Inside Mobility

By Lori Castle, Editor in Chief — May 06, 2014

Popular around the mid-1970s, there was a game that involved a pole, a ball and a nylon rope. Two players would hit the ball in opposite directions until it was wrapped around the pole and could not be hit any further. The pole was stationary and typically anchored by concrete in the ground.

In “tetherball,” there was a lot of back and forth, only two participants and no collaboration. The only thing mobile about the game was when the ball was actually in motion.

This is much like the corporate PC environment of wires and cubes, where workers are tethered to their desktops. These employees sit in a corporate building and download unsanctioned apps on their personal devices, just trying to be part of today’s technology.

Tetherball waned in popularity and gave way to more action-packed, team-oriented sports, just as desktops have given way to fast-moving mobile technology. Now workers can operate anytime, anywhere—out in the field and on the road; in the car, at home, in the coffee shop and more.

Yet, despite the advancement and proliferation, not every function—every worker—can be mobile, or can they?

All New Office
American Fidelity Assurance Company is a third-generation, family-owned organization providing insurance products and financial services to education employees, trade association members and more than one million customers in 49 states and 23 countries.

It is one of the largest private, family-owned life and health insurance companies in the United States, with 1,500 employees in 26 locations. To support a goal of a 100% mobile environment, the company deployed Aruba’s MOVE architecture.

Transferring to a new headquarters in Oklahoma City provided, what Ken Henderson, Vice President, Technical Infrastructure for American Fidelity, called a “new canvas.” To better serve its customers, deliver improved mobility and collaboration to employees and reduce IT costs, the company is implementing an Aruba all-wireless network in the new facility.

“We started thinking about what we could do to make this move future proof, and planning for that gave us a chance to do something groundbreaking,” explained Henderson. In an industry where customer service and timeliness are crucial, American Fidelity is committed to establishing a work environment that supports these goals.

The Vision
The current corporate office has wireless deployed, but like most organizations, it is supplemental to hard-wired network connectivity. Most employees (known at American Fidelity as “colleagues”) are wired and Wi-Fi is used in conferences rooms, for example.

When the move to the new building was announced, senior management in the business shared their vision of the new workspace with IT. They wanted a more open environment where colleagues would be able to move about, work essentially wherever they wanted and collaborate more freely with each other.

Each floor has its own design team, so the concept will vary, but essentially a colleague with a laptop could work outside on the patio, in a break area, out in the open or in a small office space for more privacy, and can change locations as needed. Ideally, there are very few assigned cubicles, but when a colleague arrives in the morning, there are many options for the day.

Working closely with senior management on executing their vision, Henderson immediately concluded that the only way it could be realized was through an all wireless environment.

That idea, of course, did not come without some technical trepidation. Everyone has experienced what it’s like when connectivity is sparse, but there are usually alternatives. In a completely wireless environment there would be no choice. How could IT ensure that business runs uninterrupted?

Building the Case
With a vision in place, Henderson began to meet with the colleagues and the leadership of the different divisions within the company to understand how they work and what is important to them. He said, “We found out that people are really mobile here. They are constantly on the move and often have to go meet with somebody else.”

In addition, approximately 300 of the colleagues currently telecommute, but not every day. They are usually remote 3 days a week and work in the office for two days. “Having a wireless infrastructure when they come into the office will enable what we call ‘hoteling stations,’ where they can just sit down and start working. They don’t have to worry about connecting to a cable, turning the security on or off on the cable or going to the exact same spot each time they come in,” according to Henderson.

So with the new headquarters, American Fidelity Assurance is essentially combining three facilities’ worth of departments, employees and business functions into one building. This will automatically improve efficiencies to some degree, but beyond that, Henderson said that they realized the new facility provided a perfect opportunity to build a network infrastructure from the ground up that could support the mobility and collaboration the firm needed to realize new levels of productivity.

Consider the IT manpower alone—what goes into adding new employees or changing where they sit in a traditional office environment. “There are a lot of people involved in moving colleagues from one cube or office to another and we’re trying to change that in the new work space,” Henderson noted, “There would be a telecom person involved in moving the phone line, another person involved in moving the network connection, another group involved picking up their desktop PC’s and monitors and moving those into another work space—that’s all very resource-intensive.”

In the new environment, it will be as simple as popping a laptop out of the dock and moving to another spot. There’s nothing else to change. The company moved to a VOIP infrastructure, so employees use their laptops and headsets for phone calls; or in some instances, desktop phones are connected to their laptops with a USB cable. And the network connection itself will be available anywhere as well.

