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Wireless is more

Wireless is moreSteve Ostwald, malady an avowed technophile and point of sale (POS) systems specialist, ed was determined to shake things up when he joined franchise operation Magic Hand Carwash several years ago. This meant figuring out a way to serve customers faster, discount more efficiently, and with fewer errors – and he found a solution in a modern POS system with which employees interact using handheld Apple iPod touches.

Magic Hand has 37 franchisees across suburban Melbourne and interstate capital cities. Running i-Pos software, attendants at those locations punch in the license plate number of each car that comes in for a wash. This not only avoids confusion over spellings of customer surnames, but allows attendants to greet customers by name and immediately access their entire service history on the iPod. Receipts are printed on the spot using O’Neil portable printers.

The iPods are part of a major company-wide project, that also incorporates coupon management, marketing campaigns, performance reporting, franchisee monitoring and other capabilities that have made Magic Hand’s operations leaner and more efficient than ever before.

To ensure it’s accessible anywhere throughout the company’s carwash locations, the system is held together by a wireless local area network (wireless LAN) built on D-Link wireless access points (APs).

“We’ve turned our relationship with customers on its head,” says Ostwald. “We’re now saying the relationship is with the car, and it’s easy for staff to enter details in the system and be extremely accurate. Every time we run a campaign, letterbox drop or online coupon promotion, everything’s coded. We can track our full return on investment, and reports are automatically generated. We have no manual handling of reports.”

Cutting the wires

For all its smarts, the system now powering Magic Hand’s on-the-ground customer relationships intrinsically relies on wireless connectivity to ensure that the company’s employees can get the data they need, where and when they need it. The system wouldn’t have functioned as effectively if employees were tethered to desks, and the company’s embrace of mobility is a great example of the power of wireless communications to improve the operations of all kinds of small businesses.

Wireless LANs have become ubiquitous in recent years, particularly as a feature built into the all-in-one gateways that connect your home or business to the internet. Those gateways, or standalone wireless APs that can be bought for a few hundred dollars at your local technology store, typically support several ‘flavours’ of wireless LAN, or ‘WiFi’, technology.

In general, the faster the wireless standard used, the shorter the range it allows – which becomes a real design consideration in anything more than moderately-sized premises. Using the fastest standard won’t help you if half your business can’t access the wireless LAN. Interference, too, is an issue. Things like brick walls, industrial equipment, large volumes of steel, and even microwave ovens may impede  the WIRELESS LAN signal.

Avoiding interference is one reason some companies choose the less-common ‘A’ flavour of wireless, which operates at a higher 5GHz frequency that avoids interference from all sorts of devices that radiate energy in the public 2.4GHz frequency band. But WiFi is all about tradeoffs, and ‘A’ flavoured WiFi can have a shorter range. That said, high-powered commercial-grade access points can boost performance and range while offering features like Power over Ethernet (PoE), which lets you install an access point anywhere you can run an Ethernet cable, without needing a separate mains outlet.

If you’re rolling out a wireless LAN in anything more than one or two adjacent rooms, it’s a good idea to get your IT service provider to do a formal site survey in which they will test signal strength across your property and recommend the best locations for your wireless APs. They can advise about additional wireless LAN add-ons such as flexible video-surveillance and security systems, and help you source commercial-grade wireless APs offering stronger antennae and better reliability in adverse operating conditions.

It may sound like a lot of fuss for a technology that long ago reached commodity stage, but expending the extra effort to do wireless right will save you a headache down the track. It will also ensure that you’re in the right position to make the most of wireless as it becomes increasingly important to everyday business into the future.

Powering the mobile revolution

WiFi has experienced a resurgence in recent years. Industry watcher Dell’Oro Group, for one, recently reported that sales of wireless LAN equipment hit a record high of $US5 billion in 2010, after four years of relatively slow growth. A staggering 60% of this was accounted for by sales in the small-business market, with six vendors – Alcatel-Lucent, Aruba, Belkin, NETGEAR, Tropos and ZyXEL – reporting more than 40% sales growth. That’s a lot of WiFi, and Ryan Parker, ANZ managing director of NETGEAR, knows why.

“Wireless has been a bit neglected in the past, but it is becoming front of mind again because of the success of smartphones and the takeup of tablets,” he explains. “If you’re in the office, people don’t want to be chewing up their mobile broadband caps because it’s so expensive. So, giving people the ability to roam wirelessly onto the office wireless LAN makes perfect sense.”

Thanks to growing use of internet-based services like online video and cloud computing applications, these numbers could even prove to be conservative, if past growth is any indication. Little surprise that WiFi has become the weapon of choice in keeping this consumption under control. By providing WiFi for your employees, they can get online while in the office no matter what device they’re using – and the data they use will come from your office internet account’s high download quotas rather than chewing through their limited mobile quotas.

