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A Wi-Fi design that can handle high density? Hallelujah!

A contemporary church in Indiana celebrates its growing congregation, but an expansion creates networking challenges with its Wi-Fi design and wide area network.

Football stadiums, convention centers and airports are the typical venues that come to mind when it comes to building a wireless network that can support densely populated and often transient user populations. But in the suburbs of Indianapolis, the IT team at Traders Point Christian Church -- a self-described gospel-based church -- faces the same challenges but with far fewer resources.

In terms of production value, its sermons look more like TED Talks than the stern or somber atmosphere found at many churches around the world. Divided into two campuses in Carmel and Whitestown, Ind., the church sees an average weekend attendance of 6,500 to 7,000 people. They may not only attend services, but also linger at the church's indoor playground or coffee shop, or return later for a live concert. The church also has its own mobile app, which allows users to replay video or audio from previous sermons, or access relevant scripture passages during a live sermon.

Tim Broad, the IT director at TPCC, shares how all this activity influences his network design based on infrastructure from HP Enterprise and Aruba Networks, as the church expands its footprint.

What networking projects are you working on now?

Tim Broad: We are going through some expansion of additional campuses across the Indianapolis area. We are what's called a multi-site church, and what that means is we are one church that meets in multiple locations. From a networking perspective, as a large church, it means we have a heavy emphasis on the production side of worship services. There are a lot of lights, video and sound, and all of those things are networked. It's always preferential to have all of those things operate on the same network, even across multiple physical locations around the city, the country or even around the world.

Tim BroadTim Broad

The challenges that come along with that can be daunting at times. From a project management perspective, it really requires getting the right people in the right places at the right time. A lot of pieces don't necessarily all have to fall in the right place at once, but actually at different points on a timeline so the next thing can go.

This expansion is really critical for our vision. So what we look at from an IT standpoint is how can we, as the operations side of the organization, put in networks, systems and servers that support that vision? Be it MPLS or a point-to-point VPN connection between controllers, [the technology we choose] will look a little different in each situation because the campuses might have different ISPs servicing each area, the rack space might look different in the building or the bandwidth availability might be different in those places.

A lot of people don't associate churches with cutting-edge technology. Can you talk more about how it plays a role at Traders Point Christian Church?

Broad: We hear that question a lot from an IT standpoint. I asked the same question, coming from corporate America. When I was being offered this position, I said, "I go to this church, but is there really that much [technology] that you need to bring in someone with this skill set?" Well, it's absolutely the case, because using technology is such a mission-critical part of achieving our vision. Whether you're a nonprofit or for-profit, you've got a mission statement. To some degree, technology should be a part of achieving that mission statement.

We have a mobile app that we engage people very heavily with. There's a giving component where people can donate [to the church]. They can use it to follow along with the current sermon series that's going on or find ways to engage with others. Because it's such a large church, people can engage with one another on social media. For us, the app is even a key part of how we do ministry. To run and support that app on the weekend in our campuses, you've got to have a strong network -- not only a strong physically wired network, but also a very strong and robust wireless network with low latency, great coverage and great bandwidth.

What does your network look like in terms of your wired and Wi-Fi design?

Broad: We have three ISPs that service our building, and we've bonded those together to make sure we have uptime at all times. Our primary [WAN] connection is through Bright House Networks' fiber, and while it's capable of receiving up to 10 gigs, we are only contracted with them for 200-by-200 megabits. The reason for that is just cost; we're stewarding resources, one of them being a budget, so we want to be very conscious of that.

We have 802.11ac access points, in some cases capable of delivering in excess of a gig over Wi-Fi, and our wired network is equally robust, if not more so, depending on what you're dealing with. We're giving that full bandwidth to our staff, but we do limit our guest network to 5 or 10 megs. That's just so they're not downloading a whole bunch of app updates and eating up the bandwidth for everyone else.

What's your biggest technical challenge these days?

