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‘Robust Internet for Events’ was our topic of choice when I sat with Craig Mathie, MD of the Bournemouth Rugby Sevens event, a few weeks ago for an open forum at Event Tech Live in the Truman Brewery. Around 30 people joined us from a range of events to cover what many people think is the ‘boring’ side of internet at events, primarily because it should already be sorted, just like power and water, but in many cases it is not.

One thing that I love about events, but is also the most challenging, is that most of the time we are starting, in some respect, from scratch. The event team might know how to plan an event but it’s probably a new venue, or a new team in the venue, or a new green field site, or a new sponsor. Something is always changing and because of that, even on the ‘basics’ side it is critical to consider key elements.

From the discussion I have summarised some of the key points below;

What’s the best type of internet for my event?

Rather like what’s the best type of car for my family, it depends on what you are trying to do and by when. I went through some examples of venues which are well known for their events, so they have invested in high speed connectivity, such as a leased line which means that over three years the service is cheaper to the event delivering the best speeds. For a new site, or one with short notice, we tend to bring in internet wirelessly from another location, or using copper services (which are mostly for the consumer market but can work in a pinch) or satellite.

Does whole venue or site wide Wi-Fi work?

Yes. If you want site wide Wi-Fi it can be delivered no problem. It is technically difficult but hey – that’s why you work with Etherlive! Venue wise it’s generally simpler to install, outdoors can be a bit more complicated but still very achievable if planned appropriately.

Is contactless payment reliable?

Yes. There is no reason for any technical issues with deploying contactless systems. Reports of issues are generally related to the devices themselves rather than the connectivity.

Isn’t 5G going to remove the need for Wi-Fi on site?

No. 5G, like 4G and others before it are great technologies just with better and bigger marketing budgets. Cellular technology (of which 5G is the latest standard) is designed to provide high speed connections for large populations, like towns, so it’s not designed to handle a very high peak of people in a specific area. It also isn’t really ‘supported’ like events need (have you ever tried to phone a mobile phone operator, complain about service in an area, and get an engineer to attend?). One advantage when 5G is introduced will be devices having another network option to connect – this will free up some of the 4G (and 3G) service.

A Career in EventsYou can get a great buzz out of attending a good event, and if you organise it the buzz is even better. Every successful event requires a team of dedicated professionals with a range of skills but often the event industry isn’t considered as a career choice.

At the recent ESSA (Event Supplier and Services Association) AGM a fantastic video was shown about working in the events industry. It really speaks to how passionate those of us in the industry are about making event magic happen, mostly behind the scenes working with festivals, exhibitions, corporate launches, sporting events and one-off special events like a Royal Wedding!

We welcomed our 4th full year intern last year, and this year we will be taking on two more to support our growing engineering teams in the field. For the first time this year we also have an apprentice, a great way to get exposure in the events world, so if you know anyone looking to take that first step don’t forget about the events industry.

Of course, those with more experience are just as welcome, our company like many others is built on the years of experience gaining from all quarters including large and small companies.

We do all have one thing in common, we are one team and we love events!

October 18th-19th 2017 sees Etherlive exhibiting at the Showman’s Show for our 10th consecutive year, the only show we have exhibited at every year since our formation. Its’ been a journey so we thought we would take a look back through our archives.

2008 – New Kids on the Block

We still have some of the 2008 mugs we had made as a giveaway in daily use at the office!

Amazing what you can squeeze onto a 3m x 2m stand

Less than a year after forming Etherlive we exhibited at the Showman’s Show for the first time in October 2008. We focused on a message of enabling events with good connectivity, reliable Wi-Fi, VoIP & CCTV.

Much has changed over the last ten years but that message is still just as important today, if not more so. We believed demand was going to grow hugely but I don’t think even we expected to move from the norm of a few ADSL lines to multi-gigabit fibre so rapidly on event sites.

 

2009 – Innovation in Tower Lights

In conjunction with Ace Plant & TCP we launched the Ecolite P+ at Showman’s 2009. The Ecolite P+ was a more eco-friendly tower light using metal halide discharge lamps coupled with CCTV, Wi-Fi and a PA system. The light was palletised so that more units could be transported on a trailer and had a generator which could run for several days on its internal fuel tank.

