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Texas AM Upgrades Network to 802.11n

Texas A&M University is deep into an upgrade of its legacy wireless network with a shift off of 802.11b/g provided by Cisco and onto 802.11n and Aruba Networks hardware. TAMULink, the wireless network that provides campus Internet and network access, is covering roughly 350 buildings spread across 5,200 acres at the College Station institution. With 50,000 students and 2,700 faculty, most with one and three devices, the university anticipates that the upgrade will greatly increase user satisfaction and reduce helpdesk calls.

By mid-2009 the network consisted of 1,700 Cisco access points (APs) and 19 Cisco controllers (along with a few Aruba 802.11n-capable APs and one Aruba controller). A technology service assessment done in March 2011 pointed out a great deal of frustration among users regarding the campus' wireless access. "While the wireless service has gone great lengths in the past few years, the number of people using it has also increased greatly," wrote one survey respondent. "More bandwidth is needed and probably a campus-wide migration to 802.11n needs to accompany it. Please, don't delay this as long as the 802.11g transition took!"

"Often the wireless access points get overloaded and choke. Maybe more wireless access points?" commented another user.

Currently, the university has 3,000 Aruba 802.11n access points deployed with 60 percent wireless coverage in the office space. An additional 3,000 to 4,000 APs will bring the university close to campus-wide coverage. The network implementation is being handled by Aruba partner Layer 3 Communications.

The upgrade to 802.11n across campus has provided a higher physical data rate than the 802.11g network (from 54 mbps to 300 mbps), increased coverage, and greater signal strength. Because the 802.11n gear has a three-antenna design, that has also increased performance and reliability of the network over the single antenna design of the previous 802.11b/g setup.

"Three years ago you might have had a 1:1 ratio of students and faculty to mobile devices, and that 'mobile' device was probably a laptop that you used, and closed, then moved on," said Willis Marti, director of networking and information security. "Now, you have closer to a 3:1 or even 5:1 ratio of devices to users, and they are always on. That requires a high-performance and highly reliable mobile network, and that's what we have with Aruba."

With Cisco, noted Network Engineer Matthew Almand, "We kept seeing a churn of APs and radio patterns. That [gave] some really strong pain points for us." Although the university initially looked at continuing its relationship with Cisco for APs, it discovered that a total upgrade would be needed, and that's when Texas A&M opened up the evaluation to alternative vendors. "It was going to be a complete forklift," he said. "If we were going to a forklift, then sure, let's look at everybody."

The university tested various vendors' offerings, narrowing the field to Cisco and Aruba. Eventually, Aruba's AP 125 won out. Marti cited performance and stability, as well as ease of deployment and management, as the deciding factors in the selection. The university manages the network with Aruba AirWave, a "single pane" view into Wi-Fi coverage, APs, controllers, and the wired network. It also offers tools to improve operations and manage radio frequency security, including user location and mapping, monitoring, alerts, reporting, and troubleshooting.

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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