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Issue of July 2004 

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Campus WLAN

A manufacturing campus without wires

Honda Siel India Limited implemented a campus WLAN, and after teething problems, feels it was worth the while. by Rahul Neel Mani

Automobile manufacturer Honda Siel India Ltd., the company that manufactures 'City' and 'Accord' car models, has a campus spread over 250 acres in Greater Noida. The legacy campus LAN had performance and scalability issues when the number of users increased from 100 to 200.

After a few attempts to upgrade the legacy LAN, the company deployed a campus-wide LAN network. And after a number of teething problems, the organization felt that the use of wireless was really worth the while.

The first LAN

The company built its first LAN in 1997, which connected the regional office, head office, and manufacturing plant in Greater Noida, all within the same campus. Apart from the main admin and production blocks, the remaining locations were referred to as ‘remote’ locations in the 250 acre campus.

The number of users and applications used by the remote locations weren't very significant, and it wasn't feasible to deploy a network that had a large number of nodes. The primary area, which comprised the admin and production units, had a 10/100 Mbps UTP network.

The company used its existing internal telecom lines, connected them to an IBM router and modem to provide connectivity to the remote sites. This point-to-point connectivity allowed users to access the applications residing on the company's servers.

Organizational growth

Soon, along with organizational growth it was necessary to scale up the network capacity and performance to fulfil the growing needs. But the procedure was difficult. In 2002, the problem of growing traffic and the need to access more applications by an increasing number of users became a significant issue.

The company took a three-pronged approach for expansion. It decided to:

1. Create a good backbone to avoid the network downtime, which happened at the cost of actual applications.

2. Provide connectivity to the remote locations.

3. Expand the network in the primary function area.

In line with the strategy, the existing hub was replaced with a Layer 3 chassis-based Cisco 4006 switch to enhance network performance. Three Virtual LANs were created from this new switch-based network. And remote units like Spares, Receiving Area, Materials Gate, Yard, Utility Center, Training Center and R&D Center were interconnected.

And since the demand for access to more applications from the remote sites grew, the company decided to deploy new and more efficient means of connectivity.

Why Wireless?

The company decided to deploy a wireless network for a number of reasons.

The existing UTP LAN was unable to scale up and meet the performance needs of the admin and production areas. This was especially because the number of users grew from 100 to 200 in a very short time. All the channels, through which the UTP cable was laid, were full and were buried under the floor. It was found not feasible to put supplementary channels to induct new UTP cables.

“It posed digging and civil works issues, and was aesthetically challenging,” said Hilal I. Khan, Manager, IT, Honda Siel India Ltd.

Time was of essence. The new users had to be connected as soon as possible. And an added benefit of mobility would also help the operations.

“Since it was a defined area, we thought that giving a chance to WLAN might just work,” said Khan.

There were problems

Although simple to deploy, the technology carried with it a unique set of problems.

“Our first worry was to choose the right partner purely in terms of the vendor who could provide us the right equipment like access points, adapters, and network cards,” said Khan.

There wasn't any successful deployment case study example as yet, especially in the manufacturing industry. Honda Siel India Ltd did not know much about the capabilities of a wireless vendor.

“The most important concern was that none of the vendors, who were called for discussion, were able to provide a suitable solution given the prevailing circumstances in our organization,” said Khan. Each vendor endorsed the need-based implementation plan that the company had internally prepared.

“At the cost of sounding thankless to the vendor and the integration partner, the credit of design and, to some extent, the rollout goes to the internal IT team,” commented Khan.

All the interfaces between the WLAN and the fiber and UTP at the base switch level were designed internally. Speed of the WLAN links was another important area where there were apprehensions.

“Vendors provided different versions of the speed of links. Some vendors talked about 11 Mbps, some promised 54 Mbps, and some also mentioned 108 Mbps. This made the issue of speed very unclear,” said Khan. There were also a number of reservations regarding security.

Select the vendor

The company decided to deploy and test the available options.

