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Solid 802.11n deployment prepares medical center for future demands

Boston Medical Center overhauled its wireless LAN with a new 802.11n infrastructure in order to meet its staff's expanding needs to stay connected wherever they are on the hospital's campus. Analysts say it's a growing trend, and not just in healthcare.

As the director of technology for Boston Medical Center, one of New England's largest teaching hospitals, Brad Blake is used to students expecting the latest in technology.

The school was an early adopter of Cisco's LEAP technology and, after the hospital outgrew what that network could provide, recently converted to an Aruba wireless network that supports 600 APs and thousands of devices at any given time.

"I would say that being a teaching facility, the young ladies and gentleman that come up through college are extremely connected," he said. Many bring their own laptops, iPhones, or other connected devices into Boston Medical Center and expect the same ease of logging on and gaining access as they get at home or in the classroom.

While Boston Medical Center and other hospitals throughout the country have been feeling pressure for some time to provide Wi-Fi connectivity for employees, patients and visitors, that expectation is spreading to enterprises in general.

"Hospitals and education have been the early verticals that have driven wireless more quickly than others," said Paul DeBeasi, senior analyst with the Burton Group. "But what would drive wireless in a hospital are many of the same factors that drive wireless across industries."

For one, employees are bringing their expectations of easy, affordable Wi-Fi from home into the workplace, as well as expecting to use their personal part-work, part-play devices to connect.

But wireless networking is also being driven by real business needs, even if IT is not at the forefront of advocating those needs (read how Kraft went 100% wireless in one office).

"What we're going to see is a layering -- people using that technology for better collaboration. Maybe it's instant messaging today, but it's going to be IM with presence or SharePoint from your phone or Yammer or an enterprise-oriented instant messaging system," DeBeasi said. "Underneath all those applications will be a wireless network, both Wi-Fi and cellular."

Before Blake installed 802.11n at the hospital, that ease of collaboration wasn't possible for his users, he said.

"We had drunk the Kool-Aid back in the day and went full-bore with the LEAP protocol," he said. "Finding devices that we could get up and running with LEAP was very challenging."

LEAP is an EAP-based protocol that allows an extensible set of criteria to be used for user authentication.

Usually at the forefront of technology, Boston Medical Center found itself fumbling with wireless, and users noticed.

"IT definitely took a bit of a black eye. Most people were asking why they have a $50 wireless router at home that works and why doesn't the network work in here," Blake said. "People couldn't roam very well. Those problems came up around a cardiology project we tried last year with wireless EKG machines that struggled to maintain a connection."

DeBeasi said Boston Medical Center had run into early adopter hiccups that were not unusual -- but avoidable if companies looked to use proven technology.

"They were early adopters, and there were problems, and now those hiccups are fixed with EAPfast, [Cisco's LEAP successor technology]," he said. "Enterprises should make sure they use wireless best practices, and using LEAP is not a best practice because everyone knows it's broken; and using WEP is not a best practice because everyone knows it's broken. You'd be surprised at the amount of people who don't use best practices."

Once those best practices are followed, however, wireless can have a transformative effect on a hospital, or any enterprise.

"Location-based systems have found early adopters in hospitals to find infusion pumps and what not," DeBeasi said. "Real-time communications equipment to locate nurses, doctors, equipment -- that stuff can save lives, so people invest in it."

At Boston Medical Center, the upgraded wireless has already let Blake deploy 300 wireless IP phones that can be assigned to any of the hospital's nurses dynamically, giving them more mobility than they've previously had to take and receive calls.

"The nurses love those because normally they would page a doctor, then wait by the phone for the doctor to call them back," he said. "This gives them much more flexibility to be contacted."

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