West Edmonton Mall’s infrastructure supports virtual networks, hot spots

“When we looked at the wireless space, what we really wanted to do initially was make sure that no matter what we put into the mall, it was a product we could manage and extend and have roaming coverage everywhere,” said Joseph Schuldhaus, vice-president of information technology with West Edmonton Mall.

WEM needed a product that would support several virtual networks in the same wireless space, as well as multiple authentication and security models. “If someone needs access to corporate resources, you want to make sure that device is authenticated and known to the network and the session is fully encrypted,” he said.

Plug and play
WEM chose Siemens’s HiPath Wireless, which provides wireless connectivity over IP. Siemens says HiPath is compatible with other vendors’ wired products, and can support voice over IP. The wireless controller provides centralized intelligence for the wireless LAN, while dual-band access points provide coverage anywhere that wireless service is required. “You just plug and play the access points wherever you want,” said Luc Roy, vice-president of product planning with Siemens Canada.

WEM has installed 110 access points to date and plans to add another 30 to 40. Each of these access points can support up to 16 virtual networks, each with its own policies that dictate the level of security, encryption and authentication required of the device and client. HiPath Wireless Convergence software allows customers to securely partition the WLAN to deliver independent policies and traffic for separate user groups.

WEM has several categories of clients, each with its own virtual network, including retailers, hotel guests and conference attendees, tourists and shoppers, as well as the mall’s 1,300 employees.

“With the wireless system, you can create virtual segmentation of a wireless LAN,” said Roy. “You can configure these virtual groups and each group is securely segregated from the other group, and this is all centrally managed.” These groups can also be administered differently. “So it’s not just a segregation of the traffic, it’s the segregation of the management as well,” he added.

The initial rollout took place a year and a half ago, but the project is ongoing. Because HiPath runs on Layer 3 architecture, it is extensible, so it can address the requirements of enterprise networks while servicing wired line carriers and wireless carriers.

This allows WEM, for example, to give executives access to their office systems from their homes through a virtual private network tunnel back to the controller in the mall.

A hotel guest or conference attendee can purchase 24 hours of Internet access for $10.95, while mall visitors and employees have options for 30-day access. The WLAN can also be used to provide access for temporary kiosks or fundraising organizations.

Mobile surveillance
“Around Christmas we set up a lot of in-mall kiosks,” Schuldhaus said. “With this wireless network, they can simply subscribe to the wireless service, put a VoIP phone in their store, put a wireless POS device in their store, and they’re off and running.”

WEM is extending the use of the WLAN to provide its security force with mobile surveillance. Using PDAs or laptops, they can view any of the 200 camera locations in the mall, so they have visual information before arriving at the scene of an incident.

The biggest challenge going into this project was estimating user acceptance, said Schuldhaus. WEM targeted the hospitality business first, then extended the service into certain areas of the mall — like Bourbon St., a strip with restaurants and bars — where visitors were likely to use PDAs and laptops.

“Going into the rest of the common areas of the mall, we felt that lent itself more to voice services where you want to be able to have mobility with a headset,” he said.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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