Wireless Networking

With New WLAN, Mobile Devices Are Not Left to Their Own Devices

Faced with a surge in mobile devices, Utah State University and Morrisville State College have deployed cutting-edge wireless networks that act like air traffic-control systems, managing flow and optimizing performance.

These days on campus, for every laptop in use by a student, there are one or two additional wireless devices that require access to a network. And the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend is just getting started. For universities that see cutting-edge technology as key to attracting top students, the ability to deliver uninterrupted wireless service across campus is becoming an absolute must. It was certainly a motivating factor for Utah State University and Morrisville State College, a unit of the State University of New York (SUNY), which both recently deployed WLAN solutions that are intended to be easily scalable, secure—and fast. 

Eric Hawley, chief information officer at Utah State, was looking for a way to simplify the management of the school's large LAN infrastructure, as well as a solution to "the deluge of devices entering our campuses." With more than 17,000 students on the main campus, nearly 29,000 students across the state, and 2,500 faculty and staff, Utah State faced a big challenge. As it was, many departments had implemented ad hoc wireless networks and were deploying them locally. These "disjointed" WLAN installations were impossible to manage effectively, and they created a security risk to the university's network. Hawley's goal was to establish a seamless wireless experience for students, staff, and visitors on the university's six campuses.

"I'd guess we have two devices per student," said Hawley. This includes a large number of inexpensive laptops, as well as smartphones. "I see few tablets," he added, "due to the expense, and perceptions of slow note-taking."

Compared with Utah State, Morrisville is small, with only about 3,400 students and 500 employees. "We're seeing a ton of iOS devices, as well as BlackBerries and Android smartphones," said Matt Barber, network and systems manager. Barber estimated that there are about 1.5 devices per student, adding that the number "appears to be growing quickly."

Despite the size difference, both schools had similar goals. Utah State, for example, was looking to resolve a number of challenges across its six campuses, including the diversity of Wi-Fi devices, inconsistent wireless coverage, lack of a central administration, lack of a security policy, and dropped or slow-performing Wi-Fi connections.

In performing their WLAN research, Barber and Hawley's teams each approached five or six vendors, basing their final decisions on a variety of criteria, including price, ease of management, scalability, flexibility, and cost. "We spent a lot of time making the right decision and researching vendors," said Barber of the Morrisville process, "but the end decision was not difficult, considering our needs."

Both institutions ended up selecting Meru Networks to establish a campuswide WLAN. "Other vendors were in the same price range," said Barber, "but not with the same technical features and not yet with 11n" [801.11n—the new wireless standard].

"Meru was the only solution that took a new, innovative approach to wireless. They had the differentiating technology, putting the network, rather than the client, in control of connectivity," said Hawley in reference to Meru's Air Traffic Control system, which actively manages how a mobile device connects to the network, rather than leaving it up to the individual devices to connect as they see fit. The result is optimized transfer speeds for different package types—data, voice, or video—and less network congestion.

At Utah State, Hawley implemented a multiphase WLAN installation plan. "We now have over 1,000 access points in place, covering all academic, research, and student spaces on our 500-acre campus," said Hawley, "plus wireless coverage at all regional campuses spread across the state of Utah."

Utah State is using Meru's Virtual Cell technology, which creates single-channel coverage across campus, regardless of the number of access points. This reduces dropped coverage and hand-off problems that can be common among multichannel networks. It also resolves the issue of interference that can occur when single access points are not spaced correctly. "Even with insane growth, when we need more capacity we just add an access point on the network and we're done," said Hawley. "It's that easy."

It took about a year and an investment of well over a million dollars for Utah State to transition to WLAN. "We did not do this to produce savings," said Hawley. "Rather, we did it to increase service."

Morrisville was able to deploy its new network across the entire campus during one summer. "By not needing to wire many network ports, we saved thousands of dollars," said Barber, although he was not specific about the cost of the project.

In both cases, the results have been good. "Our project was a huge success," said Barber. "Our wireless network covers around 1.9 million square feet of space, and handles around 200 Mbps of traffic at peak. Most students use only the wireless and have never plugged into the wired network. The students and faculty are able to do things in the classroom and on campus that were not possible before the new network was put in."

"We measure success by use, and compare that to complaints or trouble tickets," said Hawley. "We're satisfied with the results, but growth patterns indicate that we must continue to grow the infrastructure capacity." Hawley noted that, in October 2010, the university was seeing 3,600 simultaneous users and 160 Mbps of peak traffic, whereas now traffic peak is at 550 Mbps, with more than 7,500 simultaneous users.

Next steps for Utah State? Hawley lists them as "security zones, segmenting wireless traffic based on sensitivity of data/service, continual expansion of capacity from a density perspective, and easier guest user access."

For his part, Barber is looking at new ways to use the network and move more off the wired network. "Our building designs are more flexible and require less networking hardware," he said. "Now that wireless is everywhere, we can take advantage of that in our approach to growing the campus."

About the Author

Toni Fuhrman is a writer and creative consultant based in Los Angeles.

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