The fleet of Ecolites remained operational until 2017 when they were retired, replaced by newer units in which the technology has evolved requiring less customisation. Tower lights with CCTV and Wi-Fi remain a popular option for certain locations on event sites and construction sites.

 

 

 

 

2010 – Integrated Comms

Back in 2010 access to high capacity services was still relatively limited so often multiple services needed to be aggregated, such as ADSL, satellite and 3G. Intelligent routing, balancing and bonding across these services became a key factor.Today everyone has at least a backup 4G unit and balanced or bonded 4G is commonplace for smaller pop-up style events. It is not the solution for critical services but it has its place and it won’t be long before we are demonstrating 5G solutions.

Today everyone has at least a backup 4G unit and balanced or bonded 4G is commonplace for smaller pop-up style events. It is not the solution for critical services but it has its place and it won’t be long before we are demonstrating 5G solutions.

 

 

2011 – Look to the Sky

The launch of Ka band satellite internet access in 2011 radically changed the use of satellite at events. Previously satellite internet was a relatively costly and difficult proposition which didn’t give a good user experience. The Ka band internet service was designed for broadband services, rather than broadcasters, using smaller dishes and allowing multiple users to share bandwidth to keep costs down. It has proved hugely popular and is now a common sight at events. It still suffers the important limitation of all satellite services – high latency – so can only be used for certain services and is a very different user experience to other types of connectivity.

2011 also saw us demonstrate a beta version of an outdoor femtocell which provided mobile coverage from an internet connection, sadly the units where never brought the unit to production. A high-end DECT based phone system was also on display offering wireless roaming across an event site. This was used heavily in our deployment for the London Media Centre in 2012 and is still in use at events today.

 

2012 – The Holy Grail of Cashless & RFID

Since 2010 we had been working on RFID solutions with a crew catering system and later an accreditation/management system. In 2012 we worked with Intelligent Venue Solutions to bring a number of RFID related activities under one umbrella at a spin-out stand at Showmans.

Cost remained a barrier to wide-scale adoption and with the rapid rise of open-loop contact-less payments, over time we have moved into an enabling function for other providers. Today, for example, we deploy thousands of contact-less payment terminals and support ticket/wristband scanning for all the main providers.

 

 

 

2013 – Live Event Footfall Analytics

In 2012 we introduced a people counting solution which we refined and extended into Live Event Footfall Analytics (LEFA) for Showman’s 2013. Structured counting, for example in well-contained routes such as exhibitions, is now well established, whereas unstructured crowd density analysis is still an evolving area but shows great potential longer term for helping manage crowd flows and density.

2013 also saw us demonstrate 4G solutions and a Teenage Registration system designed for WOMAD to assist with the identification of under-18s and their associated responsible adults. Our first use of HD-CCTV cameras was also during 2013 with demonstrations at Showmans. We are now moving some cameras to QHD and testing 360 degree cameras.

 

 

2014 – The Intelligent Event

With more and more technology being deployed at events the next logical step is the integration of technology and communication between all aspects providing a rich level of event intelligence. From HD-CCTV, ticket scanning information and device location information, through to geo-tagged social media posts, a picture can be built up of what is happening on site and fed live into event control.

 

 

 

 

 

2015 – Meeting the Increasing Demands

Ever increasing requirements, demand for higher speeds and more capacity had driven a rise in the amount of fibre deployed around sites. Bigger sites were typically run with a fully routed design providing improved redundancy, increased speeds and better isolation between areas. This was often coupled with multiple gigabit internet connections which were diversely routed for redundancy.

2015 also saw deployment of latest generation 802.11ac wireless access points providing more speed and capacity to wireless clients.

 

 

 

2016 – Monitoring & Management

Extending on from the Intelligent Event additional components were demonstrated including Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and the Etherlive Monitoring Unit (EMU). The EMU is a type of IoT (Internet of Things) device which can be used to monitor a variety of things. It is particularly useful for monitoring power giving us early warning of power issues across a large event site.

In partnership with AirBox Systems, we demonstrated an incident management system, developed initially for the emergency services but just as applicable to event sites.

 

And so to 2017…

A light-hearted surfing theme for 2017

In a way it is ‘more of all of the above’, demand and complexity continues to increase, more and more devices are becoming network enabled and the broader event eco-system drives new requirements. The importance of reliable networking, Wi-Fi, CCTV, VoIP, ticket scanning and payment systems is now recognised as one of the keys to event success.

