How DOE lab secured campus with wireless

Energy Dept.’s Pacific Northwest National Lab deploys Cisco Airnet technology


The Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is using Cisco’s Aironet wireless mesh technology for security cameras and access point interactions. By using this wireless technology, the lab says it was able to keep the cost of the system down to $2.8 million.

The terms ``wireless’’ and ``security’’ don’t always go hand-in-hand. But the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is proving that these concepts are compatible with an innovative system that uses cutting-edge wireless technology to improve campus security.

PNNL’s new Campus Camera and Emergency Call Station system uses Cisco’s Aironet wireless mesh technology for security cameras and access point interactions. By using this wireless technology, the lab says it was able to keep the cost of the system down to $2.8 million.

Not only is the self-healing mesh network less expensive than a traditional wired system, it also offers greater redundancy, lab officials say. An added bonus is that the mesh network provides continuous wireless coverage across the outdoors of the campus and integrates with existing in-building wireless coverage.

``It’s fairly young technology. We really had excellent support from Cisco in working out some of the bugs,’’ says Jerry Johnson, CIO of PNNL. ``Overall, the whole system has turned out to be very solid, and I think it’s going to become more important and attractive to us in the future.’’

The lab’s public safety camera system was so successful that it recently won an excellence award from the Northwest Academic Computing Consortium, a collaboration of universities, research organizations and nonprofit groups in the Pacific Northwest. The system won in the technology infrastructure category.

PNNL is one of 10 Energy Department national labs, where critical military, energy and environmental research is conducted. The lab employs 4,200 staff in 35 buildings that are spread across a one-square-mile campus north of Richland, Wash.

``The laboratory here has an open campus. It looks very similar to a university,’’ Johnson says. ``At the same time, we are a federal facility. If you think back to the response from the Oklahoma City bombings and other terrorist attacks, federal facilities tend to be fenced in and barricaded. That was a bit contrary to the kind of aesthetic environment we wanted here.’’

Instead of a big fence, PNNL decided to install a public safety camera system that would allow the lab’s security staff to survey the campus and look for suspicious activity. PNNL also installed emergency call stations for people who were lost or in trouble.

``The idea was to establish the ability to do surveillance of the entire campus and establish kiosks for individuals who might have an emergency occurring or simply are in need of information,’’ Johnson says.

Prior to the roll-out of the new system, PNNL had a few security cameras installed at the entrance to the campus and the entrances to buildings. But it didn’t have coverage of the entire campus, including parking facilities.

PNNL started working on the campus camera system two years ago, and quickly discovered that wireless technology would be the most cost-effective.

``When you start thinking about stringing wires to all of those cameras and the proposition of drilling holes in buildings, trenching wires through concrete, it becomes cost-prohibitive for this type of system,’’ Johnson says. ``That’s why we chose wireless.’’

PNNL already had extensive wireless coverage in its buildings, with 300 Cisco wireless access point, including 1200s and 1130s, installed. The lab also had the ability to detect rogue devices on its existing wireless infrastructure.

Lab officials decided not to build a separate wireless network for its new camera system. Instead, it wanted to integrate the camera system into its existing wireless infrastructure.

``We’re striving to be as operationally streamlined as we can,’’ says Phil George, network and telephone services portfolio manager at PNNL. ``We did not want to maintain another network infrastructure. We wanted to integrate the camera system with our internal wireless infrastructure.’’

PNNL chose Cisco’s Aironet 1500 mesh access points for the camera system. The lab installed 100 mesh access points for the network, which supports 85 cameras and 14 emergency call stations. The call stations feature one-button VoIP phones.

The video cameras are mounted on light poles and send encrypted signals in real time to receivers on the rooftops of nearby buildings. An operations center receives voice, video and data communications from the cameras and call stations

``The total product costs, including the Cisco mesh network, cameras, kiosks, installation and integration was $2.8 million,’’ Johnson says. ``The principal return on this investment is cost avoidance. The alternatives for securing the campus would have been fences, guards and gates. There’s a very expensive cost of establishing those physical barriers and then paying manpower to man the gates.’’

The new camera system became operational six months ago. Johnson says it took about a month to get the system performing at the appropriate level, but that it has been ``rock solid’’ since November.

Lab officials are already looking at additional ways to take advantage of the wireless mesh network, such as supporting RFID for property management.

``We’ll be able to leverage this external wireless infrastructure with other applications, including wandering VoIP, property tagging and business continuity,’’ Johnson says. ``We’re getting ready to construct a number of new buildings. If there’s a backhoe cut through our campus fiber, the wireless won’t provide the same kind of bandwidth but it will keep the network heartbeat going and the e-mail up.’’

Learn more about this topic

More about the Cisco Aironet 1500 Series

PNNL’s Computational and Information Science Directorate

Must read: 11 hidden tips and tweaks for Windows 10
View Comments
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies