Bellarmine University: Wireless Networks: Planning for Success

For those of you who have lived through installation of a wired network, the thought of implementing a wireless network must seem like it would be fraught with peril. And, while it is true that the potential for problems d'es still exist, a careful approach to planning can greatly minimize—if not entirely eliminate—many hidden land mines that occupy the ground between you and successful installation.

At Bellarmine University, to provide support for our 2,200-plus students, we have 750 computers and 29 network servers with over 862GB storage. This handles an average of 350 users at any given time. We currently store 4,042 ID photos for 4,000 active UserIDs, as well as 4,542,341 e-mails online. Most of the buildings on Bellarmine's campus are relatively new—the University itself is only slightly over 50 years old. In the recent past, whenever a new building went up, a complete computer-friendly wiring structure went up with it. In some buildings, such as the W.L. Lyons Brown Library, every seat is wired with jacks for power and data as well as fiber-optic connections in some areas. In other buildings, however, wiring of any kind poses a major problem. For example, in the Kennedy-Newman residence halls, two of the campus' original buildings, the thick concrete floors and walls make insertion of even a wired network a nightmare. The solution? Wireless networks.

In some aspects, we like to think of ourselves as pioneers. The one self-image we do not want to consider, however, is of a person lying face down on the prairie with an arrow in his or her back. So we seldom jump into anything simply because it happens to be ultra-new or state-of-the-art. We always attempt to find a common middle ground between jumping right in and paralysis by analysis. The challenge posed by the Kennedy/Newman Residence Halls provided us with the perfect opportunity to test the concept of something we had long considered to be of tremendous potential value—wireless networks.

The Kennedy/Newman project was a first of its kind for Bellarmine, and posed many questions. What would it take to wire a building with thick concrete walls? How many unknowns would we find along the way? Once we got the system installed, would the students use the technology? What type of support were we going to provide? The only way to assure ourselves that we were heading down the right path was careful planning, taking each step in turn. Even with the planning, once the project began, the questions continued to grow!

Wireless is really becoming a consumer good. It is being sold to people for use in their homes, so there's not really much mystery to it. The downside risk, while it d'es exist, perhaps involves cost more than it d'es technical issues. Nonetheless, there is still a risk, so prudence dictates caution and due diligence, especially when choosing the technology to be used. For our first step, selecting the product, we wanted a product that met IEEE standards, had a good track record, and a company that provided technical support. After talking to vendors and testing different products, we settled on the Nortel eMobility suite of products.

The next step in our process was the site survey, which would determine the appropriate placement of the wireless access points. The results indicated we would need six access points on each floor, down a 200-foot hallway. With access points that carry coverage of almost 200 feet—this was almost unbelievable. However, Kennedy/Newman is one of the original buildings on campus, and is made of the type of walls that absorbs wireless signals. Without the site survey, we would have missed the mark on coverage for the building. Once we knew where to locate the access points, it was time for wiring. While it is true that end users need not plug their computing devices into a wired jack, there are nonetheless wires for IT and facility departments to contend with. With the location of each access point already determined, all that was needed was a network connection and electricity.

With the system installed and operational, the only thing left was encouraging the students to use the wireless network. Flyers announcing the new service were created and distributed to all students in the residence halls. Step-by-step installation instructions were placed on the Web. E-mail messages were sent to all residents advertising the service, and providing them the Web link. Help Desk personnel held "Wireless Workshops" in the residence halls to assist students in getting their connections setup and established. The extra work paid off—over one-third of the residents in Kennedy/Newman use the wireless network. Those not connected do not own a computer, or cite the cost of the wireless card as a problem.

The technical issues surrounding the installation of wireless networks include making the computing devices wireless-network-ready and making wireless coverage in the buildings sufficiently comprehensive. We must also ensure that our campus derives all of the benefits that wireless-network technology promises, and do all this within the constraints of time and budget. Each of these items must be considered, and if you do not incorporate thorough consideration of them all in your planning, those wires could wind up hanging you up, along with your hopes.

Joy Hatch is Director of Information Services Bellarmine University, Louisville, Ky. She can be reached at (502) 452-8301.

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