Tucked away in the corner of a bustling Christmas market is one of fifteen, non-descript little grey boxes. Like most IT equipment it’s pretty drab on the outside, the clever bit is hiding inside. We call it an EMU – an Etherlive Monitoring Unit – and it is in effect part of the emerging world of the ‘internet of things’ but with an events twist.

The EMU only measures 4cm x 6cm x 3cm but inside it is packed with an array of features. At the Christmas market it is busy monitoring the power being delivered from the generators, tracking the voltage, frequency and, critically, the amount of run-time available from the uninterruptible power supply if the generator should fail for any reason. It monitors this information in real-time and relays it back across the on-site network to the central management system. If a problem is detected the system generates alerts, sending out emails and SMS messages to key contacts as well as displaying information on a management console.

It can even assist with detecting wiring issues, noticing for example when a fault causes a floating neutral situation which results in dangerously high voltages being delivered to power outlets, protecting both equipment from damage and people from potential injury.

With real-time monitoring of power the risk of outages in systems which rely on power, such as the core IT infrastructure delivering phones, CCTV, ticket scanning and payment systems, can be minimised, which is critical on a busy event site.

The EMU though can do a lot more than just watch the power, it is a general-purpose monitoring tool capable of taking inputs from a range of sensors – these can be heat, smoke, fluid, sound, light or in fact pretty much anything that can be monitored via a sensor capable of producing an analogue or digital output. The fact that when the EMU powers up it connects to the site network, identifies its location and checks into the central management system, makes it simple to deploy.

Increasingly we are deploying EMUs across event sites as part of our ‘Intelligent Event’ strategy combined with other data sources such as CCTV, mobile device heat mapping, access control, crowd analytics and even social media data. As the number of data sources increases a detailed real-time picture of the event can be seen in event control speeding up decision making and enabling pro-active management of aspects such as water reserves, fuel levels and area capacities. The intelligent event system can also help identify cost savings and optimisation opportunities on site.

The ‘internet of things’ can sometimes be seen as marketing hype but go beyond the fluff and with the right components and approach, it can help solve real problems very effectively.

Virtual reality has been around for many, many years. From early home console attempts which could be bolted onto a Super Nintendo (anyone remember the
VictorMaxx?), to those massive virtual reality units which appeared for a while in arcades. Until recently however the desire was a long way ahead of the technology. Possibly we are now seeing a point where technology has caught up enough to make virtual reality the next big thing.

With the UK release of thVirtual Reality Evente Oculus Rift, a project which has been exciting the technology community for some time, many argue that home virtual reality has finally arrived. Cheaper projects like Google Cardboard demonstrate that even those who do not want to splash out mega bucks can get themselves a piece of the action. Alongside full virtual reality there has also been an explosion in competitively priced 360 degree cameras bringing a much broader accessibility to a more immersive video experience.

This is, of course, is only ‘virtual’ step one. To many, true virtual reality is a completely immersive experience you can walk, move and interact with. Liken it to the famous Holodeck of the Star Trek series. What we do have now though is a major step up from the past and a critical mass to iron out those remaining issues.

All this is very nice, but what does that matter for events?

Today’s technology could, and undoubtedly will over time, have an impact on what we understand as an event experience today.

What if you can sell a virtual ticket for your event to those with a disability which would normally impede their ability to attend? The experience might not quite be the same for a music event, nor can it ever really replace the handshake of a networking meeting, but facilitating access to events beyond the physical capacity is an exciting prospect for both the event organiser and attendee.

Or how would sponsors feel if they could replicate the excitement of a big product launch or latest artist after the event as part of their premium content? For training events there are many possibilities, enabling interactive and immersive sessions particularly suited to things like incident management and response, and also making virtual/remote training a more inclusive experience.

Needless to say, at this stage, the possibilities are exciting, things could go, virtually, anywhere (sorry!).

Laptops on deskIt may sound obvious but defining a clear specification for technical services means you’ll get what your event needs, when you want it at the right price.

Defining a clear specification in turn sets clear expectations. Without it assumptions will be made which can cause difficulties once works start. From the organiser perspective without documented specifications it can be challenging to tie a supplier down if they fail to deliver. It also ensures that pricing can be compared ‘apples to apples’ otherwise each supplier will make different assumptions leading to very different responses.