New ‘femtocells’ also provide a valuable way for businesses to further manage their wireless traffic. Femtocells basically do the same thing as WiFi APs do for tablets and smartphones, except that they work with 3G devices including smartphones and tablets. Plug the femtocell into your network, and you’ve set up a miniature mobile base station onto which your devices will roam when they’re nearby. All traffic to and from the femtocell is sent to the mobile network over your fixed internet connection, making femtocells a great way to improve mobile coverage in your office while boosting the speed of data sent to and from your mobile devices.

The security paradox

 Although a wireless LAN can improve your business now and support ever more voracious devices into the future, adding wireless to your business isn’t something you should do lightly. When it comes down to it, a wireless LAN is an open invitation for outsiders to access your company network.

Left unsecured, anybody within range of your wireless LAN can use it to get online, often without you even knowing it. Anecdotal cases suggest wireless networks are regularly used  by outsiders, who engage in so-called ‘wardriving’ to find and catalogue unprotected networks. Others have more nefarious purposes. US police recently raided the home of a US man whose neighbour had been using his open wireless network to download large volumes of child pornography.

Fortunately, there are many ways to secure a wireless LAN to prevent this happening. The key for any small-business owner is to use them. At a basic level, you need to run the setup software and add a password that’s required to access your wireless LAN: anybody logging on will need that password to gain access to the internet and your company network. Once the password is added, all data sent to and from the AP is encrypted for an extra level of protection.

Modern APs offer a range of other security mechanisms. One excellent approach is to specify which devices are allowed to log onto the network, then exclude all others. This is possible by specifying the unique 12-character MAC address built into each and every device that’s capable of connecting to a network. Another approach is to block access to the services likely to be abused by interlopers, for example, BitTorrent. Still other companies use built-in features to hide their wireless LAN’s SSID (the name by which users locate it) so it can only be accessed by those who know it’s there.

Femtocells have fewer inherent security risks, since currently-available devices only support a small number of users and each one must be registered online based on its service number. This minimises the chance that passers-by might log onto your network via a femtocell, but it’s still prudent to watch your femtocell configuration to make sure only authorised staff can get online. This includes quickly de-registering staff mobiles that are lost or stolen.

A recent study by industry group the Wi-Fi Alliance found that 32% of respondents admitted trying to get online using someone else’s wireless LAN. By working with your service provider to configure these and other protection mechanisms, it’s easy to ensure your wireless network stays safe – but you must have your wireless APs configured correctly.

In large businesses, you may have a number of wireless APs working on the same network. In the past it was necessary to manage each one separately, but recent advances make it easy for wireless devices to communicate with each other.  

Case study – Sovereign Hill Museum

Victoria’s Sovereign Hill Museum is a popular tourist attraction and schools destination, with an entire town providing a glimpse into the people and the operations of an 1850s gold-rush town. Yet there are modern touches that visitors won’t normally see – in particular, a wireless network that’s used by roving photographers in period dress, who shoot photographs of visitors in historically-appropriate garb and surroundings. Having wires sticking out from all of the exhibits would have been a little obvious.

We asked manager of IT and communications Matthew Kaess how wireless networking had fit in with the 1850s décor.

Why did you look into setting up a wireless network?

We have itinerant photographers, dressed up in period costume, that shoot photographs of visitors. We needed to be able to do that outdoors and still have them tied back to the main photographic studio onsite.

What is the wireless network like?

We initially put in three wireless access points in the areas where photographs are taken, and I’ve since expanded that and provided coverage in the administrative building for staff needing wireless access from laptops and smartphones. We’ve also set up a public wireless hotspot in the Comfort Inn Sovereign Hill, our general hotel, where we regularly accommodate school groups and other guests.

How did you choose the best equipment for the task?

We were initially looking at products from Cisco Systems and Aruba Networks, but when they quoted me, the prices were so extraordinarily high. They were selling their product by saying ‘the US Air Force is using this’ but we didn’t need that level of security. For around 10% of the cost, I was able to put in D-Link gear that did exactly what we needed it to do, and didn’t bust the bank to do it.

Has security been an issue?

We’ve got a number of technologies employed to manage security. We separate the traffic on the wireless network from other things on our network, and we have a central switch that’s able to manage the access points. I’m not overly concerned about it; you’d have to make a very strong, concerted effort to do so and you’d have to be in close proximity to do it. By then we’re going to notice something is not right.

What benefits has the network provided?

It has allowed us to expand what we do with our photographers. Normally, our [studio] photographers can be booked out for the entire day, fairly early in the day. But the WiFi has given us the ability to expand that outdoors without adding more studios. Visitors can change into period costumes, take photos in the gardens, have them sent to the photographic studio and printed to take home.

Image: Thinkstock.

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