The University of Minnesota’s STEVE FLETTY (left) and LOUIS HAMMOND look to transcend users’ wireless-network expectations with an unprecedented, campuswide 802.11n deployment.

May 01 2008

Completely Unplugged

The University of Minnesota is set to deploy the world's largest 802.11n wireless network.

The University of Minnesota is set to deploy the world’s largest 802.11n wireless network.

When University of Minnesota students return for classes this fall, they’ll discover a whole new meaning for the term “academic freedom.” That’s because for the first time, they’ll have a chance to connect to the school’s new campuswide wireless network, which, thanks to its adherence to the latest 802.11 Wi-Fi standard, will allow them access to electronic resources via ultra-high-speed, seamless and reliable connections from just about anywhere on the Twin Cities campus.

When it’s fully implemented in the next few years, the new 802.11n wireless network will be the world’s largest, with approximately 9,500 access points deployed over 300 buildings and large communal areas on the school’s 1,204-acre campus in St. Paul and along the east and west banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

The network, which will take five years and an estimated $15 million to build out across the entire campus, relies on state-of-the-art products from Trapeze Networks.

“Today’s students expect wireless connectivity,” says Steve Fletty, a network engineer for UM’s Office of Information Technology (OIT), noting that the school’s existing archaic wireless network is not what students have in mind. “They’re technologically savvy. They know what 802.11b is and they know what 802.11g is and they know what’s on the horizon, and they not only want it, they expect it.”

The new wireless network will likely exceed those expectations. Its reliance on the bleeding-edge 802.11n standard will allow students to experience speeds of up to 150 megabits per second, or about 15 times the performance of the current network. It will expand coverage to include all of the school’s 22 million square feet of indoor space and significant portions of its outdoor space, and will allow as many as 80,000 users to be on the network at the same time without loss of performance. The network will also be better and more efficiently managed, will be significantly more secure and eventually will allow the deployment of emerging real-time applications, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video, say UM officials.

“We’re not just building for our needs today, we’re building a foundation for the future,” says Louis Hammond, assistant director of Networking and Telecommunications Services for OIT.

Overcoming Chaos

School officials weren’t looking to make technology history when they embarked on their wireless upgrade plan, according to Bernard Gulachek, director of planning for UM OIT.

Their initial goal was simply to upgrade the school’s existing wireless network, which began more than 10 years ago as a co-op model and evolved into essentially a hodgepodge of technologies, hardware products and networking standards without any central administration.

“We really needed to replace something that was very old and very inefficient,” Gulachek says. “The nice thing, though, is that we are moving to something that is going to make a very noticeable difference.”

Indeed, the existing wireless network performed so poorly in recent years that it had been a frequent subject of unflattering editorials in the student newspaper.

Coverage was minimal, with network access available in less than 40 percent of the total square footage of classrooms, libraries, dorms and other buildings. Users often lost their connection without warning, especially if they tried to roam within or outside of a building. And the majority of access points utilized outdated 802.11b connections; their maximum speed of just 11Mbps is considered so slow, in fact, that many students ended up going to coffee houses off-campus to access faster wireless networks — even if they weren’t having a caffeine craving.

On the back end, OIT personnel struggled to manage the network and respond to breakdowns in a timely manner. With 2,200 access points composed of different technologies, different products and different versions, OIT technicians had to go to each base station to address problems. What’s more, if there was a security breach on the network, there was no way to track the activity, much less locate it.

“It was a management nightmare,” Fletty says. “We were using a lot of expensive resources troubleshooting problems and trying to chase down rogue users and security events.”

An Ambitious Timeline

The university evaluated 24 proposals for a campuswide wireless network but quickly chose Trapeze Networks and its Smart Mobile technology. OIT officials made their choice not only because the proposed solution fit the university’s performance and security requirements, but also because the vendor’s automated management and planning tools allowed school officials to import their own CAD (computer-assisted design) drawings and immediately begin planning for the wireless network’s expansion into every floor of every campus building.

“This is a very exciting project because it’s a proof point for 802.11n,” says Ahmet Tuncay, vice president of product management at Trapeze Networks. “If an institution like the University of Minnesota is willing to build a network like this, it basically projects the maturity of the technology and gives confidence to other universities and large organizations to go and do similar networks using 802.11n.”

Not that the project will be without its fair share of challenges. OIT officials admit that trying to replace the current network’s access points between May and August of 2008 is more than a little ambitious.

“I think we’ll be cutting it pretty close, maybe too close,” admits Hammond, who notes that in addition to replacing the existing network at the Twin Cities campus, officials hope to also replace the existing network at the university’s Rochester campus. “It’s a daunting task.”

Once the Twin Cities and Rochester campus networks are completed, OIT will also expand 802.11n to include its outreach and extension centers across the state. The University of Minnesota’s other campuses — Crookston, Duluth and Morris — have autonomous technology departments and, as such, will be responsible for making their own decisions as to if and when they upgrade to 802.11n.

Other hurdles to implementation, Fletty says, will include configuring the new standard’s data-encryption feature to work with existing mobile clients (a task that will require development of a plan for educating end users) and deploying the infrastructure to support new access points as the university moves toward its goal of 100 percent coverage.