Customers often fear talking to suppliers prior to asking for formal quotes, yet using a supplier’s knowledge and experience can be a useful way to clarify what the actual requirements are.

A breadth of a scope or requirements document will vary based on the size of project but there are a few key areas which come up on nearly all projects:

  • Total Internet Capacity – Calculate how many concurrent people will need to use the internet at the same time. This may be lower than the total number of users who will be connected to the Wi-Fi at some point during an event. For example, if users are downloading an app, will they most likely do it when they first arrive? Are all the users going to be streaming? Is more of the usage just email/social media/browsing which typically has a lower concurrency.
  • Wireless (Wi-fi) coverage – Site plans make this much easier especially when coupled with an overlay of which areas need coverage helps with getting what you need. Events taking place within venues can usually supply dimensions of the space.
  • Engineer support – If the technology systems are a critical part of the event an engineer on site will mean help is on hand if anything goes wrong, or if plans change. Detailing the hours required removes any assumptions as to when support is expected on-site.
  • Build schedules – Everyone in the events industry knows that things change, but a concise plan of when things are happening, which is documented, can really help for quotes.
  • Integration – It is often the case that Wi-Fi and internet access will be used for multiple services from different suppliers and it really helps for this to be specified at quote stage to enable the technical supplier to understand what integration may be required – for example mobile apps, social media experiences, payment systems, streaming, etc.
  • Other services – There are also other areas which may help the event run smoothly. That could be desk phones (really helps when you need a reliable, secure, phone with a number than can be published prior to the event) printers, CCTV system (areas which need to be covered)

We help lots of customers design their specification before taking it to the market to ensure they are sourcing either as part of a brief phone call or a formal tender development engagement. A clear list of requirements helps the customer enforce what they asked for, and the supplier understand what they are providing. A little time invested in getting the specification correct reduces the risk of confusion and issues later on.

Festival

In part one of this series we looked at the physical network, part two covered the logical network and now in the third and final part we reach the edge network. Everything that has gone before is purely to enable the users and devices which connect to the network to deliver a service. For this blog we’ll take a journey through the different user groups and look at how the network services their requirements and the way technology is changing events.

Event Production

Making everything tick along from the first day of build until the last day of derig is a team of dedicated production staff working no matter whatever the weather. It is perhaps obvious that they all need internet access but the breadth of requirements increases year on year. Email and web browsing is only a part of the demand with applications such as cloud based collaboration tools sharing CAD designs and site layouts, along with event management applications dealing with staff, volunteers, traders, suppliers and contractors all being part of the wider consumption of bandwidth.

Just about everything to do with the delivery of an event these days is done in a connected way and as such reliable connectivity is as important as power and water.

Across the site, indoors and outdoors are carefully positioned high capacity Wi-Fi access points delivering 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless connectivity to all the key areas such as site production, technical production, stewarding, security, gates and box offices. Different Wi-Fi networks service different users – from encrypted and authenticated production networks to open public networks – each managed with specific speeds and priorities. To deliver a good experience to the high density of users’ careful wireless spectrum management is essential, in some cases using directional antennas to focus the Wi-Fi signal in specific directions (rather like using a torch to focus light in a specific area). With so many wireless systems used on event sites interference can be a real challenge so wireless scanners are used to look for potential problems with active management and control used to make sure there are no ‘rogues’.

Not everything is wireless though, many devices, such as VoIP phones and some users require a wired connection so many cabins have to be wired to from network switches. Some sites may have over 200 VoIP (Voice over IP) phones providing lines for aspects such as enquiries, complaints, box offices, emergency services as well as a reliable communications network where there is no mobile service or the service struggles once attendees arrive. Temporary cabins play host to array of IT equipment such as printers, plotters and file servers all of which need to be connected.

As equipment evolves more and more devices are becoming network enabled, for example power is a big part of the site production with an array of generators across the site. The criticality is such that a modern generator can be hooked into the network like any other device to be monitored and managed remotely. On big sites even the 2-way radios may be relayed between transmitters across the IP network. Technical production teams also use the network to test the sound levels & EQ from different places.

