Food Company’s New Warehouse Wi-Fi Is a Tasty Treat

It can be hard for outsiders to realise just how much business benefit the top distribution companies are now winning from their use of wireless IT, nor just how reliant that industry has consequently become on its Wi-Fi working well and reliably. As Vanix demonstrate, without the Aruba wireless solution installed at top UK food distributor and wholesaler Reynolds, your lunchtime salad might not be as crisp nor your apples as fresh.

“The warehouse is where the majority of our mobile devices are,” explains Reynolds’ IT director Richard Calder. “Our warehouse management system uses Motorola wireless devices to pick pretty much every transaction. We completely rely on the Wi-Fi in terms of mobility, picking and so on, so we can’t afford any drop-outs or downtime.”

That’s because the company’s national distribution centre at Waltham Cross, just outside London, constantly has lorries arriving and leaving, even overnight – the company aims to deliver at least 50 percent of each day’s orders by 7am the following morning. Those lorries need unloading and loading, and in the interim the goods must be stored in one of Reynolds’ warehouses, which can be filled to the ceiling with caged fruit and vegetables – perfect for absorbing the radio frequencies at which Wi-Fi operates.

It really was seamless. It’s not often that you get IT projects that go from start to finish with no problems!
Richard Calder, IT Director, Reynolds

Add the fact that warehouses are typically clad in radio-resistant steel, and it makes this a remarkably tough environment for a wireless network. Oh, and on top of all that, the company has just equipped its drivers with Android-based wireless devices to collect electronic proof of delivery (EPD), plus it has visiting clients and suppliers, all of whom have mobile devices that need connectivity.

So not only did the Aruba Wi-Fi need to be 100 percent reliable, but the usage requirements also made upgrading it a challenge for Reynold’s IT partner Vanix, because at some point they would need to turn the old Wi-Fi off before turning the new system on. “Usually customers have a window to schedule downtime,” says Vanix’s Jack Archibald, who worked on the project. “For example schools have holidays, businesses have weekends. With Reynolds, we had 12 hours one Saturday-Sunday night, when all work had to be completed – including testing!”

But upgrade it they had to, because Reynolds’ business was growing in leaps and bounds, thanks in part to its IT-powered effectiveness. As a result, it was seeing greatly increased wireless traffic, plus its warehouse layouts had changed and grown so its coverage needs had changed too, and it had bought additional warehouses nearby in order to accommodate the extra business.

Richard Calder says that the company was keen to upgrade for several reasons, not least that it knew there was newer wireless controller and access point (AP) technology available which could improve coverage and connection speeds, allow more hand-held devices to log on simultaneously, and solve other questions such as how best to provide guest access.

Thanks to Reynolds’ strong track record with both Aruba and Vanix, and the ability to re-use some of the older equipment with the new systems, Calder’s team decided to replace their two Aruba 3000-series controllers with new 7210 models and add almost 100 new 802.11ac-capable APs. They also bought Aruba Airwave for monitoring and signed up for 24-hour remote support from Vanix’s specialist network operations centre (NOC).

“Combining the new and old worked well – that was key,” Calder says. “It was part of a larger project; we had bought two more warehouses close to our main facility so we did it step by step. We did the two new ones first, then the main facility, so we could use the new facilities to debug and resolve issues before they went live. Then the only disruption we actually had was late one Saturday night when we powered up the new controllers.”

He says that an absolutely essential part of the upgrade was getting the network layout right, and that the key to that was surveying and understanding the site. “You can get problems with interference or with individual APs if they aren’t laid out properly, even if they are too close. A thorough survey beforehand was absolutely critical, especially as we’d changed the warehouse layout,” he explains.

“Surveys are often handled too glibly in how organisations prepare for wireless,” notes Archibald. “Preparation is the key – as the old saying goes, measure twice, cut once!

There’s also odd challenges in an environment like this – APs interfering with the lighting system, for instance. There’s a lot of metal too, plus there are temperature effects and of course a full warehouse is different again because now there’s all those metal cages and so on in there.

“Aruba has thought of a lot of the circumstances in advance, for example signal blocking and shifting furniture, and has therefore made decisions that others haven’t, such as the split physical antenna in the APs which cuts interference,” Archibald adds. “Sure, software antennas are very flexible, but this environment adds a lot of complexity so you want a tried and tested physical solution.”

Calder notes that despite the limited time window, the upgrade ran very smoothly. “We did our research, and had learnt lessons from our previous installation,” he says. “We gave ourselves more time to pilot, with a full dress rehearsal a week before going live. That was essential, and uncovered a couple of cabling issues. Plus Vanix gave us good advice on best practice, and we stuck to that – they have the experience and know the best way to do it. The final switch-over was 20 minutes swapping the controllers and booting the new ones.”

With their new Aruba network now fully operational, the Reynolds team are delighted with the results. “We have a large range of devices connecting, and they all work smoothly,” says Calder. There are also notable administrative benefits, including a captive portal within the Aruba controller to control guest Wi-Fi access. This removes a dull administrative task for the IT team and turns it into something that the receptionist can handle.

“We can now login using Radius, which is less admin,” Calder adds. “We also get much better transfer rates – it’s very quick compared to other networks we’ve seen, and we don’t get devices dropping off.”

Asked for advice, he highlights some lessons learned: “Think ahead about your organisation’s structure and future activities. Don’t run too many SSIDs – keep it simple.” He adds, “We can now broadcast certain networks only in certain areas, although Aruba’s impressive signal reach still meant that people were picking up the warehouse wireless in the office!”

He concludes, “User expectations have risen over the years, partly because people have decent wireless at home now, and the Aruba network has met them. The coverage is excellent and it’s very, very quick.”


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