“We tested equipment from Cisco, Avaya, and Netgear to see the pros and cons and evaluate their potential,” says Khan. After evaluation the company decided to use equipment from Netgear. The solution provided 802.11g WLAN with 54Mbps speed.

The network was backward and forward-scalable and did not have compatibility issues. By updating a firmware at the access point, the access point could be scaled down to 11 Mbps and scaled up to 108 Mbps.

But there were woes

But the company was not able to ascertain how many people it could populate on that network. There wasn't a clear idea of the number of access points to be put. There wasn't much clarity on how to avoid the 'black holes', which could disrupt the network. “We started with one, but ended up installing seven access points for the defined area of 500 sq meters,” said Khan.

“Although we selected the vendor, decided upon a technology, and controlled the implementation process, but in the total proceedings, I wasn't a very happy and satisfied person. We had to do a lot of things on our own. We were expecting the vendors to study and report the health issues, loopholes, weaknesses, and scalability issues of the network, but their performance was a disappointment,” said Khan. Finally, Quantum was selected as the systems integration partner.

Implementation had its own problems

The company deployed seven WLAN access points in the primary area of administration and production. The initial cost wasn't too high, since the access points were not too expensive. But the recurring cost of the wireless network was still a concern area.

The wireless cards are still in the range of Rs. 5000 to 6000 for both laptops and desktops. “If I buy a new device, I can ensure that it is pre-fitted with a wireless card, but what would I do for the existing devices,” said Khan. Since the cost of the card is the TCO goes up.

There were aesthetics issues when it came to the location of access points. The company decided to put the access points inside the false ceiling and keep the omni-directional five-degree antenna outside.

“But after doing that, a few of the users were not able to connect even if the Access Point was on top of their heads. They had no clue why that washappening,” said Khan.

Bizarre behavior

The causes given for poor or no signals were bizarre. At times, a desktop CPU unit which kept under a desk was seen as a problem. And at times it was the issue of humidity in the false ceiling. The vendor even talked of upgrading the firmware in the access points to solve the problems.

“All sorts of strange things were happening but we were clueless as to what was actually wrong and we were getting enormous pressure from the internal users to provide the connectivity,” said Khan.

Even after the firmware was upgraded, the problem was far from over. If any of the access points were not responding and had to be switched on again and again, the whole network used to drop because all the seven points were interconnected.

Ultimately Netgear replaced all the seven access points with their new range without any cost and the problem was solved.

Benefits bouquet

After all the teething problems, Khan still maintains that it was a positive step and a great learning exercise for them to improvise in the future WLAN expansion or fresh deployments.

“We showed the courage of doing it first in the industry because the time pressure could not allow us to take any other step but WLAN,” he said.

Initially the company populated only 25 people on this network, but today there are 50 people using it. “We plan to put 50 more people on this network very soon,” said Khan.

The performance, after eliminating the initial issues was very stable and the speed was good enough for the organization's requirements. The time to deploy was only fifteen days and the initial cost was very less.

“We are happy with the initial investment as well as time taken to deploy. But the recurring cost is still a gray area,” said Khan. The total cumbersome process of laying down the fiber/UTP cables was completely bypassed. The best aspect about the solution was that the implementation did not create any hindrance in the day-to-day activity.

“Smooth integration with the backend Cisco 4006 switch was another advantage that had to be taken into account. The UTP instead of terminating on different nodes, can now terminate on an access point and the network is up and running,” said Khan.

In the next year, the company plans to connect the remote locations within the premise through WLAN next year and it will provide redundancy to the existing fiber optic network.

The writer can be reached at

<In a nutshell>
The company

Automobile manufacturer Honda Siel India Ltd, the company that manufactures 'City' and 'Accord' car models, has a campus spread over 250 acres in Gerater Noida.

The need

The legacy campus LAN had performance and scalability issues when the number of users increased from 100 to 200.

The solution

The wired campus LAN was upgraded to a wireless setup. The solution had a few initial problems, which were overcome later

The benefits

The company enjoys hassle-free connectivity with no scaling and mobility issues.

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