Wireless connectivity is changing the business mind-set at EMS Technologies.

Employees at the Atlanta company, which makes RFID systems and rugged computers, now expect to connect to corporate data and applications wherever they are and whenever they need to. That means decisions at all levels can be made, and acted upon, faster than ever.

This emphasis on real-time decision-making is made possible as a companywide wireless LAN (WLAN) and Research in Motion Blackberry wireless e-mail handsets become more prevalent, enabling a new culture of multitasking collaboration.

"Expectations have changed," says Michael Hancock, manager of information technology services. "People used to be surprised that we had wireless LAN access. Now, they're surprised if we don't."

"They expect [now] to get to all the same resources with the same performance as when they're connected to a wire," says John Dunbar, CIO for EMS.

EMS had US$310 million in revenue in fiscal 2005 from several divisions, including LXE, which makes a range of rugged wireless computers, scanners and RFID equipment; and Defense & Space Systems, which builds defense electronics for wireless communications and electronic warfare. About 1,500 employees are in offices and manufacturing sites around the world.

This spring, EMS completed its rollout of a companywide WLAN, to give employees mobility within buildings and among offices, and to give visiting business partners and customers secure Internet access.

Stick with what you know
To simplify the rollout and leverage a lean IT budget, Dunbar focused on brands and technologies with which his department was familiar. "We saw the big benefit of this in standardising on hardware and software," he says. "That made it more secure, more pervasive and gave us centralized administration."

The WLAN is not large, but it is spread throughout the company. About 35 Cisco Aironet 1300 access points form the WLAN infrastructure, which is managed by Cisco's Wireless LAN Solutions Engine. In the past, some divisions deployed Lucent access points, which had to be managed separately by an administrator logging on to each one. Because the new WLAN is small, EMS chose not to go with Cisco's WLAN controller-based architecture.

For authentication, EMS uses the Protected Extensible Authentication Protocol (PEAP), crafted by Cisco, Microsoft and RSA Security. PEAP is supported in the Cisco access points, and in Microsoft's Windows XP operating system, which is the EMS laptop standard. The authentication process via a RADIUS server is largely automatic.

In the past, to access a division-specific WLAN, users had to manually enter the access point Service Set Identifier and an encryption key just to associate to the access point, then go through a separate VPN logon, Dunbar says.

The IT group has created a separate virtual LAN to give visitors wireless access to the Internet, while blocking them from the EMS backbone.

Blackberries for the senior staff
About one-quarter of the workforce has wireless laptops, while about 100 senior executives, sales staff and field service technicians are equipped with Blackberry wireless e-mail handhelds, linking them to the EMS Microsoft Exchange mail server.

"We do business all over the world, and for our people to travel to our offices and customer sites, and stay connected to data, is a huge productivity gain," Dunbar says.

Jay Grove, senior vice president and general manager for the Defense & Space Systems division, remembers sitting in on project-review meetings when he first arrived five years ago. "My first review had 30 people in a room all day, with 500-page books in front of them," he says. "The most recent one was 14 people with about 10 laptops wirelessly connected to the 'Net."

The division has recently introduced software from Solumina that manages manufacturing work and quality processes. This data, previously on paper, is now online and instantly available over the WLAN. "Managers in a conference room can access Solumina and have real-time access to what's happening on the factory floor," Grove says. "I don't think we've even scratched the surface of what this combination of off-the-shelf software and wireless access can do for us."

Meetings work better
The WLAN and the Blackberries are changing the way meetings work. "Once you have a WLAN in place, and people start using it, you see more multitasking," says Kai Figwer, director of systems integration with LXE. "The Blackberries make possible more real-time interactions, and they document a chain of events if someone needs to understand what happened. I'm seeing people use instant messaging and e-mails a lot more in these meetings."

"There is a somewhat old-school belief that if you're in a meeting and people are using laptops and Blackberries, that means they're not paying attention, or they're rude," Grove says. "Frankly, if you're not using your laptop and Blackberry [today], you're not keeping up. It creates a whole different environment: We're dealing with issues right there by going out and getting the data and getting actions done."

These activities vindicate Dunbar's standardised approach to wireless, which simplifies the user's experience and the help desk's support tasks. Help desk staff track the most common sources of problems and complaints and create FAQs, or how-to documents for users. Two examples are how to reset passwords and how to access e-mail remotely, Hancock says.