BCIT Extends Network with Strategic Wireless

By Linda L. Briggs

When the British Columbia Institute of Technology decided to implement a wireless network, it was building on a sophisticated wired network already in place on and between BCIT’s five major campuses in Vancouver. With some 48,000 students, BCIT is Canada's leading polytechnic institute, offering degrees, diplomas, and certificates in a variety of studies.

On the main Burnaby campus in Vancouver, for example, BCIT already had wired desktops accessing the network at speeds of 100 Mbps, and a substantial investment in fiber optics at speeds of 1G and over. The Burnaby campus alone had some 90 wiring closets in place.

“When we made the decision to implement wireless,” says Ian McLeod, director of computer resources at BCIT, “we were looking for a compatible system to enhance, not replace, our wired infrastructure.”

The institute’s three-year wireless rollout strategy, McLeod explains, was divided into three phases. The first phase, which began in 2005, targeted classrooms and other learning spaces that are part of the school’s Technology Enabled Knowledge initiative. The initiative is a five-year undertaking to enhance teaching and learning through the strategic use of technology. In addition, “we looked for areas where students seemed to be using laptop technologies outside of classrooms and formal settings,” McLeod says, such as lounge areas, and campus cafeterias and restaurants.

The selection process began in mid-2005, with a focus on a state-of-the-art technology solution. “We were looking for [a wireless solution] that was going to be easy to use, easy to implement, relatively cost-effective, and yet with security provisions to manage who was on our network and what they were doing,” McLeod says.

The solution needed to be from a leading vendor, provide secure, authenticated connectivity, and support Power-over-Ethernet to save on wiring costs. It also needed to be compatible with BCIT’s existing Nortel Networks infrastructure.

In the end, BCIT selected a wireless network from Aruba Networks, Inc. that consists so far of one Aruba 6000 modular controller supporting 250 access points in key areas across all five Vancouver campuses. When the wireless network is completed, BCIT plans a configuration that will include three controllers managing approximately 750 access points.

The Aruba wireless network is being deployed as a seamless overlay in order to make the best use of BCIT’s existing wired investment and to avoid disruption to the current wired network.

There were several reasons behind the choice to use Aruba for the new wireless network, McLeod says. Aruba’s “core enterprise server concept, the 6000 series devices, allowed us to scale up and serve [many] access points with a single piece of technology in a centralized environment, which was perfect for us.”

BCIT first rolled out portions of the wireless network in several core areas in the summer of 2005, in preparation for two large summer conferences. The acid test came with the second conference, a meeting of members of the highly technical, highly wired Internet2 working group. Internet2 is a consortium working on developing advanced network technologies for research and higher education. “That crew is ruthless,” McLeod says. “They’re pretty hard on any networking equipment.”

In preparation for the conference, BCIT set up a number of wired connectivity points as a backup, but by the second day, “we looked around and realized that no one was sitting at the wired switches.” They checked statistics and found that all the attendees were using the wireless network, McLeod says, “and they raved about it… So we knew we were in good shape after that.”

The next phase of the project, which includes another Aruba mobility controller and 250 more access points, is to continue rolling out the wireless project into more smart learning areas, including lecture theaters and presentation areas, as well as some of BCIT’s student housing and open areas.

In the meantime, use of the wireless network by students has exploded since the very first, McLeod says. With little publicity, laptops have been showing up all over campus, with long connection times that attest to the stability of the wireless network. “It just exploded. We’re running over 5,000 connections a week, and the average connection time is over two hours. Students are connecting, and they’re staying connected for extended periods of time.”

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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