Campus Focus

Savvy WiFi Savings

How one university saved thousands of dollars by beefing up low-end access points with more powerful open source firmware.

The following article, "Open Source Brings Down Cost of Wireless Rollout", appeared on our website on Aug. 13, 2008.

Savvy WiFi Savings

ALFRED U’s innovative WiFi solution has saved between $38k-$88k in APs alone.

AS ANY IT ADMINISTRATOR KNOWS, wireless deployments can be costly. On the other hand, with students demanding on-the-go access, pervasive WiFi networks are a must on campus.

One creative way to keep the cost down is to buy relatively inexpensive, low-end access points (APs), then upgrade the firmware to more powerful open source firmware, before installation. Alfred University, a 2,300-student school in upstate New York, has saved tens of thousands of dollars by doing just this; it has rolled out several hundred "upgraded" enterprise-grade 802.11g APs so far, and plans to continue with more.

By taking consumer-grade APs and beefing them up with free, enterprise-level open source firmware, Alfred U has been able to create inexpensive 802.11g APs with many of the features and capabilities of a much costlier product. The school's bottom line: the need to avoid spending perhaps a quarter of a million dollars on a major wireless upgrade, only to end up with a system that could be obsolete in five years as wireless standards continue to evolve.

Enterprise-Grade Wireless on the Cheap

Before the open source project, the Alfred campus was wireless in its most heavily used public areas. Dorms, however, were hardwired with a "port-per-pillow" scheme. When students informed the administration via a survey that they wanted wireless in the dorms, IT Services Director Gary Roberts says he challenged his team to come up with a wireless solution that would be both powerful and affordable. They came up with an unusual solution, and after successful testing last year in several locations, Roberts and his staff launched the project by rolling out nearly 200 access points in a few months.

"I basically wanted to find the most cost-effective solution," Roberts says. Using the less-expensive consumer- grade APs saved hundreds of dollars per unit. The university purchased about 200 APs for this project, at about $60 per unit, and has rolled out most of them, saving the remainder for any coverage gaps they may discover over time. Since a more traditional wireless solution can cost $250 to $500 or more per AP, Roberts figures he saved somewhere between $38,000 and $88,000 in access points alone.

Alfred's original wireless network consisted of Linksys consumer-grade 802.11b APs, implemented years ago. The school planned to upgrade and expand the entire wireless network to 802.11g when Roberts and his team hit on the open source solution.

The open source firmware for the new wireless system is called DD-WRT, free Linux-based firmware designed to work with a number of vendors' access points. The university chose consumer-grade APs from Buffalo Technology, per recommendations on the DD-WRT website.

The wireless network, which Roberts points out isn't intended for voice over IP (VoIP) or heavy streaming video use, runs at about 2 Mbps under worst-case situations. When the university is ready for VoIP or other big-bandwidth uses, he says, he'll explore additional options. Meanwhile, Roberts expects the solution "will hold us for a couple of years."

Implementation of the new system involves "flashing" each AP's firmware, or loading a new operating system onto each device. Without careful handling, Roberts concedes, the process can destroy an AP. But he reports that in the process of flashing 160-some devices, he and his staff lost just a handful—acceptable odds, he says, given the low price of each AP.

In all, Roberts spent $12,000 for access points, and an additional $15,000 on power drops to bring power to the APs. His final price tag: $27,000. "We actually came in under budget," he boasts.

Other Benefits

Another advantage of open source: Changing to the DDWRT firmware allowed Roberts' staff to write an SSH script that controls all the access points from a central server, allowing IT to remotely turn off all the APs once a week, in the wee hours of the morning, to "flush" the systems. (Although expensive enterprise-grade access points often offer that kind of central control, unaltered consumer-grade APs don't.)

Running DD-WRT also allows the IT staff to boost the power of each AP if necessary, something that helps an AP which needs more range because of its location. (Again, that's not a common feature on a consumer-grade AP.) The university also has been able to write a script to automatically generate an alert when an access point goes down. That's possible because with the DD-WRT firmware, each AP is assigned a static AP address.

Finally, the combination of Buffalo access points and DD-WRT provides automatic channel selection. That means that if APs overlap, Roberts' staff can set them to avoid conflicts, using channel 1, 6, or 11 to avoid frequency collisions, because each AP can detect the others.

:: RelatedLinks ::
Wayne State University (MI) Upgrades to Next-Generation Wireless Networking
Saint Joseph's (PA) Builds out Wireless Network in Multi-Year Upgrade

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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