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Norfolk Southern is one of the largest freight railroad companies in the U.S.  It employs more than 20,000 people and operates nearly 20,000 route miles across 22 states and the District of Colombia. It also supports international trade at every major container port in the eastern United States. Chances are, many of the products you use were transported by Norfolk Southern. But this story isn’t about the railroad or even the trains, it’s about the people who work for Norfolk Southern, and the experiences they’ll have when they move into their new 750,000 square foot smart campus in Midtown Atlanta.

It takes a vision and plan

Leading the smart-campus strategy for Norfolk Southern are Jason Pettway and Banita Hyman, AVP IT Operations and Director of IT Enterprise Services, respectively. I had the opportunity to chat with both of them and they had a lot to say about their new smart campus and the role their Cisco network infrastructure will play.

Jason was excited to announce that the campus will be completed in Fall 2021. “This is going to be a highly connected, state-of-the-art campus,” he says. “We’re putting IoT devices all over the place including smart lighting, HVAC controls, tons of sensors, and more.”

He went on to say, “We’re reducing our contact surfaces. We have a mobile app that allows users to interact with the building from the parking lot to the elevators to their offices and beyond. When people come back in the building, they won’t have to touch as many things as they used to.” Much of this technology was designed into the campus pre-COVID but now serves an even more important role in keeping employees safe.

Segmenting IoT in support of a zero-trust model

When we got into the topic of Cisco network infrastructure, Jason says, “DNA Center is going to help us in a number of ways.” He explains that “Number one, is security. For simplicity and ease of administration, we decided to build one network for both our IoT devices and our core enterprise. Following Cisco’s zero trust security model, we keep our OT network segment at a lower trust level, without having to build out an entirely separate network infrastructure for it.”

Banita adds, “Unless we specifically need something to communicate from the OT to the enterprise network, by default, it’s not allowed. Along with Cisco ISE, DNA Center allows us to create a Software-Defined Access fabric that gives us intelligent policy control to segment users and devices across the network based on identity, compliance, and access needs.”

She also explains that Cisco DNA Center allows them to automatically segment devices as they’re onboarded. Using the device identification and classification functionality in DNA Center saves the team a lot of time onboarding new devices, especially IoT, and eliminates manual errors.

Powering access to users and devices

During our conversation we also dove into some of the areas where Cisco infrastructure is helping drive the smart campus.  Banita says that the new campus will be outfitted with Cisco Catalyst 90W Power over Ethernet (PoE) switches to both power and connect Norfolk Southern’s IoT infrastructure. “Energy savings through better control and insights into when and how power is being consumed,” she says, “is one of our top reasons for selecting the Cisco PoE switches.”

With the addition of PoE Analytics in Cisco DNA Center, Norfolk Southern will have the ability to view the current operational state of their PoE capable devices in the network. This includes visibility into the allocated power to devices, power load, power budget, used power, remaining power and more.

“When one thinks about new networking technologies and new building environments, it’s unlike anything we’ve done in the past, it has to be a Cisco network environment,” says Jason.  “We’re bridging the campus from the traditional office and conference rooms and offering so many new and innovative features.”

Wi-Fi is all about the user experience

On the wireless side, the new campus will make use of Cisco Catalyst 9130 Access Points and 9800 Wireless Controllers to connect people and things to the network. “We decided to move away from our current wireless AP vendor to Cisco,” says Jason. “Part of that reason is based on our standardization with Apple products. The seamless nature in which Cisco works with Apple devices was a key decision for us to make that change.”

Jason and Banita explained that employees returning to the office, post-COVID, will expect to make video conference calls like they do at home. In most cases, users will depend on Wi-Fi for network connectivity and application needs, including voice and video. Additionally, with the creation of working spaces outside of the traditional desk, employees will have the freedom to work from anywhere they’d like.

The Cisco Catalyst 9130 access points exceed the Wi-Fi 6 wireless standard, provide high-density capabilities, and offer enhanced WPA 3 security. This gives Norfolk Southern the intelligence, security, and superior performance they’ll require to support both their innovative IoT environment as well employee and guest devices.

Additionally, the Cisco Catalyst 9130 Access Points include all the co-development capabilities from Cisco and Apple including Fastlane+. Fastlane+ builds on the current Fastlane QoS capability by adding advanced scheduling intelligence to optimize the application experience. This is important in high channel utilization locations such as Norfolk Southern’s new campus. Fastlane+ allows the network to better understand application requirements, including voice and video, and dynamically schedule network resources to meet them. The end result is a better user experience.

Integrated BLE helps navigate users

Norfolk Southern will make use of the integrated Bluetooth Low Energy Radio (BLE) in the Catalyst Access Points along with third-party beacons to see general building occupancy and to provide way finding options through its mobile application. This will also help with social distancing and a host of other applications that help drive intelligence for the smart campus.

Banita says, “This is a large campus and people will be moving around, looking for conference rooms to meet with other people. With the mobile app we’ve built, they’ll have turn by turn directions.”

The mobile app will also give employees the ability to share their location with colleagues. It’s tied into the directory so it’s super easy.

Automation helps keep the network on the rails

Norfolk Southern takes advantage of the ability to automate many of its functions, especially when rolling out or updating gear.  “If you’re not automating, you’re not going to be able to keep up,” says Jason. “Automation is the only way you’re going to survive. You can’t hire enough people, you can’t bring in enough traditional tools, it has to be through automation.”

To that extent, Norfolk Southern automates a lot of its deployment work, letting DNA Center take on the heavy lifting. This includes the above mentioned IoT classification and onboarding as well as the deployment and configuration of access points, controllers, switches, routers and more.

Delivering excellence is an obligation 

We talked a lot about the campus and the network infrastructure that’s going to power it. But it goes deeper than that for both Jason and Banita. The new smart campus is a huge statement and alignment with their overall goals for digital transformation.

Banita says, “At a personal level, this is extremely important to me, to be able to show the investment into technology and our workforce, it’s going to create an awesome experience for everyone.” She adds, “When employees walk into the building, they’ll experience seamless technology throughout our spaces.”

Jason concludes, “This is a big deal for our workforce productivity and will provide a level of flexibility our employees haven’t experienced before.”

I appreciate Norfolk Southern’s willingness to let me share their story, I think it’s one that others can learn from and emulate. Jason and Banita are inspiring and their passion for building this awesome new campus goes well beyond technology.

Stay tuned as we continue to follow Norfolk Southern through their journey.

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