Voice Over Wi-Fi Aids Expanding Business

Aruba helps Canada's largest ethanol producer handle its Canadian and U.S. expansion by building a WLAN that spans the continent.

If you ever either drink or drive, youre probably indirectly familiar with Commercial Alcohols Inc.

The largest ethanol producer in Canada, CAI manufactures 175 million liters of ethanol per year. Eighty percent of the companys products go into gasoline, and the remaining 20 percent go into beverages such as Mikes Hard Lemonade and Iceberg Vodka.

Demand for both Canadian liquor and fuel is booming, and CAI is expanding steadily as a result, according to officials at the Toronto company. Plans are under way to build a new ethanol plant in Varennes, Quebec, and to double the size of the existing Chatham, Ontario, facility. Furthermore, the company just branched out internationally with the acquisition of Pharmco Products Inc., an alcohol supplier in Brookfield, Conn. This will give the company a total of eight locations.

The expansion and acquisition plans have given CAIs IT team a good reason to update a communications system that is downright ancient by current technology standards.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read about some of the latest SMB gear from wireless LAN companies.

"It was a 10- or 12-year-old Nortel [Networks Ltd.] system," said Chris Thomas, IT director at CAI, who began updating the companys voice network last year. "The voice mail was running on a clone OS/2 machine. It was time for a change."

Nortels newer offerings include several 802.11b Wi-Fi products that allow for voice communications over a WLAN (wireless LAN). It is a relatively nascent technology, but Nortel is an established company in the voice space. Nortel is Canadian, to boot.

Thomas said he trusts the company. So when his Nortel contacts suggested a voice-over-Wi-Fi system, Thomas decided to go for it. Starting with the companys Brampton, Ontario, alcohol blending and denaturing plant, CAI installed a Business Communication Manager voice server from Nortel and a handful of Wi-Fi phones from SpectraLink Corp., which has an OEM agreement with Nortel.

"Out in the back of the plant we have people who are never at their desks," Thomas said. "Thats sort of what sold it. This makes it easier to track them down."

CAI already had some Wi-Fi access points installed for laptop users; these were mainly Aironet 1200 access points from Cisco Systems Inc., which the company was managing individually. But when Thomas hired a systems integrator for some outside help, the systems integrator recommended a WLAN switch architecture from Aruba Wireless Networks Inc. Aruba is one of myriad recent startups that offer a series of "thin" access points that are managed from a central switch.

"We came in early on in that deployment and showed them Aruba, and we told them to look at all the advantages of a centralized architecture," said Mark Tauschek, vice president of operations at Wireless Friendly Inc., CAIs wireless systems integrator, in Newmarket, Ontario, who posed this question to CAI: "With seven and growing sites across North America, do you really want to manage these sites individually?"

Using the Aruba gear, Tauschek, Thomas and team have been building a WLAN that spans the continent. The core switch is at Brampton, with additional switches at the Chatham and Toronto locations. The remaining branch offices are connected via DSL routers attached to Arubas remote access points.

The WLAN switch industry is seeing a steady demand for voice over Wi-Fi, according to Aruba officials.

"Over the last several months, weve seen a big uptick in voice-over-Wi-Fi implementations, particularly in the health care, education and manufacturing sectors," said David Callisch, a spokesperson for Aruba, in Sunnyvale, Calif. "These are markets where theres lots of physical space and business operations are distributed."

Aruba offers a unique access point, the AP70. When combined with the companys software, it can create an IP Security tunnel from the access point to the switch, even if the access point is in a remote location. Besides using these in branch offices, Thomas is considering them for home office users.

In general, Thomas Wi-Fi security implementation has been both painstaking and creative, and it carefully separates the voice and data traffic.

On the data side, they use SecurID tokens from RSA Security Inc.; laptop users are required to authenticate with the tokens to get into the network.

While Thomas is confident in the security of the airwaves, he must still grapple with safety concerns that are inherent in a business whose core product is highly flammable.

"One of the issues in our manufacturing system is that we need an intrinsically safe phone," Thomas said, referring to the official term for hardware that is certified to operate around explosive materials.

"That means if you drop it, it wont generate any sparks. There are certain areas of our facility where explosion is a concern," Thomas said. "We need SpectraLink to manufacture an intrinsically safe phone. Once theres a device like that, it would eliminate the need for operators to have a two-way radio."

/zimages/3/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.