Event Control

Once an event is running it is event control that becomes the hub of all activity. Alongside laptops, iPads and phones, large screens display live CCTV image from around the site – anywhere from two to over a hundred cameras may be sending in high definition video streams with operators controlling the PTZ (Pan/Tilt/Zoom) functionality as they deal with incidents. A modern PTZ camera provides an incredible level of detail with a high optical zoom, image stabilisation, motion detection and tracking, picture enhancement and low light/infra-red capability. CCTV may be thought of as intrusive but at events its role is very broad playing as much a part in monitoring crowd flows, traffic management and locating lost children as it is in assisting with crime prevention.

Mast & Cameras

These cameras may be 30m up but they can deliver incredibly detailed images across a wide area

Full-HD and 4K Ultra HD cameras can deliver video streams upwards of 10Mbps, with 360 degree panoramic cameras reaching 25Mbps depending on frame rate and quality, this creates many terabytes of data which has to be archived ready to be used as evidence if needed, requiring high capacity servers to both record and stream the content to viewers. One event this year created over 12TB of data – the equivalent of 2,615 DVDs!

As everything is digital, playback is immediate allowing incidents to be quickly identified and footage or photos to be distributed in minutes. Content is not only displayed in a main control room but is also available on mobile devices both on the site and at additional remote locations.

Special cameras provide additional features such as Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) for use at vehicle entrances or people counting capability to assist with crowd management. Body cameras are becoming more common and now drone cameras are starting to play a part.

At the gates staff are busy scanning tickets or wristbands, checking for validity and duplication in real-time across the network back to central servers. The entrance data feeds to event control so they can see how many people have entered so far and where queues may be building. Charts show whether flow is increasing or decreasing so that staff can be allocated as needed.

For music events especially, noise monitoring is important and this often requires real-time noise levels to be reported across the network from monitors placed outside the perimeter of the event. Other monitors are increasingly important, ranging from wind-speed to water levels in ‘bladders’ used for storing water on site. The advent of cheap GPS trackers is also facilitating better monitoring of large plant and key staff.

External information is also important for event control with live information required on weather, transport, news and increasingly social media. Sources such as Twitter and Facebook are scanned for relevant posts – anything from complaints about toilets to potential trouble spots.

Bars, Catering, Traders & Exhibitors

For those at an event selling anything from beer to hammocks, electronic payment systems have been one of the biggest growth areas. From more traditional EPOS (Electronic Point of Sales) systems through to chip & pin/contactless PDQs, Apple Pay, iZettle and other non-cash based solutions. These systems are particularly critical in nature transacting many hundreds of thousands of pounds during an event with some sites deploying hundreds of terminals.

High volume sales such as bars also require stock management systems linking both onsite and offsite distribution to ensure stocks are maintained at an appropriate level. A recent development is traders operating more of a virtual stand with limited stock on site, instead the customer browses online on a tablet to order and have the product delivered to home after the event.

Sponsors

Most events have an element of sponsorship with each brand wanting to lead the pack in terms of innovation and creativity. Invariably these ‘activations’ involve technology in some form – from basic internet access to more involved interaction using technology such as RFID, GPS, augmented reality and virtual reality.

There are often multiple agencies and suppliers involved with a short window in which to deploy and test just as the rest of the event is reaching its peak of build activity. To be exciting the sponsor wants it to be ‘leading edge’ (or ‘bleeding edge’ as it is sometimes known!), which typically means on the fly testing and fixing.

Media & Broadcast

Media Centre

Busy media centres create demanding technical environments

From a gaggle of photographers wanting to upload their photos to a mobile broadcast centre, the reliance on technology is huge at a big event. Live streaming is increasingly important, both across the site and also out to content distribution networks. These often require special arrangements with guaranteed bandwidth and QoS (Quality of Service) controls to ensure the video or audio stream is not interrupted. It is not unusual to get requests for upwards of 200Mbps for an individual broadcaster.

More and more broadcasters are moving to IP solutions (away from dedicated broadcast circuits) requiring higher capacity and redundancy to ensure the highest availability. These demands increasingly require fibre to the truck or cabin with dedicated fibre runs back to a core hub.

Alongside content distribution, good quality, high density Wi-Fi is essential in a crowded media centre with the emphasis on fast upload speeds. Encoders and decoders are used to distribute video streams around a site creating IPTV networks for both real-time viewing and VoD (Video-on-Demand) applications. The next growth area is 360 degree cameras used to provide a more immersive experience both onsite and for remote watchers.

