Hospital Rejuvenates WLAN Network

By Carmen Nobel  |  Posted 2005-03-01

Hospital Rejuvenates WLAN Network

A practical need for mobility has led a Michigan hospital group to replace its aging data-centric wireless LAN with a new network that supports multiple services across multiple sites.

Last year, the IT staff at Bronson Healthcare Group, in Kalamazoo, began evaluating WLAN gear that could provide reliable data access, voice support and asset tracking—all while meeting an April 2005 deadline for the latest HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) security requirements.

At the time, the not-for-profit organization was using legacy access points from Symbol Technologies Inc. on top of a WLAN base of equipment from Nortel Networks Ltd.

"Already we had a wireless LAN installed and functional in our environment, but it didnt provide all the functionality we needed," said Brett Mello, director of IT at Bronson.

Mello wanted a centrally managed, secure 802.11-based (Wi-Fi) WLAN that would work with the existing Nortel equipment and with the hospitals Wi-Fi phones from SpectraLink Corp.

Symbol offered a centralized WLAN system, and Nortel also offered its own gear. But the IT team at Bronson evaluated systems from their incumbent vendors as well as gear from Cisco Systems Inc., which is the market leader. Ultimately, the team chose a Wi-Fi switch system from Airespace Inc.

"The ease of usability in configuration was a key component," Mello said. "The management console was easier and more robust than any of the competitors that we looked at."

The staff knew that Airespace gear would work with Nortel wired gear. In fact, Nortel had an OEM partnership with Airespace. Still, Mello decided last fall to buy the WLAN gear from an independent reseller.

Read more here about WLAN support and security challenges.

"One of the biggest decision aspects was immediate on-site support," Mello said. "There wasnt a local Nortel rep to handle the Airespace equipment, so we chose a vendor based in West Michigan who could provide on-site support if need be."

Bronson bought its Airespace gear from BCS Networks Inc., a Traverse City, Mich., reseller that has been selling Airespace equipment for a few years. Mello noted that he was looking for a reseller that would support the choice of gear, not one that would make the choice for him.

"We only refer to resellers for additional test equipment," Mello said. "We do our own research of products before we implement them. I dont think its a very good idea to let the vendor choose which products youre using."

BCS is a big proponent of Airespace WLANs, which hit the market a couple of years ago as an alternative to WLANs with individually managed access points. BCS officials are not fans of the old way of doing things.

"Everyone was basically doing the same thing, and it was ugly, but there were no other options," said Matt Hanna, vice president of technology at BCS. "It took me six or seven months evangelizing this new topology, but it was necessary. ... We sell Cisco. Any VAR on the planet sells Cisco. But once Airespace came out, they were our main [WLAN] solution."

"As soon as we brought on Airespace, we basically quit selling Proxim [Inc.] and Cisco in corporate or hospital settings; it didnt make sense," Hanna said. "We were preaching the conversion story. The nice thing about our company is we talk to customers about more than just data. Its always voice, data and RFID [radio-frequency identification] tagging."

Next Page: Airespace supports seamless roaming among switches.

Airespace Supports Seamless Roaming

Airespace supports seamless roaming not only between access points but among switches. That was key to Bronsons plans to let the staff make Wi-Fi phone calls as they walked through the tunnels that connect the five buildings on the hospital groups main campus.

The initial deployment is close to fruition. It comprises 130 access points and four Airespace 4102 switches, all of which run the Airespace Control System management software.

Eventually Mello plans to spread the wireless support from the five main campus buildings to approximately a dozen satellite facilities.

"The objective is to have the entire campus wireless by the end of 2005 so that not only can our staff roam from facility to facility to maintain connectivity, but our guests can also use the network to access hot spots," Mello said.

The new WLAN is already improving vital administrative functions such as processing computerized physician order entries and electronic medical records, Mello said. Once the WLAN is fully implemented, Bronson plans to equip some of the doctors with Tablet PCs.

Bronson also plans to use the WLAN to keep track of its mobile medical equipment with RFID tags.

"Were looking at doing asset tracking to be able to track components that are usually misplaced but are mission-critical to the business, like IV pumps and wheelchairs," Mello said.

Wi-Fi-based RFID tagging is growing in demand, especially among customers whose assets tend to roll away, according to Airespace officials in San Jose, Calif.

"We are beginning to see the tide of health care customers looking for asset tracking," said Matthew Glenn, director of product management at Airespace. "I would say that it is in the early phases, but it looks like this is the next big application for health care."

Mello is pleased with his choice of Airespace gear. But for that same reason he is also concerned with the fact that Airespace may not be Airespace for much longer.

Last month, Cisco announced a definitive deal to buy Airespace for $450 million in stock and assumed options. Pending federal approval, the deal is expected to close by the end of April.

"Weve worked with Cisco over the years, and their service level hasnt been the greatest," Mello said. "Sometimes an organization can get so large that the service level is reduced. But our greatest concern is whether Cisco will end up reducing its feature set as it is absorbed into the product line."

Cisco has yet to announce its integration plans for the Airespace gear, but, in the meantime, Airespace officials are telling current customers to rest assured.

Click here to read more about Ciscos acquisition of Airespace.

"I guarantee you that the quality of our gear is not going to suffer," Airespaces Glenn said. "This is at the top of everyones list. Cisco is going to honor service and support for existing Airespace customers, so, in many ways, these are the first customers to benefit from the acquisition."

That said, the Cisco acquisition enforces Mellos decision to buy his gear through the channel.

"A key part of going through a reseller is that theyre accessible, they know us personally and they can provide the face-to-face service as needed," Mello said. "If something significant happens, they can get to the key partner much faster than we ever could."

Hanna echoed the sentiment that a VAR helps allay fears during a vendor merger.

"In general, all of our customers call us first," he said. "And were not going to drop Airespace just because Cisco bought them."

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.

Rocket Fuel