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Gardner-Webb U Deploys 802.11n Across Entire Campus

North Carolina's Gardner-Webb University has gone public with its deployment of a Meru Networks wireless LAN to serve as the school's platform for unified data, voice, and video communications for the next seven to 10 years. Installed in 2008, the wireless network gives 4,000 students, faculty, and staff wireless access from every building and almost every outdoor space on Gardner-Webb's 200-acre campus. A residence hall now under construction will rely completely on the WLAN for all non-emergency communication, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in telecommunication costs for the new building.

The new network uses about 170 Meru AP320 dual-radio access points, which support 802.11n standard but are also backward-compatible with earlier 802.11a/b/g standards. A Meru MC4100 controller provides centralized configuration and management for all APs on the network.

Despite having built a state-of-the-art wired network--with a gigabit Ethernet port in every student's dormitory room--Gardner-Webb had been seeing a steady student migration to wireless connectivity over the last several years.

"We had invested in one of the best fixed networks at any university, yet that network couldn't meet the demands of an increasingly mobile student population," said Joseph Bridges, associate vice president of technology services. Students wanted access to increasing amounts of online educational content without being tied to a physical port, while faculty members sought the freedom to work in the classroom, the office, or at home--anywhere they could carry a laptop.

So the university, which had previously deployed wireless only on a sporadic basis using a mix of different vendors' products, decided it needed an enterprise-level wireless solution. Wayne Johnson, who manages purchasing for capital projects, undertook an extensive vendor evaluation in cooperation with the university CIO and network engineer. They knew from the outset they would go with a WLAN based on 802.11n. Equally important was finding a system they could easily manage and grow.

Gardner-Webb selected Meru Networks on the basis of its virtual cell technology, which allows a single radio channel to be used by all wireless access points; if more capacity is needed, additional channels can be layered on top.

"With Meru you get full value for the APs," Johnson said. "With other vendors you have to mitigate an AP's signal strength because of potential interference from a neighboring AP on another channel. But a Meru AP can always be broadcasting at 100 percent power."

The single-channel approach also makes it easy to expand the system, he added. "We just put new APs where we need more coverage, and the system automatically handles the new load without our having to do any channel planning. If we eventually fill up the channel we're using, we can add one or more channel layers on top of it. This basically guarantees us triple the bandwidth for our future needs--something no other vendor could offer."

Johnson said the ability to use APs at full signal strength without interference concerns led to an unanticipated benefit: outdoor wireless coverage without having to mount access points outdoors.

"We had planned two APs for our Springs Athletic Facility. By positioning them indoors and at opposite ends of the building and using directional antennas outside, we're not only getting full coverage inside the facility but all the way across three athletic fields to our Softball Complex--nearly 1,000 feet away. That's major green-area coverage at a very low cost. I can have a crystal-clear conversation on my Avaya phone that whole distance. Once we get our full grid of antennas up, you'll be able to start a phone conversation at one end of campus and not lose coverage all the way to the other end. Laptop users will be able to do the same thing with SIP phones or softphones."

A residence hall now under construction will be the first to be built without telephone lines or Ethernet ports installed in students' rooms; the only cabling will be for emergency phones. "Using wireless exclusively will cut our telecom costs by 90 percent for that dorm," Johnson said. "Students can rely on their cell phones, and will also have the option of using wireless SIP or H323 phones."

Gardner-Webb uses Bradford Networks' Campus Manager for network access control on the new network. According to Eric Brewton, network engineer, Bradford's policy enforcement verifies wireless client "clean access" policies and also provides emergency messaging to the university's wireless population.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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