Attendees

Then after all this there may be public Wi-Fi. For wide-scale public Wi-Fi (as opposed to a small hotspot) it is typical over the duration of an event for at least 50% of the attendees to use the network at some point – the usage being higher when event specific features are promoted such as smartphone apps and event sponsor activities.

The step-up from normal production services to a large scale public Wi-Fi deployment is significant – a typical production network would be unlikely to see more than 1,000 simultaneous users, but a big public network can see that rise beyond 10,000, requiring higher density and complex network design, as well as significantly greater backhaul connectivity with public usage pulling many terabytes of data over a few days.

With a significant number of users, a large amount of data can be collected anonymously and displayed using an approach known as heat mapping to show where the highest density of users are and how users move around an event site. This information is very useful for planning and event management.

crowd

Public Wi-Fi has to deal with thousands of simultaneous connections

Break It Down

As the final band is doing their encore, or the show announces it is time to close the team switch to follow the carefully designed break down plan. What can take weeks to build is removed within a couple of days, loaded into lorries, shipped back to the warehouse to be reconfigured and sent out to next event. Sometimes tight scheduling means equipment goes straight from one country or job to the next. But not everything is removed at once, a subset of services remains for the organisers whilst they clear the site until the last cabin is lifted onto a lorry and we remove the last Wi-Fi access point and phone.

The change over the last five years has been rapid and shows no sign of slowing down as demand increases and services evolve. Services such as personal live streaming, augmented reality, location tracking and other interactive features are all continuing to push demands further.

So yes we provide the Wi-Fi at events but when you see an Etherlive event network on your phone spare a thought as to what goes on behind the scenes.

 

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In the first Behind the Wi-Fi blog we looked at some of the physical aspects of building out a large scale temporary network, this time we look at how it all comes together as a ‘logical network’ or more simply how all of the networking components work together. With some event networks servicing 10,000+ simultaneous users and consuming anywhere between 100Mbps to 1Gbps of internet connectivity, chaos would ensue unless it was carefully designed and implemented.

Although networks are thought of as being one big entity in reality they are broken down into many ‘virtual networks’ which operate independently and are isolated from each other. This approach is very important from a management, security, reliability and performance point of view. For example, you would not want public users being able to access a network that is being used for payment transactions.

All of our events are rated based on a complexity score and this helps define how the network is designed. Larger and more complex events are designed using a fully routed topology rather than a simple flat design. This approach provides the best performance and resilience operating a bit like the electricity ‘grid’ network where a number of nodes are connected together in a resilient manner to provide a multipath backbone and then the customer services are connected to the nodes. This approach means that each node is provided with a level of isolation and protection which is not possible on a simpler flat network.

This isolation is important as a network grows due to the way when devices connect they are designed to send out ‘broadcasts’ to everyone on the network. With a large number of devices these broadcasts can become overwhelming on a flat network but on a routed network the broadcasts can be filtered out at the appropriate node. Faulty or incorrectly configured equipment can sometimes cause ‘network storms’ where huge amounts of network traffic is created in milliseconds reducing performance for all users, a routed topology offers much more protection against this isolating any problems to a small subsection of the network.

Every site has different network requirements so there may be anywhere between 5 and 50 virtual networks known as VLANS to ensure all the appropriate users and network traffic are kept separate. Traffic shaping rules are applied to these different networks to prioritise the most important networks, along with filtering and logging as required.

At the heart of this is what we call the ‘core’, the set of components which control the key aspects of the network such as the internet access, filtering, firewall, authentication, routing, wireless management, remote access and monitoring.

With several different connections to the internet, traffic is distributed across the different connections – this may be by load balancing, bonding, or policy routing. This is a complex area as different types of network traffic may only be suitable for certain types of connection. For example, voice traffic and encrypted VPNs do not work well over a satellite link due to the high latency (delay) of satellite.

The core routers also contain a firewall, this is the protection between the external internet and the internal network. Protecting against intrusion and hacking is sadly a very important factor with all internet connected systems subject to a constant stream of attacks from remote hackers in places such as China and Russia.

