Networking a reconfigured workspace

We find out how one company has optimised its network to support a post-pandemic work environment

Office-based network infrastructure – the stuff that is installed within the guts of buildings – is made to last. But the equipment must also be upgraded as it reaches end of life. Upgrades are also driven by changes in working practices.

The return to work after the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, when hybrid and remote working became the norm, prompted many businesses to reconfigure their workspace.

Wired IP telephony has widely been replaced by PC-based video-conferencing software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Wirelessly connected laptops are now the way employees connect to the office network, replacing the connected docking stations that existed in many office environments pre-pandemic.

There have also been physical changes to the workplace setup to support hybrid working. Partition walls and meeting rooms have been redesigned, with many offices now offering a number of smaller conference rooms rather than one boardroom-style meeting room. Many also provide a break-out area. A modern post-pandemic office environment is also likely to make the most of advancements in wireless printers, projectors, displays and smart whiteboards.

People are working in a different way, which has implications for the existing network infrastructure.

Going wireless

Law firm Howard Kennedy used the adjustment to the “new normal” after the lockdowns to rethink its workplace, in light of the changes in the way people work.

Howard Kennedy’s head of technology and security, Jonathan Freedman, says: “When we moved into the office in 2015, the network design assumed that there were a lot of desktop PCs and wired IP phones.”

While the company had a wireless network that covered the whole building, Freedman says it was very much designed as a guest network. “We generally assumed that everyone would be on a wired network the whole time they were in the office,” he says.

When the pandemic came along, everything changed. Prior to Covid-19, the majority of people at the law firm had laptops – but not everyone. “The big change over the pandemic was getting everyone a laptop,” says Freedman.

Howard Kennedy also moved away from its on-premise telephony system, which was hosted in the company’s datacentre, to a cloud-based telephony platform that integrates with Microsoft Teams. This, he says, enabled employees to move away from using call forwarding to their mobiles to an entirely new approach to communications.

Video calling

In the past, he says it was quite a big deal to get a video conference call up and running. “If you wanted to do a video call, IT would come and help you set it up,” Freedman recalls.

These days, he points out, everyone is doing video calls “10 times a day”.

However, higher demand for video conferencing and remote working meant Howard Kennedy’s infrastructure was no longer fit for purpose. It needed an upgrade to support this new way of collaborating.

Wi-Fi refresh

With people returning to its London Bridge head office, where the ageing Wi-Fi infrastructure was approaching end of life, Howard Kennedy made the decision to refresh its core infrastructure to reflect its adoption of hybrid work across the organisation.

The company selected Cisilion, a Cisco Gold Partner, to implement the Wi-Fi upgrade, refreshing the existing infrastructure with Cisco’s Catalyst 9k family of products.

The new Cisco equipment provides Wi-Fi 6, which, says Freedman, delivers the same network speed as a wired network connection. Wi-Fi 6 supports Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA), which enables access points to serve multiple clients at the same time. This means a high-bandwidth application is not restricted by the limitations of having to use just a single network access point.

Thanks to the error correction capabilities of Wi-Fi 6, if the network experiences a minor glitch it can be corrected more easily than with older Wi-Fi 5 technology. “The new network gives us a level of performance where we aren’t worried about whether there will be laggy video calls,” says Freedman.

This, he says, is more important than ever. “We want to facilitate people being able to collaborate in different groups. Everyone’s on Teams and Zoom meetings all the time, so we needed to get a high level of Wi-Fi performance.”

The majority of devices connecting to the new network have Wi-Fi 6 radios. For instance, the technology is built into new smartphones, and Howard Kennedy’s corporate laptops support Wi-Fi 6. Nevertheless, the network still supports non-Wi-Fi 6 access, where some of the old Wi-Fi 5 frequencies are still being broadcast for older devices.

Preparation time

Working with Cisilion, the IT team conducted a site survey across each floor of its London office, which had been reconfigured following Covid-19. Although there was an existing site survey, the team also mapped out the Wi-Fi signal throughout each floor to work out the optimal location for the wireless access points to avoid dead zones.

The new setup comprises 34 Cisco Aironet 3702 wireless access points across six floors, connected to Cisco Catalyst 3850 switch clusters. From a configuration perspective, Cisilion worked with Howard Kennedy to create a number of separate Wi-Fi networks as virtual LANs (vLANs). This, says Freedman, allows the company to keep internet of things (IoT) devices like display screens, smart whiteboards, projectors and printers separate from the rest of the corporate network. While there is one set of wireless infrastructure, the configuration means multiple wireless networks are broadcast, but these are isolated.

The network configuration offers separation between guest Wi-Fi, staff Wi-Fi and IoT Wi-Fi.

According to Freedman, replacing the old Wi-Fi infrastructure was quick and straightforward. “Almost all of the new equipment stayed in the same location as the old wireless access points,” he says. “We added in a couple more Wi-Fi 6 access points, but not a huge number. It was largely a straight replacement, and we did the roll-out in one weekend.”

Video calls and file copying tasks were used to test the new Wi-Fi infrastructure on laptops and mobile phones. A small team of IT engineers went around to each area of the office building and ran the tests. “We were basically running a test panel that replicated the same types of activities that our colleagues would do,” says Freedman.

Wi-Fi 6 may not have been regarded as an important upgrade a few years ago. But it is now built into modern devices and offers what Freedman sees as near wired connectivity levels of performance. This is particularly relevant given that the make-up of the office workspace is no longer seen as a place where most people connect to the corporate network over a wired connection. Combining this with the boom in collaboration tools means corporate networks are being optimised for low-latency wireless connectivity.

Delays not detrimental

Looking back on the most important aspects of the project, Freedman says delays in the supply of the Cisco equipment gave the IT team time to focus on preparation.

“During and just after lockdown, it was taking a very long time for kit ordered from Cisco to arrive,” he recalls. In the meantime, the team went through a series of design workshops, working with Cisilion to plan the low-level design of the wireless network infrastructure. This gave the IT team the know-how to configure the networking equipment for optimised video and audio conferencing applications.

There are numerous lessons IT departments can take away from the pandemic and the subsequent return to work, which remains very much hybrid.

Applications such as Teams, Zoom and other desktop video-conferencing systems have replaced IP telephony. In some organisations, like Howard Kennedy, the focus has been on providing the best experience for mobile users when they are in the office, and this means having a network that is optimised for video conferencing rather than telephony.

It is also the case that the wireless network should not be an afterthought, or just for guests, but an essential aspect of networking infrastructure to enable employees to work efficiently using high-bandwidth applications.

Preparation is key to any network upgrade, but the fact that Howard Kennedy was able to migrate its London head office to Wi-Fi 6 over a weekend shows that such upgrades do not have to be disruptive.

Read more about hybrid workspaces

  • Despite rapid adoption of hybrid working since Covid, research from Virgin Media O2 Business reveals organisations facing technical and personnel-related limitations in making third workspace pay off.
  • Hot desking is one way to manage workspaces in a hybrid office. Learn some hot desking pros and cons to decide if it's the right approach for your company.

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