“As we expand coverage areas, we’ll need to put in more access points where there might not be a jack or a conduit for that location, so getting out there will be a big expense and a time-consuming process,” Fletty explains.

One Network, Many Beneficiaries

Many of the most important features of Minnesota’s 802.11n wireless network won’t be readily apparent to the average user, according to Fletty. They are, however, critical to the performance enhancements that students and faculty want in their wireless connections.

One of the biggest benefits is better and more efficient use of limited OIT resources, thanks to centralized network management and automation of such tasks as software upgrades and access-point configuration. Another is enhanced security through the availability of robust authentication and encryption technologies and rogue access-point detection.

The new wireless network ultimately will have a positive impact on every area of academic life, from classroom instruction and residential life to sports and admissions, say UM officials.

Faculty, for example, will be able to develop and engage in curriculum that encourages students to roam into the field, conduct studies and make reports back. In future implementations of the project, wireless access will for the first time be available in student rooms, rather than just lounges and dining rooms, an addition that will enable students “to engage more with others,” says Jill Froehlich, information technology supervisor for Housing and Residential Life at UM. “Primarily, it provides residents with mobility and flexibility to collaborate on group work where, when and how they want to work.”

Students will be able to roam from indoors to outdoors and vice versa without losing their connections, not unlike what many users already experience with their cell phone coverage.

And many believe that the presence of a state-of-the-art wireless network could be a determining factor in the decision-making process of potential students. “It will definitely make the university more attractive,” Fletty predicts. “Some students will just think it’s cool, but for others it will be one more tool that will demonstrate that we have a robust technology environment here.”

The new wireless network also provides the potential to create a few “gee whiz” applications. For example, the school is already anticipating being able to use wireless devices to scan bar-coded tickets at its new football stadium, which is scheduled to open in fall 2009. The application, not unlike what is already being used at the Target Center in Minneapolis, will allow for faster gate entry and guard against duplicate or counterfeit tickets.

Most of the benefits expected from Minnesota’s wireless network, however, are more simple and personal in nature. “It’s really going to be just the ability for people to sit on their laptops or their iPhones or their BlackBerry devices and get fast, reliable and secure connectivity whenever they need it,” says Gulachek. “If it’s a nice sunny day and students want to sit on the lawn under a shady tree and access their e-mail, they [can].”

802.11n: The Next Generation

802.11n, the latest iteration of the Wi-Fi standard, promises an order of magnitude improvement over the earlier 802.11g standard, with throughput speeds of up to 150Mbps, twice the distance in range and more-reliable connections. As a result, networks that rely on 802.11n can effectively handle streaming video, Voice over IP and real-time applications.

These key features of 802.11n are what make the difference:

  • Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO): Also known as the smart-antenna system, MIMO splits data into three transmit-and-receive antennas, which allow more data streams to be transmitted in the same amount of time while simultaneously increasing the range or distance over which those data streams can be transmitted.
  • Channel Bonding: While most wireless systems transmit data over one channel, 802.11n networks use this technique to combine two 20-MHz channels into a single 40-MHz channel, which serves to more than double available bandwidth.
  • Packet Aggregation: As its name implies, this technology enables 802.11n networks to aggregate multiple packets of application data into a single transmission frame, optimizing payload.

Campus Computing, Beyond Campus

The University of Minnesota has plans to make its big network even bigger. Officials are negotiating with wireless provider US Internet on how to set up a peering agreement with Wireless Minneapolis, a 59-square-mile-wide wireless network covering most of the city. The university will negotiate peering agreements with other network providers where possible.

The goal is for students and faculty to be able to use their university credentials on partnering networks. “This would enable them to be able to roam out into the metro area and possibly maintain their connectivity,” explains Louis Hammond, assistant director of Networking and Telecommunications Services for the Office of Information Technology at the University of Minnesota. “For example, if a student is sitting in the airport waiting for a flight home, they’ll be able to use their university account and have the same network experience that they have on campus.”

Getting the city’s wireless partner, US Internet, and others to provide the service is going to be a challenge, given their need to be profitable. But, says Hammond, “right now, we are a huge hole in their network. So if we partner, we can help them expand their footprint and subscriber base.”

Diffusing the Cost

While the Office of Information Technology (OIT) at the University of Minnesota typically pays for major IT projects, the new $15 million campuswide wireless network is not a typical IT project. Instead, a unique partnering strategy between OIT and UM’s academic departments will cover the cost. OIT will pay for the initial implementation, which will essentially replace approximately 2,200 access points and the hardware that make up the current wireless network. Beyond that, departments that want coverage within their own business area will pay for the installation, network infrastructure and hardware required to expand the network into their domain. OIT will pay for all the operation and maintenance costs of the expanded network. Louis Hammond, assistant director of Networking and Telecommunication Services for the Office of Information Technology at the University of Minnesota, says that already about a dozen departments have signed up for an evaluation to determine their share of the cost. “It’s being accepted a lot better than what some of us expected,” he says.

<p>John Noltner</p>

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