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Campus Technology Focus

February 10, 2011

The Wireless Hunger that Consumed a College

Tim Chavis faced a nightmare scenario when he joined Lawrence Technological University two years ago as the executive director of IT Services: too many scary-smart students and not enough wireless. The unmet demand for wireless networking access was astonishing, he says. So were the problems with connectivity.

The university has 4,500 students, many of whom are studying highly technical fields such as architecture and engineering. About eight years ago the institution began a one-to-one laptop program for undergraduates and faculty, which includes all of the software needed for their specific degree programs. In 2001 the university implemented 802.1b wireless networking on campus. The combined laptop program and wireless effectively allowed students and faculty to have a computing lab wherever they were working. As wireless demand grew, IT increased the number of access points to provide additional coverage on 802.1b.

But that mish-mash of wireless gear had still left the campus with a lot of "dead areas and response issues," as Chavis describes them, where students couldn't connect to the network. That included student housing, which, in one building, didn't even have wired ports as an alternative. To get around the lack of wireless access in those locations, the students would go out and subscribe to cable service, then set up their own rogue wireless routers, which only compounded the problem. One building had over 90 such wireless LANs. "You can imagine how well that worked," he observed. "They were stepping on each others' toes."

Each day, before heading to the IT offices, Applications Analyst Ammar Abdulahad would visit the housing units to reboot the official campus access points.

At the same time, because the university was paying its Internet service provider for its fiber-delivered bandwidth by usage, the school was shaping network traffic to conserve its budget. That throttling also led to student complaints about the slowness of the network.

The combination of a lack of reliable wireless and limited bandwidth bred major discontent regarding connectivity. Students couldn't print their large design files directly to a network printer over wireless; they'd have to copy them to USB drives first and walk them to the printer. Architecture students, who practically live out of dedicated studio space to do their work couldn't rely on wireless to be available when they needed it during intense usage periods. Faculty couldn't always rely on the existence of wireless in their classrooms, no matter what IT Services tried.

"Literally, parents were calling the president directly and telling him, 'My student can't do their homework in their housing because you don't have working connectivity," Chavis recalls. "It was an important issue. Even during my interview, that was one thing I was told to fix."

Thus armed with a limited budget and marching orders to upgrade the wireless network at least in its housing units, IT Services went shopping, calling on the major wireless vendors, some of whom were undertaking sizeable installations elsewhere in the state. But one day Chavis saw an ad in a magazine for a wireless vendor that promised a solid network with fewer access points. "So I literally handed the ad to Ammar and said, 'Check this out,'" he recalls.

That company -- Xirrus -- offered to come in and do a site survey plus a pilot program for free. Other vendors had offered to do site surveys too; but, says Chavis, "They were taking floor plans and doing mathematical calculations on how they expected the coverage to be." Xirrus, on the other hand, "came out to the campus and hung access points on poles and walked around and did measurements." Then they offered a design that they guaranteed. That meant that if wireless proved to be missing in a spot, they'd make sure coverage was corrected at no extra charge. "They don't have the error in theory vs. practice, like some of the others," he explains.

Xirrus' technology, such as the XN8 Wi-Fi Array, uses a controller-less design and multi-radio arrays. The management functions typically provided by a centralized controller are actually built into each array. The multi-radio design combines multiple access points on one physical device. That approach offers several advantages at Lawrence Tech.

  • The deployment could be done with fewer access points. "Most vendors' proposals would have taken 350 access points to do complete campus coverage," says Chavis. "We ended up with about 90 devices from Xirrus." That was a big selling point, because it meant that IT had to do far less cabling.
  • Because each array covered a broader area, it could be installed in public locations and still deliver wireless throughout the floor as well as the floors above and below. "In housing we don't have to go into student rooms to do maintenance since we can place the arrays in hallways," he points out.
  • Plus, the arrays proved capable of sustaining serious device density. An auditorium filled with 150 students can have a single array supporting them all working on the wireless network.
  • Because there's no controller, there's also no single point of failure for the wireless network. "If we have that array in one floor and it goes down, we only lose coverage in that one area," explains Abdulahad, "But if we had a controller, whatever devices were connected to it would go down, and that could be multiple buildings."
  • Finally, campus wide network traffic is reduced because the decentralized controller doesn't act like a bottleneck, vetting all traffic. "If you have a user in housing talking to someone else in their own building, all that traffic stays right there," says Chavis.

Ultimately, Lawrence Tech was able cover the entire campus with 802.11n using Xirrus gear. "Originally we started out saying, 'Let's just get housing done this year. We were able to do a lot more with the same amount of money and with less time spent cabling," Chavis declares.

Deployment of the new wireless network was completed in fall 2009. Just a few months later, the university's ISP asked the school to pilot a program whereby bandwidth wasn't priced based on usage. "We completely opened up our pipe," Chavis says. "Suddenly there wasn't a cost based limit on what students could use, and unmet Internet demand was satisfied. The previous connectivity bottlenecks we had with wireless and ISP bandwidth were resolved."

Campus bandwidth usage went up four times higher than what it was before the wireless network repair. A laptop refresh in fall 2010, which also included wireless cards supporting the 802.11n standard, led to an increase in usage of another 30 to 40 percent.

Now when Abdulahad visits housing to troubleshoot a technical problem with wireless, it's most likely a local issue with a student's machine, he says. And Chavis hasn't heard of any more of those parent phone calls to Lawrence Tech's president about the campus network.

More importantly, the wireless network is no longer a barrier to learning. "We used to have constant help desk requests: 'We want to do this presentation and webcast it. Can you set up wireless for that and allocate bandwidth?' We don't have to deal with that anymore," Chavis says. "People just do it and know that it's going to work."

Another side benefit is that students previously would have to hunt out locations where they could get a wired connection or where they knew the wireless worked, "Now," concludes Chavis, "they're parked everywhere."

If you are interested in deploying a high performance Wi-Fi solution, please contact Xirrus at: info@xirrus.com

2101 Corporate Center Drive
Thousand Oaks, CA 91320


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