Wireless LAN tips from Iraq: Networking Joint Base Balad

Some wireless LAN fundamentals hold true whether you're outfitting a military base in Iraq or a branch office in Omaha. Babylon Communications, an Aruba integrator, shares some lessons learned from networking a military base in the Sunni Triangle.

When Babylon Telecommunications won the wireless networking contract for Joint Base Balad in Iraq, the company took on a lot more than a WLAN plumbing job. For many soldiers stationed there, the wireless access would vastly improve how they kept in touch with family and friends back home and kept informed about what was happening in the world.

"Prior to us providing services there, the official way to do it was an Internet café," said Lucas Catranis, president and CTO of project integrator Babylon Telecommunications, who has overseen the project from the United States. "You wait hours to get on a virus- and spyware-infested Internet café, and then you send email or Skype for 15 minutes, 30 if you're lucky."

Joint Base Balad, also known as Camp Anaconda, is home to more than 30,000 people from the U.S. Army, Air Force, and private contractors, and the base serves as the central logistical hub for U.S. forces in Iraq.

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The base, one of Iraq's largest at 25 square kilometers, is also home to the second busiest airport in the world.

"I would classify this deployment as fairly unique," said Dave Logan, general manager of federal solutions at Aruba Networks Inc., the vendor Babylon worked with on the project. "This is the largest pure outdoor deployment I'm aware of."

Where it's deployed, the new wireless access at Joint Base Balad has also become an important link back home.

"Any technology that enables troops to stay in contact with friends and loved ones has a highly beneficial impact on morale and helps everyone deal with the stress brought on by lengthy deployment and dangerous duties," said Lt. Col. William (Dean) Thurmond, chief of corporate communications for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. "Internet access is especially popular due to its extraordinary functionality and flexibility. The troops of today's military know this technology quite well and quickly embrace these expanded capabilities."

Prior to the WLAN deployment, many base residents took it on themselves to set up unauthorized access points hooked up to costly personal satellite connections. But those were officially prohibited for security reasons: One nasty Trojan could quickly spread from personal PC to personal PC, and even potentially jump onto military equipment.

A wireless network also gives soldiers a greater degree of user friendliness, said Thurmond, giving them Internet access from their living quarters rather than a crowded public place, using their own computers brought from home or borrowed from a friend.

So the armed forces sought bids from contractors to outfit Joint Base Balad, and other semi-permanent bases like it, with the outdoor wireless infrastructure needed to give Internet access to the thousands of troops living on the base from the relative comfort of their barracks

For Babylon, the Joint Base Balad assignment was the biggest single-site deployment it had undertaken to date, with a number of challenging obstacles. The heat and sand, naturally, played havoc with outdoor access points, and radio planning was made trickier because the base's airport cannot allow any wireless interference in that area.

But some of the hardest problems, Catranis said, were logistical. Getting the right equipment shipped could take weeks, and even after it arrived on base, the local postal system could hold onto packages for days pending inspection.

Planning was further complicated because there was no consistent, standard power source: Different outlets supply different currency levels and use different connectors, depending on the country of origin.

To navigate the natural and man-made hazards, Babylon worked with Aruba to plan a mesh-AP system that would cover all of Joint Base Balad's living areas while leaving sensitive zones free of radio interference.

Aruba's deployment simplicity did not hurt either, said Catranis. Using "thin" APs and a mesh-network design, Babylon created a WLAN by layering more access points with smaller coverage areas, reducing the complexity of planning and supporting a denser network of users.

"The thin access point concept was something that was a real seller for us," he said. "Not having to configure individual access points, and then just having everything work well together … is a big competitive advantage."

At Joint Base Balad, many of the problems facing Babylon would be quite familiar to anyone deploying a WLAN, even if the circumstances were a bit more extreme. Catranis offers some advice to those facing similar situations.

  • Know your people: "It helps to know the people that are on base with you," he said. That means knowing the people working for you, but also the ones you will be working with -- whether they are Air Force site inspection or the bean counters in accounting that need to approve your budget.

    For Babylon, some of the more important relationships were with the private contractors and the inspection units. Catranis said both had to approve any devices brought in and deployed in their respective areas. It pays to make sure you receive that approval before shipping electronics halfway around the world.

  • Know your resources: "It helps to know what resources you have on-site and what you need to get from your back office," said Catranis. That includes the services you have – for Babylon, a good VoIP provider is key to keeping all the global offices connected – as well as the hardware. While it can take weeks for a new switch to make its way from the states, even a more mundane deployment shouldn't be slowed because somebody forgot to check if you have enough Ethernet cabling lying around. Part of the secret is to keep people talking.

    "The most important thing is maintaining daily communication between your offices for logistical purposes," said Catranis. While nobody likes endless meetings, clear lines of communication and status-checking means problems are rooted out before they become showstoppers.

  • Set clear goals: Finally, Babylon approached the project with clear goals of what they would – and would not – accomplish. Given the base's limited satellite connectivity (currently 256 Kbit/sec download and 128 Kbit/sec up), VoIP calls and streaming video are largely out. Instead, the network is optimized to support the basics.

    "There's really only so much you can do on such limited bandwidth," he said. "It's more important to us to make sure people have email and Web browsing." For those who need to make calls, a separate pay phone network exists, although Babylon is looking to create a separately tiered Wi-Fi network designed to specifically support VoIP calling.

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