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Aruba access points anchor Intrepid museum Wi-Fi network

Fleet Week 2016 puts Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Wi-Fi network to the test. What does it take to wire a 73-year-old warship with 21st century technology?

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum sailed through network demands generated by this year's Fleet Week, thanks to an upgrade of its wireless infrastructure that brought 21st century technology to the 73-year-old warship that anchors the facility.

The annual event at the end of May attracted thousands of visitors to the New York tourist attraction, and the new wireless network -- based on Aruba access points and management software -- handled the spike in traffic with only a few hiccups, said Vincent Forino, the museum's vice president of IT. Crisp performance was critical, Forino said, especially during the annual Salute to Freedom Gala that honored U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

The museum draws more than 1 million visitors each year to a complex that spans more than 250,000 square feet and includes not just the aircraft carrier Intrepid, but a surrounding wharf, a welcome center, the Space Shuttle Enterprise Pavilion and historic military equipment.

Out with the old, in with the new

The new infrastructure is a far cry from two years ago, when Forino first joined the museum. At the time, the museum was still recovering from damage sustained during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Museum staff operated out of a temporary ticket booth, using applications such as Blackbaud and Patron Edge to manage ticketing as best as possible. Wi-Fi was exclusively for internal use and very spotty, with access in only a few points around the museum.

Getting cable to access points through quarter-inch steel was interesting.
Vincent Forinovice president of IT; Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

The old network was comprised of equipment "that you could buy off the shelf at any major retailer or Amazon -- nothing real complex," Forino said. It serviced only a few locations on the ship, such as the boardroom, great hall and some spots on the gallery deck.

Museum executives knew they needed to improve the network infrastructure to provide better ticketing options, more interactive audio-visual displays and other services. They turned to other museums for guidance, Forino said.

The investment and implementation

What they found intrigued them. Advances in Wi-Fi capabilities presented a wide variety of new benefits, from improving how staff and visitors interacted with the museum to enabling more sophisticated educational offerings.

Forino began laying the groundwork for the new system in late 2014, working with Comm Solutions, a systems integrator based in Malvern, Pa.

The museum initially tested the Aruba technology with a proof-of-concept system at the Space Shuttle Pavilion, at a cost of $125,000 to $150,000.

"It was not a bum-rush, get it done in six weeks [process]. [Instead, it was an] 18-month implementation done in stages," Forino said.

Fine-tuning for performance

Aruba and Comm Solutions surveyed different points in the museum and mixed and matched antenna types to deliver maximum capacity based on the number of visitors anticipated in each section. "[When] full implementation [was] almost complete, [we did] a secondary survey to make sure we had all the access we needed  and tweaked things a little, shuffling of one antenna type from one site to another," he added.

A total of 44  802.11ac Aruba access points -- including eight in the Space Shuttle Pavilion and four on the pier -- were installed with capacity for up to 500 simultaneous connections in the Space Shuttle Pavilion, and as many as 1,000 simultaneous connections in the Hangar deck. Only the Growler submarine was left out of the Wi-Fi network because of excessive costs associated with installing access points in the vessel.

Forino in particular cited two IT department volunteers, Aaron Resnick and Calvin Best, for overcoming installation challenges associated with blanketing a 73-year-old aircraft carrier with wireless coverage and new Aruba access points.

"The challenges were during the implementation phase, [installing a Wi-Fi system] on a steel aircraft carrier from the 1940s, trying to make sure you have all the areas covered -- we had to adjust and move things. Getting cable to access points through quarter-inch steel was interesting," Forino said. "[The volunteers] knew nooks and crannies that a newbie like me didn't two years in."

Adding more capabilities

Next up: providing additional wayfinding capabilities and other services through beacon technology. Forino envisions the museum exploiting mobile engagement tools along with the Aruba access points to bring back visitors more often. Right now the museum says the typical visitor only comes once every 20 years -- helping to spur more interest in exhibits and events.

Forino said his experience bore lessons for similar organizations. "I think too often you go out and you get a proposal from a business partner; we had several different ones we came up with. [They go for] quick: Sign the contract, get it done in three months," he said. "Take time to know your environment and the pitfalls of your environment. Do a pilot going into it and a POC to make sure that it'll work the way you want it to work -- don't rush, take your time, build on it."

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