Open Source Brings Down Cost of Wireless Rollout

As any IT administrator knows, wireless deployments can be costly. On the other hand, with students demanding on-the-go access, pervasive WiFi networks are a must on campus.

One creative way to keep down the cost is to buy relatively inexpensive, low-end access points (APs), then upgrade the firmware to more powerful open source firmware before installing them. Alfred University, a 2,300-student school in upstate New York, has saved tens of thousands of dollars by doing just. It has rolled out several hundred "upgraded" enterprise-grade 802.11g APs,so far, and plans to continue with more.

By replacing the firmware, the university has essentially created access points on steroids, taking consumer-grade APs and beefing them up with free enterprise-level open source firmware. The result: inexpensive 802.11g APs with many of the features and capabilities of a much costlier product. The school's bottom line: Avoiding spending perhaps a quarter of a million dollars on a major wireless upgrade, only to end up with a system that could be obsolete in five years as wireless standards continue to rapidly evolve.

The Alfred University campus, located in the Alleghany Mountains in upstate New York, was wireless in its most heavily used public areas before the open source project. Dorms, however, were hardwired with a "port-per-pillow" scheme. When students informed the administration via a survey that they wanted wireless in the dorms as well, IT Services Director Gary Roberts said he challenged his team to come up with a wireless solution that was both powerful and cost-effective They came up with an unusual solution, and after successful testing last year in several locations, Roberts and his staff have rolled out nearly 200 access points in the last few months.

 "I basically wanted to find the most cost-effective solution," Roberts said. Using the less-expensive consumer-grade APs saved hundreds of dollars per unit. The university purchased about 200 for this project, at about $60 per unit, and has rolled out most of them, saving the remainder for any coverage gaps they may discover over time.

Since a more traditional wireless solution can cost $250 to $500 or more per AP, Roberts figures he saved somewhere between $38,000 and $88,000 in access points alone.

Alfred U's original wireless network consisted of Linksys consumer-grade 802.11b APs, implemented years ago. The school planned to upgrade and expand the entire wireless network to 802.11g when Roberts and his team hit on the open-source solution.

The firmware for the wireless system is called DD-WRT, free Linux-based firmware designed to work with a number of vendors' access points. The university chose consumer-grade APs from Buffalo Technology, per recommendations on the DD-WRT web site.

The wireless network, which Roberts said isn't intended for voice over IP or heavy streaming video use, runs at about 2 Mbps under worst case situations. When the university is ready for VoIP or other big-bandwidth uses, he says, he'll explore additional options. Meanwhile, this solution "will hold us for a couple of years."

"Flashing" an AP's firmware, which was done to each access point, means loading a new operating system onto the device. Without careful handling, Roberts concedes, the process can destroy an AP, although in flashing 160-some devices, he and his staff lost just a handful--acceptable odds, he says, given the low price of each.

In all, Roberts spent $12,000 for access points, and an additional $15,000 on power drops to bring power to the APs. His final price tag: $27,000. "We actually came in under budget," Roberts said.

Other advantages to the open-source route Alfred University chose include the fact that changing to the DD-WRT firmware allowed Roberts' staff to write an SSH script that controls all the access points from a server, allowing them to turn all the APs off remotely once a week in the wee hours of the morning to "flush" the systems. Although expensive enterprise-grade access points often offer that kind of central control, consumer-grade APs don't.

Running DD-WRT also allows the IT staff to boost the power of each AP if necessary, something that helps an AP that needs more range because of its location. Again, that's not a common feature on a consumer-grade AP. The university has also been able to write a script to send an alert when an access point goes down. That's possible because with the DD-WRT firmware, each AP is assigned a static AP address. Without the open source firmware, that would not be true.

Finally, the combination of Buffalo access points and DD-WRT provides automatic channel selection. That means that if APs overlap, Roberts' staff can set them to avoid conflicts, using channel 1, 6 or 11 to avoid frequency collisions, because each AP can detect the others. Again, that isn't a common capability in low-end APs.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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