Additional firewalls also exist to control traffic across the internal networks. By default, everything is blocked between networks but for some services limited access may be required across VLANS so specific rules are added – an approach known as pin-holing. Filtering can be used to block particular websites or protocols (such as bit torrent and peer to peer networking); this may be done to protect users from undesirable content or to ensure the performance of the network is maintained.

mediacentre

Prioritisation of voice traffic from phones is important to ensure call quality, especially in a media centre

Rate shaping and queuing are additional important controls to manage bandwidth to specific groups and users ensuring everyone gets the speeds they asked for. This is especially important for real-time services such as voice calls and video streaming. Traffic is managed at a user and network level using dynamic allowances so that all available bandwidth is utilised in the most effective manner without impacting any critical services. Users or networks may be given a guaranteed amount of bandwidth but this may be exceeded in a ‘burst’ mode provided there is spare capacity on the incoming internet links.

The core also houses the PBX, the onsite telephone exchange which manages all the phones and calls with big sites having as many as 200 phones and generating thousands of calls. All the features of a typical office telephone system are implemented with ring groups, voicemail, call forwarding, IVR, etc. As all of the phones are Voice Over IP (VoIP) they are connected via standard network cabling so can easily be moved between locations. Additional numbers and handsets can also be added very quickly.

The vast majority of users these days are connected via the Wi-Fi network which requires careful management and design. The detail behind this would run to several pages so for the purposes of this blog we will keep things relatively simple and look at a few key aspects.

Frequency/Standard – Wi-Fi currently operates at two frequencies, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. As discussed in previous blogs there are many issues around 2.4 GHz so all primary access we provide is focussed on 5 GHz with only public access and some other legacy devices connected via 2.4 GHz. All of the Wi-Fi access points we use are at least 802.11n capable with the majority now 802.11ac enabled to provide the highest speeds and capacity.

Wireless Network Names – When you look for a wireless network on a device you see a list of available networks, these identifiers are known as SSIDs and control the connection method to the network. Different SSIDs will be used for different audiences, with some SSIDs hidden such that you can only try to connect to it if you know the name. Wireless access points can broadcast multiple SSIDs at the same time but there are limits and best practice as to how many should be used. Some SSIDs may be available across the entire network whereas others may be limited to specific areas.

Encryption & Authentication – These two areas are sometimes confused but relate to two very different aspects. Encryption deals with the way the information which is sent wirelessly is scrambled to avoid any unauthorised access. It is similar to using a website starting with ‘https’ but in this case all information between the device and the wireless access point is encrypted. There are several standards for doing this and we use WPA2 which is the current leader. Not all networks are encrypted and, as is the case with most public Wi-Fi hotspots, public access is generally unencrypted.

Authentication deals with whether a user is allowed to use a particular network and ranges from ‘open access’ where a user just clicks on an accept button for the terms and conditions through classic username/password credentials and onto RADIUS or certificate based systems which offer the highest levels of protection. One common approach is the use of a pre-shared key or pass-phrase as part of the WPA standard, knowing the pass-phrase is in effect an authentication challenge. The pass-phrase is also the seed for the encryption and the longer the pass-phrase the harder it is for a hacker to crack the encryption. The pass-phrase approach is simple to manage but has inherent weakness in that it is easily compromised by sharing between users with no control.

boat

Large scale Wi-Fi is a particularly complex area with many different requirements and challenges

On top of this various other services are employed to protect and manage the Wi-Fi. Client isolation for example stops a user on the network from seeing any network traffic from another user, whereas band steering & load balancing seamlessly move users between frequencies and wireless access points to ensure each user gets the best experience.

The rise of the smartphone has had a major impact on Wi-Fi networks at events due to the way they behave. If a smartphone has its Wi-Fi turned on, then it constantly hunts and probes for Wi-Fi networks so even in this ‘un-associated’ state it still creates an element of load on the network. Mechanisms have to be employed to drop the devices from the network unless they are truly connected (‘associated’) and active (accessing a web page for example). Even connected devices are typically dropped fairly quickly once they cease to be active so that other users can connect. This all happens very fast and transparently to the user with the device reconnecting automatically when it needs to.

This array of logical controls processes millions of pieces of information every second routing them like letters to the correct address, discarding damaged or undesirable ones and acknowledging when they have been received. Each of the components have to work in harmony with sites having anywhere up to around 30 routers, 200 network switches and 200 Wi-Fi access points. To manage this standard configurations and builds are used which have been pre-tested as this reduces the risk of introducing a problem via a new firmware or configuration change.

Next time in the final part of this series we will look at how this all comes together to deliver the end services for the users and the impact it all has on the event.

 

photo credit: Binary code via photopin (license)