Super Bowl 50 Wi-Fi Provider Aruba Networks: Don't Expect Another Network Issue

Preparing For The Big Game

Aruba Networks is bringing a "SWAT team" of its most experienced engineers to Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., this coming Sunday to make sure the network is prepared to handle 70,000 spectators.

Aruba and its technology team are going to be under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Microsoft Surface sidelines snafu last month that kept the New England Patriots from reviewing plays during the AFC Championship game at Denver's Mile High Stadium. In that case, it is still unclear what was responsible for the glitch.

"The one thing I don't ever have to worry about is our equipment," said Chuck Lukaszewski, senior director of Outdoor Solution Engineering for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Aruba, a subsidiary of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which provides the network at Levi's Stadium.

"We've been getting ready for this for two years," he said.

CRN went behind the scenes with Lukaszewski to get an in-depth look at how Aruba is preparing the network for the biggest sporting event in America, solution providers' involvement and why you won't see another epic network failure in California on Sunday.

What are you doing to make sure another network issue doesn't occur similar to what happened in Denver?

I'm not going to speculate on what may or may not have happened in Denver -- I have no idea how that systems is designed.

[For us,] it really comes down to … getting a good design that follows our best practices. Our design process is very thorough, based on a lot of R&D and real world operational history. We take into consideration a lot of different factors, such as what does the interference scenario look like at the facility? When we follow that process, our Aruba equipment is really designed for high performance, so it's able to handle extremely high loads. The one thing I don't ever have to worry about is our equipment.

What role does the NFL play in regard to Levi's Stadium's wireless or the on-field separate network?

The NFL has a very limited, if any, role at all. It's the [San Francisco] 49ers' facility. We work with their IT team. They typically have an engineer or multiple engineers present from different key vendors ranging from the video system to the wired network.

Will any Aruba channel partner have a hand in the Super Bowl?

The vast majority of our stadium and arena deployments are done through partners. We typically provide some supplemental engineering support, but in almost every case, it's going to be through a channel partner of some kind.

The 49ers were a unique situation because of the proximity to our headquarters and because of some of the R&D type of things we wanted to do in that facility. That's the reason we took a more direct role in this particular one, but that's not at all how we normally do these opportunities.

Describe what the stadium's wireless network will look like during the Super Bowl?

It's a high-density, high-performance Wi-Fi system.

There are access points [APs] located underneath the seats. There's an access point for approximately every 100 seats in the bowl area – [there are] about 68,000 seats. So there's about 680 APs in just the bowl area, and there's a total of about 1,300 APs in the whole system now. There's also a Bluetooth system there.

[Levi's Stadium] has one of the most complex video replay systems as well, so we carry all that video traffic on the Wi-Fi system. The video rights are the NFL's property and tightly controlled. So you can only see those replays if you're physically in that stadium. The way that that's verified is through our Bluetooth system. So each and every time someone clicks to see a replay, there's a check that's made against our location system to see where you are physically located. There's a lot of interesting "way-finding" location services technologies at [Levi's Stadium].

What preparations did you do before the Super Bowl to prevent network interference?

There's a tuning process that's required. There's some tuning when the facility is open, but you really need a full crowd there in order to have all the different things happening on the radio. … In the course of that process, we'll typically also expose areas where the coverage is not what we expected. You install the APs in the spots that need a little extra coverage.

We've done a lot of "what if" testing -- you know, tuning the system this way or that to try to extract the maximum capacity out of it.

The reason why we put the APs underneath the seat is we're actually using the crowd itself to limit the spread of the radio signals, and that allows us to get a lot more capacity on the network.

What are some specific Aruba equipment used by the stadium?

They're using our top of the line [802]11ac Wave 1 access points, so that's our AP-225 [product]. The beacons are Aruba beacons. There's a mix of over 1,200 Bluetooth Aruba beacons that have been deployed around the facility.

