Like people everywhere, one of the first thing exhibitors and visitors to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Company (ADNEC) do is seek to connect their devices to Wi-Fi.
However, an ageing Wi-Fi infrastructure inhibited the ability of ADNEC IT to satisfactorily deliver this fundamental service.
ADNEC’s legacy Wi-Fi infrastructure, based on seven-year technology, was at the centre of these performance challenges. Feedback collected from exhibitors, organisers, internal staff and attendees after each event had consistently highlighted poor speed and regular connectivity drops as leading pain-points.
These connectivity shortcomings were unbecoming of the Middle East’s largest exhibition centre, said Ahmed Al Marzooqi, Director of IT at ADNEC. “They significantly impacted our reputation and even resulted in the loss of revenue as exhibitors looked for alternative venues based on the poor feedback this critical service received,” explained Al Marzooqi.
ADNEC owns and operates the 73,000 SQM Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre with a vision of being 'the region’s leading exhibitions venue’. Wi-Fi is a vital part of the exhibition experience, leveraged for everything from running demos, essential services and social media engagement, to keeping international guests and visitors connected without the prohibitive cost of roaming services.
While Al Marzooqi and his team saw the wireless upgrade as an opportunity to ultimately build a platform for innovation, the pressing issue at hand was to first address Wi-Fi performance and reliability.
Careful evaluation of solutions from leading vendors, analysis of independent reports from reputed industry research firms, and feedback from users in other large public venues in the UAE led ADNEC to select wireless solutions from Aruba. “In addition to meeting all our requirements, Aruba demonstrated a flexible OpEx based model and readiness to meet the unique logistic challenges of our deployment,” he said.
With over 100 events and conferences held at its Exhibition Centre each year, ADNEC hosts exhibitors and attendees from across the globe, a state of affairs that raises peculiar challenges.
“We have users from developed nations with the very latest smart devices, as well as those from developing countries with less advanced hardware. We have to ensure everyone has a consistently positive experience, everything from the ease of login to quality of service,” explained Sunando Chaudhuri, Advisor, IT, ADNEC.
The sheer volume of year-long events and seasonal nature of the exhibition business affords ADNEC only two short windows – during the summer and again, at the end of the year - for major upgrades. This elevates the complexity associated with overhauling systems such as Wi-Fi with access points (APs) distributed across the expansive venue.
Connection density is another aspect that makes exhibition centres among the most demanding environments. “In some instances, we have up to 5,000 people, each with an average of three devices, in a single hall or conference centre. And the first thing they do on arrival is to connect these devices to the network,” stated Al Marzooqi.
To deliver seamless coverage across the 73,000 SQM facility, ADNEC deployed 436 indoor and 14 outdoor 801.11ac access points (APs) in a specially designed small cell configuration for high-density support.
The APs were connected to 7200-series Aruba Mobility Controllers to configure, manage and support the wireless network. ADNEC also implemented Aruba Airwave to proactively monitor wireless health and performance and gain granular visibility and reporting capabilities across its network.
Aruba AirWave is a network operations system that manages wired and wireless infrastructure from the vendor as well as other third-party manufacturers. Through a centralised user interface, AirWave provides real-time monitoring, proactive alerts, historical reporting, and fast troubleshooting. Dedicated dashboard views help view potential RF coverage issues, unified communications and collaboration (UCC) traffic, application performance and network services health.
Aruba’s local team delivered design, planning and logistics support. “Before the process began, Aruba delivered a comprehensive design based on heatmaps and presented a clear plan for product delivery and implementation. This meticulous planning was essential, given the mere three weeks we had to complete the entire installation,” explained Chaudhuri.
Aruba’s rollout plan, combined with the plug-and-play nature of its APs, made it possible for all 450 APs to be installed in just 15 days, leaving sufficient time for the systems to be thoroughly tested in preparation for its first real-world trial.
The first test was to come just weeks after the Wi-Fi overhaul: ADNEC hosted the ‘World Future Energy Summit’, featuring 850 exhibitors from 40 countries and hosting high-profile dignitaries including leaders of the UAE.
“It was a data-intensive event that presented a rigorous real-world test, and Aruba came through with flying colours. We didn’t have a single instance of AP failure and even with over 8,500 simultaneous connections, no complaints about performance or coverage were raised,” beamed Chaudhuri.
Impressed by this success, the Group CEO sent a personal letter of appreciation, and a phone call, to Al Marzooqi. “He had personally attended the event and noted the remarkable change (in connectivity) over previous years. His appreciation was a validation of the outstanding achievement ADNEC and Aruba accomplished together in such a short period,” he said.
Positive post-event feedback from exhibition goers was a further endorsement of the success of the wireless deployment. It showed an increase in Wi-Fi satisfaction among all stakeholders to 95% - a vast improvement over the exhibition venue’s previous 70-80% average.
“We can now extend the performance of our 1Gbps leased line right down to the end-user. This unlocks the true potential of our connectivity investment and opens up a host of new possibilities for improving and introducing services,” said Chaudhuri.
ADNEC has raised Wi-Fi speeds from 5Mbps to an impressive 150Mbps for its free service and can finally meet and exceed the SLAs set for the premium service allotted for exhibitors. Aruba also gives ADNEC confidence that users will face no degradation in performance when usage spikes up to 15,000 simultaneous connections.
“APs failed regularly with our previous set-up, presenting a huge challenge during exhibitions as it was impossible for us to commission a boom lift and replace an AP. We have not had a single instance of failure with Aruba in over six months,” said Al Marzooqi.
The Director has also seen his team’s workload reduce significantly as Aruba’s Mobility Controllers centralise management and enable auto-configuration and update of all APs across the entire expanse of the venue via a single user-friendly dashboard.
While Wi-Fi performance and reliability had prompted the deployment, ADNEC now runs its communications, security systems, CCTV, digital signage, and payment terminals on the Aruba Wi-Fi platform.
Airwave’s granular monitoring capabilities allow the team to streamline operations. When visitors congregate in a particular location, for example at washrooms, mosques and restaurants, more cooling, bandwidth and additional housekeeping is required in that particular area.
“Wi-Fi is now our primary source of footfall-related data which we use to track visitor movement in real-time. By sharing this with our operations teams, we empower them to pre-emptively address the challenges associated with crowd concentration before complaints are raised,” he said.
ADNEC has major plans to utilise the wireless platform for the next phase of connectivity, Al Marzooqi said, “We have many physical assets such as our building management system that handles cooling, lighting, fire and life safety and parking management. All these are IoT-ready and we intend to utilise Aruba to transform into an IoT-driven business.”
The company is currently implementing Aruba ClearPass Policy Manager for authentication and policy enforcement among its diverse set of stakeholders. ClearPass Policy Manager provides role- and device-based secure network access control for IoT, BYOD, corporate devices, as well as employees, contractors and guests on the network.
ADNEC also intends to develop a wayfinding solution on the Wi-Fi platform, looking to tap into the Aruba mobile engagement and analytics solution based on Bluetooth beacons, the Meridian mobile app platform and the Aruba Analytics & Location Engine [ALE].
“Aruba has enabled us to become an exhibition venue offering the fastest Wi-Fi services in the region. Extending beyond the performance and reliability benefits, the solution offers a clear innovation roadmap with tangible benefits to our IT, operations, and marketing teams as well as our 1.8 million annual visitors,” Al Marzooqi concluded.