Technicalities
The company had already standardized on Aruba’s wireless LAN solutions across its 30 existing locations, using a mix of mobility controllers, access points, switches, and network management systems. This, in part, enables mobile device onboarding and security, as well as guest access.

American Fidelity also connects some of its smaller, remote offices using remote access points. When it came to choosing the network infrastructure for the new headquarters, there was no question that Aruba would be the provider, but the company also wanted to examine ways that it could begin moving to a completely mobile environment and, at the same time, reduce costs. To that end, American Fidelity used systems integrator Sigma Solutions for the new installation.

With this new network solution at its foundation, the 12-story headquarters’ will eventually serve all the American Fidelity employees at the location.

Dealing with Devices
As people move out to the new building, if they have a desktop, it will be swapped out for a laptop. “Once we get completely moved, there’s going to be at least 1,200 people, which means there’s going to be at least 1,200 laptops,” said Henderson.

What about other devices? “Our BYOD policy today is that we will onboard to our corporate wireless on any iOS device that is purchased through the company and managed. Today we have about 700 iPads, with many in the pilot phase right now. We have approximately 800 managed devices, so we will synchronize email calendaring and contacts to any colleague-owned iOS device and will manage it through an MDM solution. We’ve had that for quite a while. There are also a handful of BlackBerrys,” according to Henderson.

Employees have full access on corporately-owned iPads and email access only on colleague-owned phones.

Impossible Security?
Just five years ago, when deploying its first wireless infrastructure, the Chief Security Officer essentially said ‘no, it can’t be secured.’ Henderson explained, “I asked for all his requirements and said, ‘if I meet them, then can we deploy wireless?’”

Aruba has a security structure built in, so he was able to meet all of the requirements, in part, through the solution which includes, for example, encryptions and dual-factor authentication. The solution is also able to find rogue access points for network protection.

It can also control who has access to what. For example, when employees who are directly involved in handling PCI data connect, the regulations around that would define how they access the data that they need.

Being an insurance company, means that American Fidelity operates in a highly regulated environment, and so security has always been a top priority. He said, “We’ve worked hard to design the infrastructure from the ground up. Before we even started, we identified what the risks were in going totally wireless. We made sure to address those risks before we built the system.”

Backup Plan
In a hard wired environment, connectivity is not immediately lost when the power goes out, but what about in a total wireless world? “All the equipment that’s involved from the access points, to the controllers, the distribution switches and servers that manage it, all on a company/building wide uninterruptible power source (UPS). And that UPS is backed up by a generator,” said Henderson. So the the laptops, which run on their own batteries for a few hours, would  run along with all the Wi-Fi.

The company also has multiple data centers so all of the wireless infrastructure and what that entails, is shared across those. If anything fails, there is backup and another site will take over the function. “I would argue that we are better off now than we were with wired connections,” said Henderson.

The access points are designed it in a way that there’s so much overlapping coverage that three access points in one area could fail, or would have to fail, before connectivity was actually lost. Every access point is dual connected, there are two connections to each access point and they go back to different controllers. “So, a controller can fail, access points can fail; so many things would have to happen before anything was actually lost,” he noted.

At certain, the hoteling stations on each floor, they did run a cable, which is not routinely used, and is connected to the switching equipment. If something does go horribly wrong with wireless, there are critical colleagues on each floor and that can move over to those hoteling stations and connect their laptops.

For emergencies, there are also 10 hardwired phones on each floor, which also go back to the switching equipment. In the case where a laptop just doesn’t work for some other reason, an employee wouldn’t be able to call the support center either, so these phones can be used in that case. Or, if a customer service rep’s laptop goes down and there are a lot of calls in the queue, the phones can be used as a temporary alternative.

What’s Next
By the end of 2015, Henderson said they will reach a “sweet spot” where at least half of the colleagues will be in the new headquarters.

In addition, the company foresees video becoming an increasingly important application—initially, for colleagues to communicate office-to-office, but eventually, to videoconference and video chat with customers as well.

American Fidelity is also using a new device called AirMedia that allows employees to connect their laptops to conference room TVs and flat panel screens wirelessly to enable better, more efficient collaboration across the entire organization.

An important, added benefit of the new network for the company is the estimated cost savings as a result of the all-wireless headquarters deployment. Rightsizing the network by eliminating the desktop cable pulls and related expenses, Henderson estimates, has saved the company more than $700,000.

American Fidelity expects the new headquarters facility to become a model for the entire organization, with other locations adopting the all-wireless approach. Henderson pointed out that the emergence of 802.11ac with its improved performance and bandwidth has helped users become more comfortable with the idea of wireless as the primary network.

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