What will you have to provide for the Super Bowl from a network perspective? How do you know it's ready for the Super Bowl?

The network has to be running at somewhere north of 2 gigabits per second for a significant percent of the Super Bowl. So the average load over the whole event is somewhere north of 2 gigabits per second.

We demonstrated that the system has run well over 1 gigabit per second for pretty much every single event, but until last summer we had not hit the 2-gig mark on a sustained basis. It wasn't until the football season ended and we started with the concerts that we really hit Super Bowl numbers. [The band] One Direction played last summer and Taylor Swift did two nights back to back. In those events, we were solidly in Super Bowl territory for Super Bowl durations -- that really told us the network was ready.

So how does the partnership work between Aruba and the 49ers, regarding the wireless network during games at Levi's?

So we provide staff -- technicians -- for most events that supports the IT staff in the event anything should come up during the game. When I say "come up," that could be as simple as adding a user into the system. Obviously, if something were to happen, we would want to be prepared. That's regular season. But it's completely the 49ers' IT team that is on top of the game here.

We have a very close working relationship with the 49ers.

What makes the Super Bowl so different?

For the Super Bowl, everybody's making sure to have additional resources on site, and that's really the NFL's event. So the NFL is the tenant for the event, if you want to think it that way. They're depending on all the systems in the venue, so the team and all the vendors want to make sure we have sufficient coverage to very rapidly react to anything that [does] happen.

There's a lot more scrutiny during the Super Bowl, so people want to get updates on how things are working. It's going to be a lot faster pace than a normal event.

How many extra Aruba staff are you sending because it's the Super Bowl?

We've got kind of a SWAT team of our most experienced engineers at Aruba on site, and those are the kind of people we want to have at an event of this stature.

We're not disclosing engineering numbers publicly, but we're going to have a pretty good size presence there and we won't be alone. You'd find that to be the case for every major technology vendor in the stadium.

The number of credentials that are handed out are in very high demand and in very limited supply.

How often is a solution provider typically used in stadium environments?

The vast, vast majority of the projects that we take on for customers are delivered through the channel. That is equally true in the stadium space.

We work hard to train some channel partners in each region we do business to have some of the unique skills required for stadiums. That's the normal way it's done.

What did the 49ers expect from Aruba when the partnership was formed?

When we started working with the 49ers, they had very high expectations, much higher expectations than most clubs that we work with. There's a really strong technology-use base that comes to the game. Some of the 49ers leadership at the time had actually come from cloud-services companies. So [there is a] very tech-friendly, very experienced management team from a technology perspective.

They designed the stadium network to handle a much, much higher load than what we were typically seeing from other stadiums.

How many people are you expecting to be connected and how what numbers are you looking at to prepare?

The two critical design numbers that go into a stadium are what we call … the "take rate," which is the number of devices that are expected to get on the network at some point during the event, and then what we call the "concurrent user rate" -- people trying to use the system at the exactly same moment. The take rate are users that could get on [at] literally any time, but then get right back off. That's important because we have to have IP addresses for all those users and adequate bandwidth.

Four or five years ago, most stadiums were targeting 25 percent [of user] take rate, the unique user count. Typically the concurrent user count is about half of that, so that would be a little over 10 percent of active users … because you assume about half of those would be on at the same time. The 49ers were very aggressive -- they said they want a 100 percent take rate. They wanted to be the most connected venue ever. The design goal for this system was 100 percent take rate, with 50 percent concurrent usage. That would be almost 70,000 fans connected or logged in and as many of 35,000 on at the same time. We're completely ready for this.

How are you feeling about the Super Bowl? Are you nervous or excited?

I'm excited. We are completely ready for this. We've been getting ready for this for two years. We could not be more prepared. We feel we're going to have a great experience and we're looking forward to setting a new record. … Traffic has been up generally … in all stadiums. There's more and more use, cloud services are going up. If you look at the trend of the amount of data per fan, per event, it's been [increasing] for a couple years now.