Ready or not, wireless arrives at jet lab

Ready or not, wireless arrives at jet lab

David Wilcox, the technical supervisor for the JPLNet group, logs on wirelessly.

Wireless technology came to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., piece by piece. Users implemented local wireless connections to go online while attending a conference or to handle e-mail while working away from a desktop PC.

The situation created a hectic wireless environment, but Pat Kleinhammer, manager for networking and telecommunications at the lab's Institutional Computing and Information Systems division, said his unit quickly clamped down on maverick installations and immediately hooked up conference facilities to the Web via wireless connections.

'People were randomly buying all sorts of wireless access points,' he said. 'We had to prevent this due to security concerns, but at the same time we realized we had to quickly implement our own system in a standard manner.'

I'm a believer

The unit was in the midst of testing a proprietary 5-GHz wireless system that provided 2.5-Mbps connectivity. But after a year of planning and several months piloting it in a 50-user group, the lab chose a network that used the IEEE 802.11b wireless standard, which offers 11-Mbps connectivity.

'As well as providing us with greater bandwidth, 802.11b clearly represented the direction of the industry as a whole,' Kleinhammer said. 'We are strong believers in standards, and so with industry momentum behind it, it made economical and business sense to go with 802.11b.'

The lab's network, known as JPLNet, encompasses 14,000 nodes and more than 5,000 employees. It consists of a Gigabit Ethernet backbone that feeds 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps to the desktop.

Currently, wireless technology is available to more than 200 JPLNet users, primarily those who most frequently use the lab's conferencing facilities. All public conference rooms, all common areas such as cafeterias and auditoriums, and many project conference rooms now have radio frequency wireless access points situated on the ceiling or just outside. They act as hubs, relaying wireless signals to and from notebook PCs and transferring data to JPLNet via an Ethernet connection.

'Wireless is great for quick teaming actions where users can send and receive messages in the middle of a meeting, or transmit the minutes the moment a conference is over,' said Kleinhammer.

To speed wireless implementation, JPL adopted a model that let the lab hook up 200 users in two days. Members of the Institutional Computing and Information Systems unit's networking staff met with representatives from the lab's desktop support outsourcing partner and security specialists to iron out any problems with the implementation before the work started.

'The key to our success in this project was undoubtedly proper planning and evaluation,' he said. 'We did our homework, tested the technology internally and were ready to act when the time came.'

Not a problem

He separated traffic into two lines: one for Microsoft Windows-based systems and one for Macintosh. Technicians found Windows 2000 machines the easiest to work on and reported little trouble with the Macs as well.

When hooking up machines running Windows 95 and Win 98 to the network, however, the technicians ran into issues such as wireless cards that didn't work properly or were missing TCP/IP capabilities. If such problems could not be speedily resolved, the workers upgraded the operating system.

Each computer was assigned a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol address. DHCP assigns a temporary IP address to a workstation on a LAN so static IP addresses are unnecessary.

So far, more than 90 wireless access points have been installed and more are being added each week. Demand is far outstripping the ability of the unit's workers to hook more areas up to JPLNet wirelessly.

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