Sharjah Ports goes wireless

: Considered as one of the biggest wireless deployments in the GCC region, Sharjah Ports Authority has linked its entire operations to the corporate LAN using 3Com technology.

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By  Sarah Gain Published  July 26, 2005

|~|Al-Mutawa-Body.jpg|~|Al-Mutawa: The system forms a backbone for the Port Authority’s web-based applications, running the entire length of the crescent-shaped port.|~|Using wireless bridges, Sharjah Ports Authority has linked its administration facilities, temporary offices, warehouses and different branch offices to the corporate local area network (LAN). Linking 25 different locations, the implementation is considered to be the largest in the GCC region.

By going wireless, the government body has been able to update its archaic networking systems with 802.11b connections that deliver four times the bandwidth at a fraction of the cost.

The 3Com wireless solution is providing simplified, centralised management for the organisation via the web. “The system forms the backbone for the Port Authority’s web-based applications, running the entire length of the crescent-shaped port,” explains Issa Juma Al-Mutawa, director general of the Government of Sharjah Department of Seaports and Customs at Sharjah Ports Authority.

When a ship comes into the port, the details of its cargo are loaded onto the Sharjah Ports’ central database. In order to manage the unique challenges posed by the port’s environment, the organisation’s IT team considered several possibilities prior to selecting the wireless solution.

“WAN would have involved more expense as fibre would have had to be laid throughout the complex, causing disruption. Also, the system would involve a lot of connections near the water and fibre optic cable would have been very expensive,” explains Al-Mutawa.

Sharjha Ports was keen to minimise the disruption that would potentially be caused by a large-scale deployment, either to the physical environment of the port itself, the utilities cabling in the surrounding area or to its business operating schedules.

As it searched for a provider that could offer another option to laying cabling trenches, the project was held up considerably. “We tried other companies but were told we would have to dig up the ground, and they could not suggest an alternative to this. This delayed the project and was the reason for going wireless. This was a smooth deployment, resulting in [enhanced] day-to-day operations,” explains Al-Mutawa.

When the project was first conceived in 2004, wireless was a relatively new concept and the majority of deployments at that time involved point-to-point connections. This was to be a novel design, using point-to-multi-point connections to link the entire operations. It was, however, not all plain sailing for Sharjha Ports, as hurdles presented themselves in the designing and planning stages.

The extensive construction being carried out in the area surrounding the port interfered with the original designs, resulting in further delay and the curving shape of the port’s complex also posed a challenge according to Madhusudhan Rao, deputy general manager of Al Ghandi Solutions, the company that managed the implementation. “Since the port is crescent-shaped, ships entering the port used to break the wireless signal at exactly the time it was most needed,” he says.

The implementation team from Al Ghandi Solutions was made up of six people and co-operated fully with the government body’s IT department. The building-to-building wireless network deployed interoperates with any Wi-Fi-compatible access point, enabling the solution to cater for Sharjha Ports’ large multi-building, heterogeneous environment and the multiple antennas ensure optimal signal strength for the organisation’s environment.

In addition, according to Rao, “The solution is turning out to be very economical to operate as it does not have the recurring costs of T1 or cable equipment. The point-to-multipoint provides maximum flexibility for configuring the networks.”

The six-month project started with the networking of 15 locations and in the 12 months following that deployment, a further ten locations were added, bringing the total up to 25.

The new system offers scalability and more locations can be added if the organisation’s operational needs dictate in the future. “We chose the solution under advisement from our internal IT department, which has the technical know-how to understand what solutions will best meet our business requirements,” Al-Mutawa explains.

The networking solution’s dynamic feature helps keep network connections continuously available by picking up the connection speed best adapted to the wireless radio environment, while 40-bit and 128-bit wired equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption and 128 dynamic security link encryption protect network data and wireless transmissions from security breaches.

“The majority of the project involved 3Com technology – it supplied the switches, which allow administrators the option of setting up traffic prioritisation parameters to optimise data flow between buildings. We used Cisco technologies for the routers and firewall,” Rao explains.||**|||~||~||~|There was no retraining required for employees with the deployment of the new wireless system as the organisation was already running on Windows-based applications and were therefore were familiar with the general user interface (GUI).

According to M B Shetty, co-ordinator for cargo operations at Sharjah Ports, who uses the system, the technology is making operations easier and more efficient, despite minor problems. “Some of the very big ships still cause a small amount of disruption when they come into the port, but it is nothing major. It is certainly an improvement,” he says.

The positive outlook of the cargo operations team is shared across the company. The solution has extended Sharjha Ports’ network without the need for leasing expensive dedicated lines or laying cable.

“It has saved money and headaches — everyone is very happy. The workers that have to use the system on a day-to-day basis tell me it is a great improvement and I am satisfied that the port’s operations have become much more efficient and that we have seen a sufficient return on our investment. We jumped from A to Z in one step — we basically had nothing to begin with and now we have a very solid solution,” enthuses Al-Mutawa.

As the volumes of electronic data produced by the organisation have grown substantially since the implementation of the improved network systems, Al Ghandi Solutions have just completed a related deployment of an EMC storage solution to help Sharjha Ports cope with data.

“We needed to provide the port with a complete solution that is easy to implement and integrate. It also offers the possibility for information lifecycle management best practices, which will help the port to manage its growing mounds of data efficiently in the long term,” explains Rao.

Al Ghandi Solutions has provided solutions to the Ports Authority for the last three years and are now discussing further projects for the future. One such initiative, still under discussion and awaiting approval, is a project to link all the regional ports using a similar solution.

The next phase for the government body, however, is to improve the mobility of its employees by supplying tablet PCs and personal digital assistants (PDAs), and to upgrade its surveillance systems.

“Moving forward, we plan to introduce a centrally-managed, closed circuit television (CCTV), using IP video cameras for surveillance purposes. This will deliver high-definition images and greater zooming flexibility. We plan to continue to further expand the network, improving functionality in order to maximise the utilisation of our new wireless capabilities,” says Al-Mutawa.

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