Broad: When it comes to networking multiple campuses, it can be very expensive and time-consuming to set things up and then have systems in place to monitor those networks. One of our bigger challenges right now -- and it's a challenge we welcome with open arms -- is thinking of new, innovative ways we can work around your traditional site-to-site networking solutions like MPLS. We're looking at solutions like a firewall-to-firewall VPN connection when we can do that. It's still sort of a trunk that's open between locations. Our challenge there is to try these things in a live environment, sometimes during weekend operations, just because we can't really test them properly without completely barraging the network infrastructure with our weekend workload.

For someone in corporate America that deals with these things all the time, it's not going to seem like a big thing for them, but the complexity comes in in a church or a nonprofit setting, where we can't just take a solution and plug it into the next campus that we roll out. There's a degree of autonomy that exists with these different campuses. There are differences between them; they kind of have their own DNA. From a networking perspective, we have to answer that situation with a customized network approach.

How does the density influence your Wi-Fi design?

You need not only coverage, but also access points that are going to be able to process that traffic and handle that density of people in a confined area.
Tim BroadIT director, Traders Point Christian Church

Broad: You have this constant ebb and flow of different people coming in. It's like a mall or airport, in a way. When people are coming in and joining Wi-Fi, you have to make sure -- even down to the details of a DHCP scope on a server -- that you're releasing DHCP addresses in a very particular time range, and you're bringing those DHCP resources for new people who haven't come in yet. There are some things that are a bit different from a corporate network, where you have generally the same people coming in day to day. We just have a constant refresh.

For wireless infrastructure, it was between Aruba and Ruckus Networks. The go-to is always Cisco, but it's not necessarily great in an arena setting. We were looking at arenas, baseball stadiums or football stadiums -- the affinity there is you have that constant refresh of people -- where you not only need coverage, but also access points that are going to be able to process that traffic and handle that density of people in a confined area.

And Aruba did high-density Wi-Fi design the best?

Broad: I had found Ruckus made some claims their access points are not quite capable of living up to. I did my own independent "case studies," aside from what I was hearing from Aruba reps or other people in the industry. I went to some locations that I knew were using Aruba infrastructure, and I was even able to meet with their network admins. I got some really good, unbiased, lay-it-all-out-on-the-table feedback.

One of the greatest things about the Aruba infrastructure is their controller will see a radio client -- a cellphone or an iPad -- that's traveling throughout different areas of the campus. The controller will see that movement just based on the dB strength that the device is receiving and sending at. It will move that client to the next AP as they're moving throughout the building. Some other wireless providers claim to be able to do this, and some of them can do it fairly well, but not with the density and coverage requirements that we have.

Let's talk careers. How did you get into IT?

Broad: I started to take an interest around the age of 8, when my dad purchased a couple of nonworking Apple IIes from a silent auction at our local public school. He said to me, ‘OK, I've got two nonworking computers. Can you take parts from these two and get one of them working?' It wasn't because he needed a computer or wanted a computer, but he wanted me to reach out to people for help or do research. Of course, Google wasn't around back then, so he wanted me to figure this out.

That was the start for me and is what I've always done -- just gone in and figured things out. Now it's really important to me to be networked with others in the industry who can inform me on things or I can bounce ideas off of. If I've got a project coming up, I have resources I can reach out to.

My first official position in the industry was managing expansions of business operations at family entertainment venues. I was managing every technical aspect of those projects and even some of the construction components. After doing that for several years, I was called upon by my local church, and it has been something that's great to be involved in and is challenging in a very different way.

Here's our rotating pop culture question: Star Wars or Star Trek, and why?

Broad: You know, I am not much into sci-fi, but if I had to choose between one of the two, I would choose Star Wars. I am an action movie fanatic, and I feel like there's more action in Star Wars. My grandpa used to watch Star Trek, and I just remember falling asleep to it. I know I was pretty young, but I think that's the source of my baggage surrounding Star Trek

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This was last published in March 2016

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