Microsoft: the world's largest WLAN

80,000 users, 11,000 access points

Just off State Route 520 in Redmond, Washington, you'll find Microsoft's headquarters. To be sure, it's not the typical software vendor's corporate address — the beige building found in today's suburban office park never too far from a strip mall.

Rather, Microsoft's HQ looks and feels more like a huge university with dozens and dozens of buildings where some 30,000 or so workers take up millions of square feet. In fact, in the Puget Sound area alone, Microsoft has more than 35,000 employees working at 113 sites covering more than 11 million square feet of office space. (Worldwide, the company has nearly 80,000 employees at 565 sites covering 24 million square feet.)

But it is, actually, what you cannot see at the Redmond campus and all of the other Microsoft offices that's even more remarkable than the totality of its physical operations: the wireless local area networks (WLANs) that blanket nearly every square foot. To all employees the Wi-Fi network in Redmond looks and acts no differently than the Wi-Fi network set up in any other Microsoft office. "It's the same standards, the same connectivity, which makes it seamless for somebody traveling to Redmond, or to our offices in Tokyo, London or New York," says Jim DuBois, general manager of information security and infrastructure services. "They walk into the building, and it automatically connects like the way it does here."

All Microsoft employees also see the same security measures, even though most of it is running in the background. "Today, our end users don't even realise that's happening in the background when we provision new machines that are connected to the network," he says.

Security is even more complicated because, as DuBois points out, when you add in the number of assorted vendors and contractors using the wireless network, the number of provisioned accounts on Microsoft's Active Directory reaches 145,000. To connect all those users, Microsoft uses a total of 11,000 access points in all of its buildings.

As to its claim to fame of being the world's largest Wi-Fi network, DuBois says, "We haven't found anyone that has a bigger private wireless network."

A history of wireless access

In December 1999, Microsoft started formally rolling out IEEE 802.11b wireless networks for employee use and as an alternative to wireline-attached laptops on the Redmond campus. "Though we had it in pockets even before that," DuBois says. The campus started out with 2,800 wireless access points.

A historical overview of Microsoft's WLAN program notes that Microsoft initially offered wireless connectivity as a "supplement to the ubiquitous wired connectivity. It was not designed to be an end-user's primary network connectivity device." However, the WLAN service soon "became a highly desired connectivity choice enabling impromptu discussions, software demonstrations, and ability to take your work with you to meetings, all of which had a positive impact on worker productivity."

Today, Microsoft employees report in internal surveys that the wireless network gives them as many as five extra hours each week, "in just time they would spend connecting and reconnecting to the network," DuBois says. And that's up from just one and a half hours of extra productivity in survey data from a few years ago.

"If they have a meeting or they're grabbing people from the hall to go in to a room to collaborate," DuBois says, "they can stay connected [to the network] as they undock from their docking station and then just seamlessly connect to the wireless network."

Aberdeen Group's Philippe Winthrop and Stephen Walker note in an August 2007 research brief that with the rise of competitive pressures in today's marketplace, many organisations are turning to a wireless LAN network to improve workforce flexibility and productivity. Research from a June 2007 Aberdeen report, called "Measuring the Real Value of Wireless LAN Deployments," found that best-in-class organisations achieved a 21 percent increase in their workforce's productivity from using a WLAN - a rate 71 percent higher than all other organisations in the survey.

At Microsoft, DuBois reports that 75 percent of the employees use the WLAN regularly. "We see 50,000 concurrent users on some days," he says. When asked if users would revolt if they couldn't have wireless network access, DuBois says, "Absolutely. If it's not working somewhere, we get complaints immediately."

One unintended consequence is that because wireless has become so ubiquitous at Microsoft, "people don't carry around the wired cords, and we don't have [cables] in the conference rooms anymore," DuBois says. So when a wireless access point (AP) goes down and there's not another one in the area that can provide coverage, DuBois's help desk will hear about it from employees instantly - which is usually before IT staffers get a chance to respond to the WLAN monitoring alert.

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