Case Study

Small Georgia College Rolls Out 802.11n Network

Cost is an issue with any wireless network project, and, for the smallest schools, it can be an overriding factor. But 700-student Emmanuel College, located deep in Georgia, brought the cost of a new 802.11n network under control by initially focusing on strategic areas such as its residence halls. It's also saving money by eliminating the high cost of continual IT staff repairs to the previous wireless system.

The private, four-year Christian college, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, had plenty of standalone 802.11g wireless access points scattered across its 150-acre campus. But the campus is also dotted with sturdy vintage buildings with thick walls and other structural impediments common to higher education. Connectivity to wireless access points (APs) would disappear and reappear, inconveniencing both students and faculty and causing huge headaches for the IT staff. "We had a lot of complaints," according to Leo Satara, the IT director at Emmanuel. "There were constant problems, and students complained a lot. We just couldn't manage it or see what was going on."

Because the consumer-grade access points were standalone, they couldn't be uniformly controlled from a central point. That meant that Emmanuel's limited IT staff had to continually troubleshoot the APs on a one-at-a-time basis. Without visibility into the network, IT staff members had to be physically dispatched across the large campus regularly to reset access points that had frozen or hung up.

In addition to fixing coverage and reliability problems, and gaining central control--and all at an affordable price--Emmanuel wanted the higher speeds offered by the coming 802.11n standard, along with its more flexible deployment options.

The 802.11n standard is expected to be ratified in final form in late 2009. However, a number of vendors are already offering 802.11n equipment built to the latest draft version of the standard, on the assumption that little will change between now and final approval. Also, many notebook computers offer 802.11n capabilities already; for those that don't, 802.11n access points can "step down" to accommodate other wireless standards on devices, such as the common 802.11g standard.

After weighing its needs, Emmanuel selected Ruckus Wireless ZoneFlex 802.11n in mid-summer for its wireless solution, choosing a scaled-down version of the original bid in order to focus primarily on residence halls initially. "The dorms were our first priority," Emmanuel Support Specialist Glenn Toney said. "We [initially] covered the places that we really needed to make sure were covered," he explained, adding that the college plans to purchase additional APs for more coverage as the budget allows.

In August, the college worked with a wireless expert from KOR Systems, a networking solutions firm based in Gainesville, GA, to quickly install two Ruckus controllers and 31 access points. Reaction from students in the first few weeks of school has been positive so far. The school plans to add additional access points as needed based on usage feedback and testing.

A major feature in Ruckus, according to KOR IT Design Engineer Bernard Davis, who worked closely with Emmanuel on the rollout, is that Ruckus APs include mesh networking capabilities at no extra charge. Meshing is a networking technology in which access points can connect to each other wirelessly if needed. A mesh network can reconfigure itself on the fly to bypass a broken or blocked connection. That allows installation of select APs that aren't hard-wired to an Ethernet cable, and quicker recovery of an access point that experiences problems.

"Meshing is a tremendous feature when you deal with structures that aren't cable-complaint," Davis said, such as old campus buildings that present challenges for stringing cable. "Meshing allows you to place an AP in a location that may not be cable-friendly, but is within the signal of [another] AP. It will link itself through the AP, almost like a wireless bridge, and go back to the controller to update itself [or] reboot."

That means that if Emmanuel needs to extend the wireless network to locations where Ethernet cabling hasn't been strung, it can do so, using Ruckus' Smart Mesh Network technology. That will allow the college to grow its new wireless network relatively easily, without running new cable or performing extensive surveys to check signal coverage.

Another plus with the new Ruckus network is the ease with which it was integrated into Emmanuel's Active Directory domain. "It didn't need a whole new authentication path for the staff network," Davis said. "Integrating with their Active Directory was very easy and took almost no time. My experience in integrating with existing Active Directories [is], they're never fun."

"It's nice to not have to set up some other kind of authentication," confirmed Toney. "Ruckus could authenticate using the same Active Directory" already in place at the college.

With just the first few weeks of the school year under their belts, Emmanuel is waiting to see how the new network proves out, but it's clear already that user complaints about dropped connections have been virtually eliminated. "Not hearing of any problems is great," Toney said. "We heard constant problems last year."

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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