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Pushing the Boundaries

As wireless network security, management and quality levels soar, agencies discover powerful new ways to fulfill their missions.

Operators at Utah's South Valley Water Reclamation Facility keep close watch on the levels, flows and temperatures of the 32 million gallons of wastewater treated there each day. A failed pump or sewage overflow could have catastrophic consequences.

The agency's Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system feeds data to computers called human machine interfaces (HMIs) deployed throughout the plant, which operators use to check conditions and make necessary adjustments to, say, water levels or pump speeds. The problem is that the facility is so large that even when driving around in golf carts, operators can spend three hours making their rounds. As a result, there are more than 20 HMIs throughout the facility.

"My dream was to put our SCADA system on wireless," says John Hunter, IT director at the West Jordan, Utah, facility, which serves 10 towns across 200 square miles. That way, instead of taking time to get to an HMI, an operator could access more than 100 SCADA screens from a tablet PC. In addition to the mobility and efficiency benefits, maintaining a few tablets that operators carry with them is far less expensive and time consuming than placing HMIs throughout the facility. "I no longer have to maintain all of these PCs in every building," he adds.

Like his peers at state and local government agencies around the country, Hunter had some trepidation about putting sensitive data and systems on a wireless network. But management, security and quality of service tools have improved so much that the advantages far outweigh the challenges. "It all kind of fell into place," he says.

The stakes are high. "If someone were to hack in, they'd see everything we're doing and have the potential to control it," Hunter explains. In recent years, viruses have targeted SCADA systems, including one at an Iranian nuclear plant. "SCADA security is a big deal. You're looking at loss of life and limb, terrorism, EPA fines, environmental issues."

Hunter spent two years carefully planning the wastewater treatment plant's wireless network. In November, he purchased Cisco Aironet 1240 AG and AIR-CAP3502 lightweight access points, a Cisco 4404 wireless LAN controller, Spectralink i640 wireless Voice over IP phones and Apple iPads. The APs use Power over Ethernet, which Hunter recommends. "It has certainly made deployment easier," he says.

He conducted a pilot project in January in the administration building, and he's now deploying the network throughout the rest of the facility. "We're excited about the direction we're headed," he says. In fact, the agency is about halfway through construction on a second, $93 million wastewater treatment plant, and Hunter has designed a Cisco wireless infrastructure (including 3750-X switches and phones) that will cover the entire campus.

At the existing facility, there are 50 APs, 10 of which are outdoors, but because of the amount of steel and concrete throughout the campus, there are still weak spots. One pleasant surprise is that the APs reach farther than Cisco indicated on the spec sheet, Hunter says. And a big advantage of lightweight APs is that when there's a dark spot, you can just plug in a new AP and the controller will automatically add it to the network.

There are several layers of security, including firewall and perimeter control as well as virtual LAN security. Plus, the SCADA system uses protocols not widely known in IT.

In addition to cost savings, reduced maintenance and greater efficiency, the WLAN makes the facility safer for the operators. They can view video images at the facility's entrance and control the front gate using their tablets.

The grounds are filled with potentially dangerous conditions -- water and electricity, toxic materials, noxious chemicals and explosive gases. In the event of an emergency, operators can use their wireless phones to call for help.

"They're dangerous places," Hunter says of wastewater treatment facilities. "Sometimes this plant is sparsely manned. Having a cell phone on your hip where you could speed dial 911 if needed is a pretty good safety feature."

The Need for Speed

Building a wireless network in a massive concrete and steel facility brings its own set of challenges. But try establishing one that can accommodate streaming video in a car traveling 100 miles per hour in and out of AP zones.

John Hunter says wireless phones allow plant workers to call for help in an emergency.

Photo: Chad Hurst

That was one of many goals of the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research in Garysburg. The automotive proving ground, which opened last year, was created to attract automakers, startups and suppliers -- and, in turn, new jobs -- to North Carolina.

But the nonprofit center, which receives state and federal funding, had a budget one-quarter the size of the top automotive proving grounds, says Chief Operating Officer Simon Cobb. To compensate for the modest physical infrastructure, NCCAR invested $1.2 million in IT to help it compete with other vehicle testing facilities. "It's useful," Cobb says of the technology infrastructure, "but it's good fun, as well."

