Networking & Wireless

Getting Through a Wireless Overhaul

Michigan's Oakland University is in the throes of its third major wireless network rollout in 10 years. Here's how the institution is tackling user demand, the Internet of Things, signal management and more.

Over the past decade, campus WiFi has evolved from a network of convenience to a network of choice. Students, faculty and staff now bring a plethora of devices onto campus, many of which require a wireless connection. With ever-increasing demand for wireless connectivity and ever-changing WiFi standards, upgrading network infrastructure has become a virtually endless process complicated by ever-dwindling resources. Oakland University, a public university located in Rochester, MI, is currently in the midst of the third major overhaul of its wireless network and is tackling the challenges along the way.

A Continuous Upgrade

About 10 years ago, Oakland's first wireless network consisted of a few locations around campus, with "wireless available here" stickers in case somebody urgently needed to look something up on a website or send an e-mail. The university gradually increased the number of those WiFi hotspots until they became pervasive across campus.

Over the last three to five years, wireless has surpassed wired as the preferred way to connect at the university. "People don't want to visit the shrine of a desktop or even a lab computer or a stop-off station anymore," said Theresa Rowe, chief information officer at Oakland. "They are carrying their computer in their hands with their smartphone, and they expect ubiquitous wireless access of a quality that is comparable to wired networking — and that really is the goal."

The university's original wireless network made it difficult to move around because people would have to reauthenticate their device every time they moved to a different wireless access point. The university's second-generation wireless network solved that problem, but it couldn't handle high densities of devices, such as in the student center or library.

For its third-generation network, the university wanted to provide pervasive high-density service, such as at a hotel conference center or football stadium, but throughout the entire campus. The IT team sent out a request for information (RFI), considered several vendors, conducted some prototypes and then settled on Aruba.

The first phase of the project was to replace all of the wireless access points on campus, and then over the last six months, the university has been focusing on increasing the density in specific locations to support the idea of WiFi as the connection point of first choice. Rowe said the university is now one-third of the way into the high-density implementation and hopes to be finished with the high-use areas and the remaining low-use areas by June 2017. "And are you ever really done?" she mused. "Then we just start all over again." Because wireless technology is always evolving, universities need to upgrade almost continuously.

Internet of Things

One of the biggest challenges Oakland University is facing with this wireless upgrade is figuring out how to deal with the exploding number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices on campus, which include everything from WiFi-enabled bathroom scales in dorms to surveillance cameras and automated parking lot attendants around campus.

"Onboarding sensors, devices and printers to a wireless network really forces you to rethink your onboarding process for connectivity," said Rowe. "If you bring a laptop to our campus, that is going to be a smooth onboarding process that is self-driven by the person holding the laptop. But many of the other devices that come on require our hands-on intervention to get on the network."

The university now has processes in place to handle onboarding IoT devices, "but it's not as easy as if you have a device with a screen," said Rowe.

In addition to the extra effort involved in authenticating a network device with no user interface, Rowe and her team need to figure out how to evaluate the security of those devices when they join the network, and she sees the need for a collaborative effort among higher education institutions. "I don't think any one campus is going to be able to identify the definitive best practice here," she said. "This is going to be a collaborative effort among all institutions."

Signal Management

Wireless signal management, quality of service and reliability are an ongoing challenge for any WiFi network. Now that wireless has overtaken wired as the primary network, those issues have become a higher priority. "When wireless was the network of convenience, if there was a service interruption, we would just say, 'You have to move your activity to a wired port and you'll have reliable service,'" said Rowe. "But now with wireless as the primary service expectation, it has to have the same reliability of wired, and trying to achieve that is a real challenge, especially because it's so dispersed."

The network administration team has to carefully consider the placement of each wireless access point, including the thickness of walls and any devices, such as microwave ovens, that might disrupt the performance of the wireless network in that area. "You can't look at implementing a pervasive wireless solution without fully considering what your management strategies are going to be for providing quality of service," said Rowe. "And that's very challenging when it's ubiquitous and the network of first choice."

Rowe brought in external consultants who were more experienced with quality of service standards. "I think checking your assumptions with a quality provider is essential," she said. "You can't assume that, 'We've had wireless since 2008, and we know everything.' This is an area that has evolved, and checking your assumptions with quality consultants is very useful."

Staffing Challenges

One of Rowe's biggest challenges during the current wireless network overhaul has been finding and keeping qualified network architects. Fifteen years ago, when wireless networks weren't available throughout every campus, coffee shop and library, fewer jobs were available for network architects and managers. As the number, size and complexity of wireless networks has grown, the number of qualified professionals has not kept pace. There is now a shortage of people with those skills, according to Rowe. This shortage creates a bidding war for employers, and universities are losing that bidding war to corporations. "You're competing with everybody for the talent to architect these environments and make sure that they're running, and it's very difficult," said Rowe.

Oakland has mined its computer science program to help fill some of the gaps. "We hire a lot of student employees who are part of our engineering and computer science school," said Rowe. "And we're able to do that because the academic program is introducing topics and skills so we can then immediately hire them in as student employees."

However, those student employees are qualified to fill only the lower-level jobs, such as tier 1 network support. Eventually some of them gain enough education and experience to start doing project work, but the university still needs to hire professional staff to fill top-level positions — and that's where staffing gets tough. Oakland University is part of the Merit network, a consortium of all of the public universities in Michigan that provides advanced professional development and training for network engineers, and Rowe has tapped into that network to help her professional staff advance their skills.

Looking Forward

Oakland University's current wireless overhaul project started in 2014, and Rowe anticipates that the entire campus will be upgraded to Aruba sometime in the next year. But when it comes to wireless networks, "there is no finish line," Rowe said. "This is just an ongoing service that requires consistent management and evergreen refresh. We don't try to do our entire campus at one time. We look at what we can do this year to move us to the latest platform. It's cyclical."

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