Higher ed network managers talk headaches and rewards

Institutions of higher learning can often feel like self-contained worlds of their own, and their wireless networks are much the same – subject to unique demands and rules, the campus network is a distinctive challenge for the IT pro.

Institutions of higher education can often feel like self-contained worlds of their own, and their wireless networks are much the same – subject to unique demands and rules, the campus network is a distinctive challenge for the IT pro.

Keeping the various plates spinning can be a challenge. Having to deal with a combination of regulatory, capacity, and hardware issues, all interrelated, is a complex task, requiring an ability to shift gears quickly, as network pros told us last week at WLAN company Aruba’s Atmosphere conference in Las Vegas.

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Matthew Almand is a network architect at Texas A&M. He says that one of his day-to-day issues is provisioning for Wi-Fi in areas where lots of simultaneous connections are required.

“If we’re talking about classrooms, then we’re talking about the high-density type stuff,” he says. “And these are kind of on the extreme edge, but we can have classrooms of 600, 700, 800 seats, even a couple thousand-seat classrooms in some new facilities.”

But that’s small-scale next to Almand’s previous project, which was installing both Wi-Fi and a distributed antenna system at A&M’s Kyle Field, a historic football stadium that seats nearly 103,000 – the largest number in the SEC – and was recently renovated.

“We didn’t have a very good football season, but at the same time, we didn’t actively promote our Wi-Fi – we wanted to underpromise and overdeliver,” he says.

Almand told Network World that surveys of the student body showed demand for an outdoor Wi-Fi network, which A&M has begun to operate on a large quad near the student union – but the desire for broader coverage is still present.

“The problem there is that you’ve given it to them, and now they just want more,” he states. “It doesn’t just happen overnight.”

Urgent demand for WiFi

But student demand can be a positive thing, according to Sean O’Connor, the assistant CIO for Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Until fairly recently, he says, WPI’s leadership didn’t understand the urgency of the demand for well-managed Wi-Fi.

“[T]he curve was so steep from ‘oh this is kinda nice to have’ to ‘this is a must-have, critical network’ that it kind of snuck up on them,” O’Connor says.

Sean O’Connor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

The tipping point came two years ago.

“We started seeing such a drastic increase in this changeover to ‘we don’t need wired, we need wireless,’” he says. Students demanded that it get faster and more ubiquitous, faculty started to use it in the classroom, and the ball was off and rolling.

Armed with public opinion on campus, O’Connor says he and the team were able to make their case for a radical wireless overhaul successfully. “It’s always good to have student and faculty backing anytime you need money from a university,” he quipped.

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The idea, he says, was simple – they wanted to have the capability to have an IP phone call continue seamlessly from anywhere on campus, switching smoothly across networks. It’s not a simple undertaking, he says.

“Analyzing all the data, what type of walls are where, feeding CAD drawings into the software … that’s tough,” he says. “And then as soon as you do that … you realize that you’ve made some mistakes along the way.”

Two cinderblock dormitories, built about a year apart and functionally almost identical, gave headaches when wireless worked smoothly in one and not in the other – the team eventually realized that metal shavings had made it into the concrete for the problem building. Today, WPI has an Aruba-based wireless network, with a total of about 1,400 access points across 81 buildings.

The rewards from performing this overhaul have been unusually tangible for O’Connor and his team.

“Usually what you get in education – or actually, as any IT professional – you end up thinking ‘OK, how do I know I’m successful?’ Successful is silence, right? Nobody’s complaining,” he says. Now, however, “students actually say, ‘this is really good. This is much better than it was.’ So we’ve been very happy with that rollout.”

Out with old WiFi network at Columbia 

That could be something for Naveed Husain to look forward to. Husain has been the CIO of the teacher’s college at Columbia University – the nation’s oldest graduate education school – for just over a year, and he has a big project ahead of him.

To call the Wi-Fi network in place at the teacher’s college “legacy” would be an understatement, he says.

“There hadn’t been much investment, down to the physical plant, down to cabling,” Husain says.

Even better – the network was entirely unencrypted and open to the public.

“So security was a problem,” he says. “There was a lot of stuff that needed to get done.”

But the school’s “free love” policy, as Husain described it, mandated an open approach, so the solution was to implement a certificate-based system – users log in once, get the certificate, and don’t have to do it again.

Husain has to worry about more than the network, of course – the entire IT department could be described as “legacy.”

“Essentially, it was a money pit – no ITSM, all Google email, so no tools for ediscovery, policies are outdated, [and] the IT department was siloed,” he says.

The priority, however, remains the network, a decision reached early in the process.

“We started looking at Wi-Fi first, thinking ‘OK, we’ll put the front end up first, get the students happy, solve some of those basic problems,” Husain stated.

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