If you've been reading this blog for over a year you'll recall our struggles to get the F1 checkin app to work well with Fellowship Tech's then recommended Dell SX Optiplex models. The big problem with the SX models is that they have ZERO PCI slots so you're stuck with trying to use a USB wifi adapter if you want to go wireless. We found out the hard way that USB wifi adapters all stink ... especially the Dell ones that come with the SX models.
We figured we'd have success with a good PCI wifi card, but we already sunk a bunch of money into these SX280's so we'd have to live with them until the next budget year when we could purchase some new PC's and wifi cards...and thus wifi checkin with our main kiosk units was not used.
Fast forward to this spring. We wanted to tackle the wireless checkin again and had some budget to do so...though not much of a budget. The plan was to buy a couple off lease Dell GX260's and slap some spankin' Proxim wireless cards in them. We needed more checkin PC's anyway so if the wireless still didn't work well we were only out the cost of the cards. First plan was to have 3 new checkin units in place before the giant Easter influx.
Off to www.dfsdirectsales.com I went and snagged 3 GX260's for $200/ea (P4, 2GHz, 256MB ram). Since our access points are all Enterprise grade Proxim AP4000's we wanted an enterprise class wifi card to match. For optimum interoperability you need to match your access points and cards! Enter Proxim's a/b/g Gold Card. We already had 2 of these in production for our guest services PC's and they rock. So $120 per Proxim card plus 3 Dell 1707 monitors for $200/ea.
The weekend before Easter we had these 3 new checkin units fired up. Testing was flawless! It was pretty much impossible to tell any speed difference between a kiosk that was wired or wireless. Easter weekend these 3 wireless units got hammered and never once had an issue ... the operators reported back that they couldn't tell any difference in speed vs. a wired kiosk. Yes! We did a small victory dance :-)
Next step was to replace all the SX280 checkin PC's with these cheap GX260's. Recently we purchased 10 GX260's, 6 for our bookstore/cafe upgrade and 4 for checkin. This week we finally got the SX280's swapped out the the GX260's in their place. Tonight (Thursday) they would go live ... meaning our guest services PC's, main level checkin kiosks and new family kiosks would all be wireless.
Today I decided to do some range testing ... and see how long the battery backup units would run. So we wheeled one of the kiosks outside, fired it up, and did some test checkins ... all completely cordless :-)
Inexpensive off lease business class Dell Optiplex's rule! We're experimenting with Powerware UPS units vs. APC. Yes, it beeps when not plugged into power ... nothing a wire snip can't fix if needed ;-)
For the record the battery lasted about 20mins with light printer usage.
We could still do checkin all the way out to the curb, but there was a noticeable lag in response time. At the distance pictured above we could still checkin as normal. And yes, we have done checkin for workshops outside before :-)
Here's one of the brains running our private and public wireless access throughout the building ... wireless VLANs baby! We also have a 5dB omni-directional antenna connected to the b/g radios. Even so, the checkin units were all preferring to use the 5GHz A radio ... given the multitude of b/g radios from nearby apartments I can't blame them.
Using wireless allows us to move units around the building to facilitate checkin for small groups in a single room or large groups in a certain part of the building ... give them some AC power and you're good to go. Get a larger UPS and forget even needing AC power!
Checkin went smooth tonight although it wasn't a heavy crowd. I'll wait to claim ultimate victory until after this weekend when all the kiosks are getting hammered, but I foresee no issues. We're obviously keeping all the network cables in the kiosks as a backup should the wifi ever get wiggy.
Next step is to add to and reconfigure the access points on the main level for better coverage on the extreme far ends of the building...and more reach outside our main entrance.
So there ya have it. We finally have fast stable wireless checkin ... and it's pretty inexpensive. I also learned recently that Fellowship Tech is making their checkin app even faster in the upcoming release. I think it's pretty stinking fast now ... but more faster is always more better.
(all images taken with the Treo 700w mobile phone...not bad for its lame-o 1.3 megapixel camera)
UPDATE (9/15/06) - Well it was too good to be true. Our wifi solution was still slow for checkin during our heaviest checkin times on Sundays. I think there are many variables at play all building on each other. We have been continuing to investigate and experiment and are close to running out of options.
Most recently we put the 4 heaviest traffic kiosks on their own separate access point. They are the only 4 devices that will connect to that AP, we turned off WEP so that overhead is eliminated and that AP plugs into a data port that connects directly (no switches) to a totally wide open port (no rules) on our front facing firewall. So we eliminated every possible complexity we can. With all that checkin ran lighting fast until our heaviest services on Sunday. Grrrr.
Tuesday night we enabled "super mode" on that AP. Basically if you have Proxim/Atheros client cards it will bump the throughput performance up to 30Mbps. We also disabled "b" only connections... So the radios run in strict a and g(-b) with super mode. I forgot about super mode since until recently we haven't had any proxim cards. I should probably note that although 802.11g and 802.11a radios say 54Mbps ... you won't get even close to that in actual throughput.
So Weds night I observed our wifi kiosks getting used pretty heavily for our middle school service ... and it was very speedy. Next test will be the weekend ... I'm slightly optimistic that super mode will be the missing link that keeps wifi checkin running quick even during very heavy use. Stay tuned...
UPDATE (12/10/2006) - Doh, I meant to update this post several months ago. Anyways, since we made the changes back in September (see prior update above) we've had zero wifi checkin problems. So at least for our environment the trick was giving the wifi checkin kiosks their own private access point and turning on super mode.
UPDATE (7/17/2007) - Well, things have changed and our wireless solution got really flaky for a while ... random strangeness that was very hard to troubleshoot. Then we learned about bluetooth killing access points ... a real revelation! We switched our checkin access points to 802.11a only (with turbo mode (108Mbps)) and haven't had any wireless problems sense that I'm aware of. The lesson in all this is go hard wired if at all possible ... wireless can be a real headache :-)