NCCAR leaders needed to provide visitors with a wireless network strong enough to connect them to their home offices and stream video from the office or from vehicles on the test track. "The last thing they want to do is plug in to a wired connection," says Cobb. He enlisted the help of John Bass, director of ITng Services at North Carolina State University's Institute for Next Generation IT Systems, and Cisco Systems to design a high-speed wireless network throughout the 155-acre facility using Aironet APs and Catalyst switches.

Building a network that would be shared by competing car companies presented a unique challenge. To ensure that visitors' data can't be accessed by others on the network, NCCAR's infrastructure includes physical access control to different parts of the building and 15 encrypted Wi-Fi channels, as well as a double firewall and encryption.

The Cisco wireless controller is easy enough to use that Cobb and the center's only other staffer, neither of whom have IT backgrounds, have no problem setting up and taking down wireless domains as clients come and go. "We wanted it to be our servant and not the other way around," says Cobb.

There are 20 APs throughout the 24,000-square-foot building, including garages with steel roller doors and steel walls. The 2-mile test track is flanked by five APs mounted on poles. The wireless controller automatically shifts data from one access point to another as users move around the track or as single APs reach capacity.

Power receptacles and high-resolution video cameras are mounted on the poles. Cobb wants to automate the cameras to follow cars moving around the track, giving automakers video from both inside and outside the cars.

NCCAR's team worked to ensure that the network could support current and future technology initiatives, including a GPS base station to locate cars and devices on the network. "It really is neat to be able to sit in a field and do all the work that you would do in an office," Cobb says.

Power in Numbers

As IT director at Florida's Polk County Sheriff's Office (PCSO), it's Bill Ward's job to bring Sheriff Grady Judd's technology vision to life. The sheriff is known for his tunnel-vision focus on fighting crime. "He wants to do it with every tool available to him," explains Ward.

Several years ago, Sheriff Judd had the idea of using technology to bring together the various public safety agencies that cover Polk County's 2,100 square miles. In June 2010, that idea came to life when the sheriff's office opened the doors to its new operations and emergency communications center, which includes a virtualized data center and integrated dispatch and communications systems that cover all of Polk County's public safety agencies. "We were lucky, because we were able to build the Sheriff's Operation Center from the dirt up," says Ward.

$93 million
Cost of the Jordan Basin Water Reclamation Facility plant, halfway through construction, which will include Cisco wireless infrastructure throughout

For instance, if a murder suspect from a city police department case is spotted, the dispatch call goes out to all police, firefighters and medical responders. If a sheriff's deputy happens to be near the scene, he can respond to the call immediately.

"Everyone's aware of what's happened, and it makes it that much more difficult to escape the Polk County net," says Ward.

The PCSO is also working with Microsoft to establish a Crime Suppression Center, which combines data from local, state and federal sources so law enforcement agencies can work together to identify crime patterns and access investigative data.

To get the most from these new initiatives, the sheriff's office needed to upgrade its network tools. It added HP ProCurve E5406 zl- and 3500yl-series wireless switches to its various facilities.

Law enforcement personnel can access the sheriff's office network remotely using Verizon AirCards in patrol cars. When the cars pull into the Operations Center or district offices, NetMotion software automatically transfers them from the cellular modems to the sheriff's office's Wi-Fi network.

In collaboration with the county radio group, the PCSO established a countywide microwave/wireless network so agencies wouldn't need to rely on leased lines; this could save between $400,000 and $500,000 per year, says Ward.

Know Before You Build

Don't assume that an inexpensive consumer solution will save you money. Shane Herbert, network administrator for Delaware County, Ohio, bought $59.99 access points for years. "We'd get maybe a year out of them," Herbert says. "It was just a nightmare."

Working with Enterasys, the county purchased Siemens' HiPath c20 controller. The enterprise solution can handle multiple networks on the same access points, which means that Delaware County was able to create a separate wireless network for the sheriff's office and to provide wireless connectivity to groups outside the agency. For instance, attorneys at the courthouse and reporters on election night can connect via a password-protected Wi-Fi network. The county is looking into separate networks for other departments, as well.

The system is expandable and has a lifetime warranty, the signal is stronger, and the security is more robust. Plus, Herbert says, the support from Enterasys is "unmatched."

Jun 24 2011

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