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What to Do When Your Wireless Network Can't Keep Up

Resourcefulness in funding, planning and multi-university collaboration are helping to prevent another wireless network breakdown for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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Last fall, on the first day of classes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the school's wireless network "broke." Users had difficulty connecting to it at all, and when connections were made, speeds were sluggish.

Thomas Hoover, UTC's associate vice chancellor and CIO, explained that a router was overloaded due to the increase of traffic. His team was able to implement a temporary fix to get the network working again, and then performed an upgrade that night for a more permanent solution. "Bottom line is that it made for a poor Internet experience and did not live up the expectations that our students, staff and faculty have," he said. "More importantly, it did not make for a great learning environment for faculty to teach their courses."

At UTC, 75 percent of on-campus network traffic is wireless — something its aging network was not designed for. "Wireless is like a pie," Hoover noted. "Normally, we would break it up into six or eight pieces. Now, we have to break it up into 50 or 60 pieces. If the electronics can't handle the bigger pipe, then it's useless." On old Ethernet cables, he added, schools are limited. "If your university has a 10GB connection to the Internet but your university's firewalls and border electronics can only handle a 4GB connection, your students, staff, and faculty are not able to utilize that full 10GB connection. You could have the Mississippi River coming in, and be getting little drips of water going to the Internet."

And in today's classroom, connectivity is a critical resource. "If a network goes down in class time," Hoover said, "everybody on campus is missing class. Our classes are so dependent on the use of technology that, if there's a glitch, the professor is often not able to fully teach the lesson the way he or she intended to teach it."  

Where to Start

When it's time for a wireless overhaul, how do institutions like UTC determine what to fix first? Hoover suggested gathering statistics on how data and the network are utilized, then asking for funding to maintain the infrastructure. At UTC, Hoover and his team are in the process of looking for a core system. "This summer, we're spending over $300,000 to replace our border technology, including our firewalls, to allow for more bandwidth. We're rushing to get as much as possible installed before students come back to campus in the fall."

Hoover added that UTC is doubling its commodity Internet to handle the increased demand on campus. "Right now, we're not up to 2GB, and we're trying to get up to 4GB by fall. We're going from 2GB to 4GB because we noticed that last year we were getting close to maxing our current 2GB pipe to the Internet."

His lessons learned: "Be redundant. Put as many resources as possible toward preventing a wireless network break from happening again in the future. We're heading in the direction of BYOE [Bring Your Own Everything]. Downtime is unacceptable. Plan ahead for 100 percent uptime."

Funding New Infrastructure

You have to be resourceful when funding infrastructure improvements, Hoover advised. For example, when the University of Tennessee at Knoxville replaced some of its older wireless access points with new equipment, it passed those older access points to UTC. In addition, UTC worked with the National Guard a couple of years ago. "They came for training exercises, and re-cabled a lot of our campus," said Hoover. "We saved about $100,000." The improvements included upgrades to the fiber that was running to some of UTC's older buildings — replacing multi-mode fiber with single-mode fiber, which allows for greater bandwidth and connection speeds in those buildings. "The buildings upgraded were the older buildings that had not been upgraded before," Hoover added. "The university is almost 130 years old, and we have many very old buildings on our campus. These new fiber cables will help with expansion of the network, the installation of new wireless access points and, when we move to it, VoIP."

UTC is also working with the local electrical power board — which is also the Internet provider — to handle the infrastructure increase. While that arrangement is not typical, it comes from Chattanooga being "one of the most wired cities in the country," Hoover said. Every house in Chattanooga comes with fiber installed, so residents can pay to have a 1GB connection at home. "We are considered 'GigCity USA,'" said Hoover. "We have a partnership with EPB [the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga] to purchase our commodity Internet through them. Typically, universities purchase their commodity Internet through vendors like Verizon, AT&T and Quest, to name a few." 

The network infrastructure touches almost everything on campus, Hoover explained. "Even the irrigation system is on WiFi, and eventually refrigeration will be on WiFi. It's already happening to some degree." Seven or eight years ago, he noted, nobody thought this would happen. "UTC is getting to the stage in technology in which practically all devices have some sort of connection to our network. Our HVAC [heating, ventilating, air conditioning] units can now be accessed over our university network. Now we can get live data on how much energy is being used at a building-by-building level." UTC is in the process of developing a way in which to access all of the university's power usage through a Web site, and plans to incorporate that information on digital signage scattered throughout the campus. 

"Having the latest wireless technology is important," Hoover continued. "If you don't have a solid infrastructure – routers, switches, cables, wireless technology – nothing else matters. Without a solid core, a university could install the latest AC wireless access points, but they will only work as well as the electronics that are working between each access point and all of the other pieces that connect that access point to the network."

Looking Ahead

To avoid a wireless breakdown, it's important to anticipate demand, recommended Hoover, though that's not always easy. "The problem is that the demand seems to be increasing at a greater-than-expected rate," he said. "On average, a student brings between two and three devices to campus: smartphone, laptop, tablet. For our residential students, you can add a gaming device, a TV, etc., to that list." Hoover noted that it's a good idea to have extra routers and switches on hand, in case any of your older networking equipment fails. 

Hoover and his CIO colleagues from five or six other University of Tennessee schools meet monthly to discuss such relevant issues as infrastructure, new technology and security. "We share best practices and work collaboratively to help each other. We're always looking for ways that we can use common technologies to improve the student learning experience on our campuses."

"Reach out to other universities if your network is broken," Hoover advised. "One of the things I really love about higher ed is our willingness to work together."

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