Three Teams, One Dream: RAI Amsterdam’s Move to Wi-Fi 6 with Cisco


Business at exhibition and conference centers around the world is limited due to the global pandemic, as large gatherings have been discouraged, if not banned, by law. This is also the case in the Netherlands. That does not mean that business activities have come to a complete halt. For a while now, a large part of RAI Amsterdam is used by the Municipal Health Services. The RAI is the main test and vaccination location of Amsterdam and will soon also be used to facilitate the parliamentary elections. At the same time, the RAI is preparing its infrastructure to accommodate more than 40,000 simultaneous users when it’s finally safe to reopen.

Our goal at RAI Amsterdam is to bring people together—to connect and inspire people by organising and facilitating meaningful encounters. That is what we do best at the RAI, And it is what we have been doing for the past 125 years. To maintain our strong position we aim to become the best smart building and event venue in Europe. 

Each year we welcome up to 1,5 million visitors to 500 events, conferences, and trade shows. Even without events, we typically have about 800 devices connected to our network at any given time, which includes security cameras, card readers, and IoT devices. I am responsible for the entire IT network, including both events and office activities within the RAI. To provide the best services possible for users and guests, we have to prepare for current and future needs. That means we have to set ourselves up with the best, and most innovative, technology. 

Convention Center Wi-Fi Connectivity

Wi-Fi connectivity is a constant challenge in event venues. Events demand huge network capacity, and we have to ensure the network can accommodate the number of guests and devices that connect to the network. In our case, users could connect, but the network could sometimes be slow, and at larger events the capacity sometimes overwhelmed the Wi-Fi network entirely.  

Every event has its own unique IT needs and setup requirements, but Wi-Fi is always a must. @Cisco @RAI_Amsterdam

We came up with a solution for our biggest events by deploying more access points to increase network capacity. We built this as we went along. But figuring out where we could place, mount, and connect temporary access points was tricky, especially due to different setups for different events. Every event has its own unique IT needs and setup requirements; no two are alike. Sometimes we would temporarily rig and deploy 40 access points in four hours, for example. This is not sustainable. So we started to think about a better permanent solution.

As our hardware began to reach the end-of-life and end-of-support stage, we knew it was a good time to upgrade our hardware and create a more stable Wi-Fi network: A network with a higher capacity and availability to accommodate the large number of guests and devices in our facility at any given time, and with better coverage so we can adapt to any type of event throughout our space. In the past, we always had to compromise between the software we wanted to run and the hardware we had. Since we needed new equipment, we wanted to build for the future. For that, we needed Wi-Fi 6.

Bucking Convention for Wireless Connectivity

At the RAI, we have a long history and deep relationship with Cisco. At Cisco Live 2020 in Barcelona, it was announced that the RAI would host Cisco Live in 2021. Cisco always wants to present its newest and most innovative technologies at Cisco Live, and we all wanted to showcase Wi-Fi 6 one of those innovations—as well as ensure we could handle the anticipated load on the network.  

Using one vendor for devices, equipment, and software can lead to a higher security level and increased interoperability. @Cisco @RAI_Amsterdam

When it comes to Wi-Fi 6, many service providers offer essentially the same thing: they all have Wi-Fi 6 equipment, five or six access point models, can deploy dual antennas, and provide cohesion between the system and the network. In terms of technology and price, everyone is on the same plane.

But the key reason we chose to stay with Cisco for Wi-Fi 6 is the interoperability between Cisco solutions, such as the security portfolio with the network equipment, all with a single management tool. Not only does that make it easier to use the solution, but you can also leverage a higher level of security when devices, equipment, and servers come from the same vendor. This was important, as part of our upgrade included new equipment from the Cisco Catalyst series, including access points and a wireless controller.

This permanent solution of Wi-Fi 6 and new equipment also means that we no longer have to deal with moving dozens of access points during short periods between events. That saves a lot of time and headaches for our team.

The RAI was an early adopter of Cisco DNA Spaces and we have used it for about two years. We are using DNA spaces to finetune wayfinding together with Mazemap. We also deployed Cisco DNA Center, a software-defined management solution that enables the network to be managed via a central management console. Over the past couple of months, we've built Cisco DNA Center into the system to centralize network visibility and improve troubleshooting. When our network returns to heavy use, we’ll be able to monitor and troubleshoot much better than we did before.

Collaborating on Design and Implementation

Once we confirmed the RAI would be hosting Cisco Live 2021, we were excited to get everything designed and implemented as soon as possible.

We started collaborating with the European Cisco Live team in early 2020, having many Cisco Webex sessions to discuss requirements, design, and solutions for our new network. From there, Cisco Technical Marketing Engineer Jim Florwick came to Amsterdam and gathered photos and other information from the RAI, which he shared with our IT partner, NTT.

Our partnership with NTT began at the end of 2019, and our first big project was a major switching refresh that took place Q3 2020. During that project, NTT provided a lot of hands-on help and additional knowledge. When we got the opportunity to undergo a wireless refresh and install the latest Cisco technology, we knew we could rely on NTT for strong support.

Once the NTT team got the initial drawings, they planned for the type of equipment, access points, and antennas we’d need for the highest capacity possible. Together with the Wi-Fi specialist team from Cisco, they came up with a plan to get us up and running. We were involved providing feedback and revisions to the team, until we were all happy with the plan. An NTT technician was solely dedicated to our project, and worked alongside two Cisco engineers who are highly trained on Wi-Fi 6. Everyone was unified in the same goal: to get the best Wi-Fi 6 up and running in the RAI.

We’re now using the Catalyst 9120 and 9130 access points, and two new Cisco antennas that were released in 2020. We were one of the first companies who got them, and they’re installed with the newest brackets. In fact, we’re using all the newest possible Cisco hardware in our facility. On the backbone switching side, we have chosen the Catalyst 9500 and 9600 for its seamless integration with the Wi-Fi 6 enabled Catalyst 9100 access points. 

Choosing Innovation for a Changing World

In a way, the pandemic helped accelerate deployment in 2020 as there were limited activities. We could go in, place all equipment where we needed it, change the wiring, and get connected without any interruptions. With our usual schedule of events, the process would have taken much longer.

Throughout the process, NTT, the Cisco team, my colleagues, and myself collaborated effectively to create a solid plan and execute that plan swiftly with excellent results. Even though the planning and implementation part of the process was faster and easier than it would’ve been in any other year, Cisco and NTT have still been invaluable partners throughout this process, lifting the weight off of my shoulders. 

Always Building with the Future in Mind

No matter how many people are in our space and on our network, we want their experience to be excellent. The more people who have that “wow” factor, the better the public perception of our venue. That positive publicity through word of mouth makes a difference, and we want to do everything we can to generate that buzz. 

Regardless of the number of people connecting to a Wi-Fi network, everyone should have a positive experience.

Our new network design is the first step to software-defined networking. We use the newest equipment but have adopted proven technology, and our enhanced Wi-Fi 6 capabilities allow us to easily resume hosting full-size events. We expect smaller events to be the norm at first, but regardless of size, we can still fully deploy all of our new Wi-Fi 6 capabilities. We expect a very busy second half of 2021 and the calendar for coming years is filled with a diverse set of events. I look forward to to test and assess the network performance in real-world situations.

None of this would've been possible without the collective talents of our highly-skilled, highly-trained team members to deploy Cisco’s latest technology. Thanks to them, we will create stellar event experiences for all of our visitors at the RAI.