Hack Tales: Keeping track of tools the wireless way

This Wi-Fi hack meant tools need never go missing again

“Who has that damn cart now?” During a network build-out for a large New York commercial real estate manager a few years back, that phrase got shouted often enough to become a stress mantra.

This company had several midsize businesses already signed up for space and was offering central network services as an optional part of the lease package. So, while the walls were still open, my team was hired to supervise the riser wiring and wire the floor closet ourselves, as well as set up a small datacenter in the basement.

Being a real estate manager, however, our client was financially tight. In fact, “fiscal tourniquet” might be a better term. As a result, we had only three wiring and diagnostic carts for a 24-story building. Couple that with an on-site staff that was less than communicative, especially about things such as where they’d left equipment before trucking out for beer and chips (or eggs and bacon), and we were in for some major aggravation.

Fortunately, one of the prospective tenants had made a deal for managed WLAN services and I’d recommended Trapeze Networks’ Mobility System, in part because of RingMaster, its impressive centralized management package. As it turned out, we would use a number of RingMaster’s features during our build-out.

Importing a CAD blueprint of the building into RingMaster had given us floor-by-floor maps of the entire site. We also had a decent surplus of access points -- enough to cover most of the floors still under construction, even though our tenant WLAN wasn’t going to extend much beyond the fourth floor. So after spending yet another hour looking for the wiring cart one morning, I had an idea.

One of RingMaster’s more interesting features was its capability to track specific clients as long as they were registered with the Mobility System and show their locations on the CAD map we’d imported. The feature was designed for keeping track of stationary access points, but you could associate a PC Card. Its update times and triangulation weren’t good enough to track moving people, but if all you wanted was to find the location of something such as, say, a lost tool cart, it was fine.

Each cart had a number of tools associated with it, including spools of patch cables, crimping tools, mounting tools, and a cheap notebook for diagnostics. So we fitted each notebook with a Wi-Fi PC Card, leaving the wired port open for testing. After the PC Cards were registered with the Mobility System, presto! We had instant location capability for our equipment.

Cart numbers and WLAN accounts were synced, so we could simply radio down to our datacenter technician to check with RingMaster and locate our equipment. The cost was negligible because the location features came as part of RingMaster and the necessary PC Cards were a couple of hundred bucks, all told.

If we had to start from scratch today, there are numerous asset management packages that are designed to perform the same set of tasks. But even had those packages been widely available at the time, purchasing one just to locate our errant toolboxes would have been out of the question.

As it happened, our hack worked well enough that the construction guys wanted to use it for some of their larger power tools. And when the project was complete, the client wound up using the same setup to track building maintenance equipment, as well as to locate building maintenance staff via their PDAs. I believe they’re still using it today.