was signed to install and run for a week or two and worked through various  test scenarios with the council. He adds that the training and support provided by Xirrus has been more than sufficient.

‘We are very happy with the results we’ve had. We are running a Bradford Networks portal, which has a flexible configuration up front and we’ve had no integration problem with backend at all. We are quite pleased with it so far,’ he says.

Network management and security

Conaway’s team is managing the wireless network at the moment, but he says that this is not a prerequisite. ‘We don’t care who manages it. Going forward, if we have to reduce staff there may come a time when we have to outsource our systems. You can treat communications infrastructure as a bit of a commodity now, both PC and networks, so we wouldn’t have a problem taking it out of house at a later date,’ he says.

That said, he adds that Xirrus supplies more management tools than found on many other vendor systems. ‘They’ve developed a lot themselves. Yes, some others may have more because they work with partners.’ He particularly likes the ability to take network management right down to the individual application level, so that network managers can see what apps are being used on each device and prioritise or block them if necessary.

‘Xirrus’ argument about how to handle security was also very strong. The way they approached it made a lot more sense to us than anyone else at the time:  how to lock down devices, for example. Also, iPad tablets running iOS 5 and 6 on standard applications have a tendency to hang on too long as users walk between arrays.

‘But Xirrus has software that tracks that and sends out a disconnect and reconnect command. They didn’t have to do that, but they looked at it and tried to create a better experience for users,’ says Conaway.

Wi-Fi goals

Conaway says that the council’s overall ambition was to get everyone in the organisation on line without any issues and to enable them to go home and still use their devices. ‘The users come in, register with an email account and name – they don’t have to do that, but we wanted to be able to track them.’

He says that the system has the ability to make the whole building wireless, but ‘we backed off that as the Cabinet Office and Government in general is still very wary about that’.

‘We get enhanced encryption form Xirrus and I don’t believe anyone has broken it and despite the fact there has been no wireless loss of data across Government as a whole, so far as I am aware, the Government is still saying it is too dangerous to go all wireless. I think this is a misguided attitude that is retarding the industry, which is a shame,’ notes Conaway.

Productivity improvements

One of the things the council wanted to do was to get staff to think about improving efficiency and productivity, but they were not sure whether going wireless would actually help much or not.

‘Surprisingly it did help a lot,’ reveals Conaway. ‘For those that didn’t already have smartphones it was a big educational process to bring them up to speed on modern communications technology.  

He says there are 130 groups in the building and only about 3 or 4 insisted on going back to desktops after the introduction of mobile devices. ‘The rest really do not want to have to go back to desktops and paper. They have been able to change the way they operate, especially those with field staff, and they really do not want to change back.

‘The users are thinking for themselves,’ he continues, ‘and finding new ways of doing things that we wouldn’t have thought of, so the Wi-Fi is having an impact. So, as long as we can support them in IT, we will provide a ubiquitous wireless network, so they can go out and work over lunch if they want or at home, as desktops are available remotely, but the working environment is exactly the same.’

The wireless network is also doing wonders for take up of the services provided by the council library. Conaway says that typically you might have found15 to 25 people using the old library. ‘Now, my guess is that you’ll see around 150 people in the library. It is full, the desktops are all being used, and everyone else is using smartphones and tablets. The wireless network is carrying all that traffic and it just works, which is what people expect from wireless.’

Future moves

Conaway says the council may try to gain approval to run its desktops wirelessly in the future. ‘The biggest push now is the mobile working. Everybody has tablets in meetings: there’s no paper, as everyone uses documents downloaded onto tablets. That has become a non-event and people just take it for granted.’

He notes that the Xirrus array system provides future proofing of the investment as it can be easily upgraded to the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, because the radios are dual 802.11n and 802.11ac. ‘It is a very flexible array,’ he says, ‘and the management software watches what is running on what.’

See also: London's Brent Council deploys Xirrus Wi-Fi network for staff and visitors

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