WiFi on a Budget
- By Bridget McCrea
With six campuses spread across California, Alliant International University was an early adopter of WiFi technology, having set up a system for students and faculty several years back. But as those users' mobile Internet usage increased, so did the school's need for a more robust, reliable system.
"We were dealing with weak signals and slow connections," said George Zlatanov, senior network infrastructure engineer for the San Diego-based institution, which was formed in July 2001 by the combination of the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) and United States International University (USIU). With more than 3,000 students, Alliant is an independent, not-for-profit institution of higher education with a history distinguished by innovation. The school prepares students for professional careers in the applied social sciences.
To better serve those students and their wireless Internet needs, the university turned to one vendor for help but learned that its WiFi services were selling for a cost-prohibitive $100,000. Needing to shave about 90 percent of that cost--and still come out with a viable solution--the school approached Meraki, a San Francisco-based wireless router and wireless network solution vendor.
The university installed 77 of Meraki's indoor WiFi units for a total of $11,473--far less than the original proposal. It took two hours to deploy the self-configuring network, which provided Alliant with a reliable network that can handle the high bandwidth demands of its students and faculty.
"This allows us to provide wireless connectivity on all of our campuses," Zlatanov said. "It's fast and free, and the number of complaints about the system's reliability and speed are down to zero."
According to Zlatanov, the WiFi solution is controlled from a centralized location via wireless switches that are placed onsite. Through a Web-based dashboard, which helps Alliant minimize the time it spends managing the wireless network, the school can easily troubleshoot issues and make changes to the network as needed.
Sanjit Biswas, CEO of Meraki, said Alliant University's WiFi challenges are hardly unique in the higher education setting, where there is a growing need for ubiquitous Internet access on campus. To answer the call, he said Meraki has developed a number of affordable solutions that allow institutions to cover large outdoor and indoor areas.
Meraki's hosted solution, for example, includes back-end management and control of the wireless network. "Using 802.11n technology, these networks are capable of high-bandwidth data transfers such as downloading videos and uploading large documents," said Biswas, who added that the firm also offers a solar option for areas without access to a source of electricity.
In the case of Alliant University, Biswas said the school's biggest challenges were budget and time constraints, accompanied by the fact that its school's satellite and distributed learning campuses rely on a single, centralized IT team that had to manage the entire project across all campuses. "The school was looking for an enterprise-grade solution that would cover all of its campuses and thousands of students without having to spend an arm and a leg," said Biswas.
Today, Alliant University students can access their e-mail and Web sites and download online video to their laptops, all the while remaining blissfully unaware of the work that went into ensuring the reliability of their school's WiFi services. "Thousands of users log onto the network daily; it's a pretty heavy workload," said Biswas. "The biggest proof point for Alliant is the number of support calls it has received from frustrated users: zero."
Going forward, Zlatanov said the school plans to switch its access points to the new 802.11n standard (as opposed to the 802.11b and 802.11g that it's currently using), in order to upgrade its network speed. "The hardware is already standardized to the 802.11n, but the software is not," said Zlatanov. "When everything gets upgraded, our WiFi system will be five times faster than the one we're using now."
In June, the university plans to roll out the faster service in one of its San Diego dormitories in order to test its reliability and speed. "Depending on how that goes, and how much it will cost us to upgrade," said Zlatanov, "we'll go ahead and switch over our entire network to the new standard."