Bank on Wireless

Cisco's Aironet pays quick dividends for Eastern Bank. Meet the integrator that made the deposit.

Sometimes less is more. Just ask Eastern Bank, which decided to consolidate offices in the Boston area as part of an initiative to streamline operations.

Eastern, which has 46 banking branches and eight regional sites in the Boston area, wanted to close four offices scattered over a 15- to 20-mile radius. Employees from each office were to move into a five-story, 250,000-square-foot building formerly owned by Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages. The bank bought the building in August 2000.

The consolidation looked great on paper, until Eastern Bank discovered that Verizon couldnt deliver critical T1 lines for the new office in a timely manner. "Our mission was to have the building completely wired within 30 days," recalls Bob Primavera, assistant VP and network engineer for Eastern Bank. "We had to have the first department [IT, of course] moved in by the end of December."

Outfitting the building with a Novell NetWare Ethernet LAN, Compaq workstations, and an assortment of Windows NT and Unix servers was fairly routine. But connecting the new building to the rest of the company stymied Primavera and his teammate, Aidan Garcia.

"Our existing operations center is only about one-half to three-quarters of a mile from the new building," says Garcia. "But we couldnt get a T1 link between them in less than 12 to 13 months."

"Theres a growing need [for dedicated circuits] among ISPs in this area," explains Primavera, "and Verizon was bogging down on new facilities. We had a circuit order that wed placed 12 to 14 months earlier that was still pending."

A high-speed connection was essential to give the 400 relocated employees direct access to the servers and disk arrays in the existing data center, and indirect access to other branches and the Internet. "The old building has about 15 T1 lines coming out of it," notes Garcia.

Primavera and Garcia explored other options and found them too expensive or too time-consuming. Digging up streets to lay a private underground line would have involved months of government red tape. AT&T Wireless offered to install one of its broadband fixed wireless towers on the roof of the new building—the tallest in downtown Lynn, Mass.—and charge Eastern $5,000 per month to share the connection with other customers. That seemed a little presumptuous; wireless ISPs are paying premium rents for prime rooftop space these days.

Small Integrator, Big Partner

Fortunately, Eastern had a two-year-old partnership with Select Inc., one of our Smart 100 solutions providers. Select recommended a solution rarely seen in the security-conscious banking industry: a wireless point-to-point link between the two buildings, which saved Eastern Bank $40,000 in potential T1 costs.

The specific solution included two Cisco AIR-BR342 Wireless Ethernet bridges, part of the networking giants Aironet 340 family of products.

The Cisco Aironet family competes with a long list of wireless LAN products from 3Com, Enterasys Networks, Proxim, Symbol Technologies and other wireless LAN providers.

Founded in 1987, privately held Select Inc. is a Cisco Certified Partner. The integrator employs 65 people and anticipates revenues of $75 million this year. Marketing manager Debbie Dallal attributes Selects steady growth to the firms adaptability and strong partners.

"We started as a Unix shop, then migrated to networking. Now we do network and system integration," she says. "We believe in partnering with best-of-breed vendors," including Cisco, Sun, Veritas and others.

"Part of our job is advising clients on the latest technology," adds David Reid, one of the account executives who meets with Eastern Bank monthly for that very purpose, as well as to constantly evaluate Easterns IT needs.

Safe Crackers

Few customers are more concerned about security than banks. Given the recent publicity of 802.11b wireless LAN security holes, its easy to see why wireless was not on Eastern Banks IT ledger.

"Security was our greatest concern," says Primavera. "We needed a high level of encryption and a narrow transmission beam" to minimize the possibilities of eavesdropping or signal interference.

The Cisco Aironet bridges fit the bill, offering 128-bit encryption and Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS) technology. Eastern also accepted Selects recommendation of a more expensive but more precise antenna system that enables broadcast of a narrower beam at a lower power.

DSSS adds a redundant bit pattern called a "chip" to each transmitted byte, enabling receivers that "know" the right chip to decipher the correct data stream while ignoring other transmissions and background noise. The chip provides extra security, too, because an eavesdropper must know the bit pattern to decipher a transmission.

From 0 Mbps to 11 Mbps in Three Days

"It was only three days from the time we decided to go ahead until the system was operating," says Garcia. "That included the time it took to order and receive the equipment."

The hardest part of the job was installing and configuring the antennas on the two rooftops, says Reid. But even that ticklish job took only a few hours. Because the new building is the tallest in the neighborhood and the old building was just one story shorter, getting a clear line of sight between the antennas was not a problem. The bridges simply plug into Ethernet ports in the LANs of their respective buildings.

To test the wireless links throughput, the partners set up 30 PC users in the new building and had them pump various types of data across the link for a few days. Throughput ranged from more than 5 Mbps to nearly 11 Mbps, depending on the data type, reports Reid.

Primavera and Garcia said bank workers found the wireless links to be invisible connections in more ways than one. Given the systems healthy throughput, workers experienced no decline in speed during data transfers or Internet use between the wireless and the hard-wired connections.

"We also had users log on to the Internet," recalls Primavera. "We had the Internet run for several days to check the integrity of the wireless link. It went without a blip. Thats actually what we used to convince the CIO of a wireless solution."

Neither Rain Nor Sleet

Primavera says he and others were also concerned about environmental factors interrupting the data flow. However, Mother Nature has yet to cause a problem.

"Were about 100 yards from the Atlantic Ocean," says Primavera. "Weve gone through storms, heavy fog, lightning strikes. The system has not skipped a beat."

Primavera says the only problem encountered by Eastern and Select occurred about six months after installation, when a community college across the street from the new building installed "a satellite or microwave dish" on its building. This caused a bit of signal interference, but the problem was quickly solved by switching the Aironet bridges to a different frequency.

Eastern did the smart thing by opting for the more expensive, narrow-beam antennas. "It confines where the signal is sent … and it also reduces their susceptibility to hearing other frequencies," says Reid.

Eastern subsequently hired Select to install a second Aironet link between the two buildings, dedicated to transferring document images to a disk storage array in the old building.

Garcia says the second link reduced traffic on the link used by interactive applications and "cut [real-time] processing time down to a third of what it used to be."

If that wasnt enough to sway the suits, there was always the money. Garcia and Primavera estimate that a Verizon T1 installation would have cost at least $40,000 more than Selects wireless solution.

Leave Em Self-Sufficient

Reid and other Select staffers dont believe in keeping customers co-dependent.

"We train our clients as we help them install new technology, so they can manage it day-to-day themselves," he explains. "Were there if they need special assistance and to continually review their needs and advise them of new technologies."

Primavera and Garcia like their independence, too. "We own our connection," says Garcia. "We dont have to call in a change order and wait for someone to get around to it."

"Eastern Bank was very easy to work with on this," says Reid. "Anything we told them we needed to meet the time frame, they came up with, be it construction or making holes in walls."

Their fears about wireless now put to rest, Eastern Bank officials these days are thinking of other uses for the technology. "It took so much weight off of our shoulders," recalls Garcia. "Initially, we were a little fearful of wireless. But after putting this in … were starting to look at it for other projects."