How the iconic Alexandra Palace modernised its Wi-Fi networks

The 150-year-old venue battled against the nature of the building as well as historically lax IT protocols

Alexandra Palace was never built with Wi-Fi in mind. This may seem like an obvious point to make, given the Grade II listed venue first opened its doors in 1873. The building’s nature, however, proved a challenge with which the venue’s IT department wrestled at every turn as it made efforts to modernise its networking infrastructure

For years, the stunning Victorian-era North London entertainment destination has struggled to adequately cater to Wi-Fi-hungry audiences flocking to gigs and exhibits. Although Alexandra Palace, or Ally Pally as it’s affectionately known, has offered free Wi-Fi services for years, its IT manager Nick Johnson tells IT Pro this technology was old and in desperate need of reinvigoration. With coverage patchy, the venue also struggled to keep up with the increasingly digital nature of events, while in some instances falling short of security and compliance standards.

“The biggest issue, for me, was the visibility of the network,” Johnson tells IT Pro. “We almost had none.” It was unlike modern systems in that, for example, it wasn’t overseen by network controllers, meaning there was no way of seeing who, or what, was connected to the network. Given its capacity of roughly 15,000 people, including a standing capacity of 10,250 in its Great Hall, this posed a significant risk. “We needed to know who was plugging into our network both from a security point of view and … [to] try to be proactive on avoiding network issues.”

Starting from the ground-up

Much of the networking hardware installed across Alexandra Palace was reaching end-of-life, and unable to cope with a recent surge in mobile devices and greater demand for Wi-Fi services. The picture Johnson paints is one of a venue unable to keep up with the new demand for digital, which was unacceptable to those in charge, who pride themselves on the venue’s history of being at the forefront of technology. 

A former networking engineer, Johnson was hired in 2019 to lead an on-site IT department, which the venue lacked prior to his appointment. His main role was to bring everything back in-house and solve the major IT issues Ally Pally was facing on a daily basis. The challenges were steeper than he’d expected, however, as he realised the facility had never properly tracked its networking infrastructure in a formalised way. Moves and changes over the years, which could be as minor as swapping out a switch, weren’t recorded, meaning what he had at hand was the networking map for a completely different system to that he could see with his own eyes. As a result, he spent his early days preparing fresh documentation from scratch while auditing the breadth of the system to pinpoint where the main issues lay. This process, he says, was akin to starting from the ground-up.

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The result was at least a month of extra work mapping out 40 to 50 networking cabinets and the physical cabling tying everything together. Alarmingly, during that process, he encountered one or two areas that fell short of “good practice”, including cables that were on their way out, or building management systems (BMS) crossed over to networks they had no business being attached to. More urgently, some portions of the Wi-Fi network didn’t meet PCI compliance standards, which posed a problem for accepting card payments. 

“The only thing I wish we had was more documentation,” he says. “I think the process could’ve been a lot quicker if we had managed that, and I think a lot of small SMBs often overlook the importance of things like documentation. But in the long run, it would’ve saved us time and money and potentially gave us some awareness of some of the issues we would’ve faced.”

“A couple of our walls are four, five feet thick”

Revamping Alexandra Palace’s networks was a key priority following Johnson’s appointment, and the venue also recruited Performance Networks to assist in this project. Although a few organisations were in the running, Johnson opted for the expertise of the Nottingham-based company, explaining the team “completely understood” when he spoke with them. It also helped that they came highly recommended by an IT manager at another venue. 

They fired the starting gun on the implementation just before the pandemic, and completed the works last September. Although working through COVID-19 initially seemed daunting, it actually proved to be a blessing in disguise. “We’re hardly ever empty,” Johnson explains. “We’ve got events on all-year-round. A lot of them have run into late at night, so just from an IT point of view it’s really difficult to manage any kind of infrastructure project that doesn’t directly affect an event or core function.”

The implementation was far from smooth-sailing, however with perhaps the most obvious potential hitch being Alexandra Palace’s 215ft telecommunications mast used by mobile carriers and other firms. This mast has long-rendered the venue a dead zone for mobile phone signal, raising concerns it would hamper Wi-Fi coverage. The more Johnson’s team looked into it, however, the less of an impact they realised it would have, which was “a real relief”. Also tricky to navigate was the building’s nature, with many portions being Grade II listed. “One of the major issues with Wi-Fi is that [Alexandra Palace] is 150 years old, so the density of the walls and the materials used in construction were completely different from almost any build nowadays,” Johnson explains. “A couple of our walls are four or five feet thick, so you can imagine that Wi-Fi doesn’t travel through [them]. So we needed to take that into account.” 

With that in mind, changing the aesthetics of Alexandra Palace was the last thing they wanted to do, which meant finding ways to turn the networking hardware “almost invisible”. They couldn’t just attach things to walls and ceilings as they wished, so instead aimed to utilise the building to their advantage to overcome this. For example, instead of attaching components to walls, they used rigging in the main hall. They also had to be creative with the hardware in use, such as using a varied combination of internal and external directional antennae around the building, depending on the requirements of the particular space. This is alongside ordering bespoke brackets to mount components in such a way that it wouldn’t affect the structure but still allowed full coverage. 

Fit for the future

To compound these difficulties, the nature of the building meant they had to approach each room in a completely different way, treating these areas almost like separate sites. “It’s such a dynamic venue,” Johnson says. “We host all sorts of events and meetings and conferences in just about every space of the venue. They all cater for different people, for different needs.” In that sense, he adds, there was a really granular look at every room, with room-by-room installations designed around the physical restrictions for each location, as well as what these microvenues could be used for.

While this approach was arduous, the result of having gone through it means the venue has opened itself up to an array of new opportunities. With reliable Wi-Fi signal across all nooks and crannies of the Victorian-era building, coupled with stronger performance and higher bandwidth, Johnson speculates that Alexandra Palace could even tap into the growing realm of hybrid events. While the venue hasn’t normally focussed on virtual conferences, it can now cater for more tech-focussed exhibitions, which wouldn’t have been previously possible. Looking ahead, he adds Alexandra Palace will hope to improve its cyber security posture, as well as exploring cloud technologies to a much higher degree.

As for the networking overhaul, the proof will be in the pudding, and Johnson is itching to test out the new system with at-capacity crowds as soon as COVID-19 restrictions lift. Alexandra Palace hosted smaller events towards the end of 2020, but the capacity for these numbered 600 maximum. While the new system worked seamlessly, it barely had to break a sweat, and these trials told them relatively little about how it might cope with thousands upon thousands of users logging in at once. The plan, from the live first event, will see Johnson’s team and Performance Networks colleagues come together once again to monitor performance, while making any necessary tweaks there and then, as required. “We’ve tested it as much as we could,” he adds, “but I think the only way to test it is to wait and see.”

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