Joel Robertson of King College says the best wireless networks have a strong wired infrastructure.

Aug 18 2009

Building the Mobile University Begins With Wireless Availability

By focusing on infrastructure and affordable access to notebooks, colleges are delivering the high-quality wireless services this generation of students expects.

By focusing on infrastructure and affordable access to notebooks, colleges are delivering the high-quality wireless services this generation of students expects.

For Joel Robertson, IT director at King College, the top considerations for building a mobile infrastructure at the 1,700-student college in Bristol, Tenn., are increased speed for wireless Internet access and management tools that can deliver high availability.

Robertson depends on HP's ProCurve Wireless Services Module (WSM), which lets him manage the school's wireless access points (APs) from one central location.

“Instead of having to individually manage the APs, I now can manage them by using a central system,” Robertson says. “The benefit is that if one of the wireless radios goes down, I can easily increase the strength of a nearby AP so it can cover for the radio that's down. It acts much like a mesh network,” he explains.

Roughly 60 percent of the main buildings at King College and one of the four dorms have wireless access, Robertson points out. The IT director intends to expand wireless coverage in the years ahead, something he says should be fairly easy to execute because he and his staff have laid the groundwork by building a very strong wired infrastructure.

“You really need the wired infrastructure to build out the wireless network,” he says. “Ultimately the wireless network must cross back into the wired network.”

King College's network is based on an HP ProCurve 5400 core switch that is connected via fiber to a series of ProCurve 2600 switches on the edge of the network. The wireless access points connect to the network's edge switches and are powered by PowerDsine Power over Ethernet injectors that allow access-point placement to be made independent of house power.

“The idea is to build as much flexibility into the network as possible,” Robertson says. “My goal is to build out the wireless networks in the academic and common areas using the HP switches and WSM.”

A Good Match

At Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., the school's IT staff realized that the perfect complement to building out its wireless network was developing a program that offered its students affordable and easy-to-purchase wireless notebooks.

Purdue responded to numerous calls for notebook advice from parents and students and by 2006 launched the Mobile Learning Initiative, a one-to-one program that thus far has supplied more than 1,100 HP notebook and tablet PCs to students.

More than two-thirds of all classrooms – 68% – have wireless access.

Source: The Campus Computing Project

Research indicates that students who participate in one-to-one computing programs are more interested in their studies, show greater independence and engage in self-directed learning, and demonstrate improvement in a range of skills, including their study habits and writing.

“The students wanted assurances that they would have fast, easy access to online course notes, syllabi and library services both on or off campus, and the parents simply wanted to make sure that the students' computer purchases were compatible with the university's system,” says Belinda McCarty, project coordinator for the Mobile Learning Initiative. McCarty adds that the academic associate deans, a Purdue faculty group, also saw the need for a unified notebook program and worked hard to make it happen.

“If schools don't have these types of programs and a strong wireless infrastructure, they will cut prospective students out of the picture,” says Chris Silva, a Forrester analyst.

“Many of today's students have been using wireless notebooks since high school,” Silva adds, “so if you don't offer access to wireless services and notebooks, you are not being competitive.”

King College's Robertson says his school's notebook program has also been very successful.

“We have a notebook program that is essentially a one-to-one program,” says Robertson. “We don't call it one-to-one, but we've been offering notebooks to the students since 2000 when we started with the IBM ThinkPads,” he explains, adding that today the school has a notebook program with HP.

Security Focus

Successful mobile programs at King College, Purdue and many other colleges nationwide would not be possible without the IT staff demonstrating that the university is serious about security. Without security, it's nearly impossible to build trust among students, parents, faculty and administrators.

At King College, McAfee antivirus software is preloaded onto all new notebooks. Robertson says he also isolates all wireless traffic from the main administrative network and runs standard firewalls. Purdue's students can download the McAfee antivirus product through the university's SecurePurdue website.

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore also has antivirus software preloaded onto student notebooks. Mike McCarty, the school's chief network officer, says Hopkins made preloading antivirus software a policy once it selected a primary notebook manufacturer. Although not everyone actually uses the recommended product, McCarty says Hopkins acquires the software centrally and provides it to all users at no extra cost.

Along with antivirus software, Hopkins has a series of firewalls and uses management tools such as Symantec's Altiris, HP OpenView and Cisco System's CiscoWorks to isolate any potential security issues.

“Without question, the sophistication of the attacks continues to grow, as does our spending on security tools,” says McCarty. “We'll also do things like stop people from receiving executable programs as attachments to e-mails. If people need to receive executables, we prefer that they do it via FTP, ” he explains.

The University of Memphis uses packet shapers and copyright prevention appliances to put a clamp on file-sharing programs and has a series of firewalls and a full intrusion prevention system as part of its security program.

“We try to publicize that we have devices on the network that will stop illegal file-sharing programs,” says Mark Reavis, the school's director of network and data center operations. “It's also very important for us to secure the databases on the network we are running 100 percent of the time.”

Hopkins' McCarty says that as part of the school's heavy involvement with the Internet 2 community, Hopkins was among the initial users of the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. LDAP functions as a repository for all user IDs and passwords and is the source for authenticating single sign-ons. Although the school is migrating to single sign-on, with legacy systems in the mix, the migration will take several more years to fully implement, McCarty says.

Expanded Wi-Fi

Another wireless technology that schools are watching closely is the emergence of Wi-Fi phones. In the months ahead, IT managers must decide to what extent they are going to expand their Wi-Fi infrastructures to support the latest crop of wireless phones that are starting to hit the market.

Mike McCarty of Johns Hopkins says the school will continue to focus on wireless security.

Photo Credit: James Kegley

Ohio State has been very active in this area. Charlie Clay, the school's director of network services, says the school has rolled out roughly 5,000 access points capable of supporting Wi-Fi voice services. The school deployed Aruba Networks APs and is testing Wi-Fi voice with about 50 Nortel 6120 Wi-Fi phones.

Clay says these phones are not dual-mode, which means they do not work easily over both a cellular and a Wi-Fi network. In May, Ohio State began testing them with faculty and administrators on campus. Clay expects that once the Nortel CS-2100 telephone switch Session Initiation Protocol upgrade is completed later this year, testing will begin on a dual-mode, cellular/Wi-Fi solution. If implemented, people will be able to use expanded 3G-style messaging and e-mail services using a certified dual-mode smartphone device.

“The goal is to have a seamless cellular-to-Wi-Fi handoff and also offer the kinds of services that our users expect, like five-digit dialing and seamless access to unified communications services,” says Clay.

When asked if there's any payoff to running Wi-Fi phones, Clay says the most obvious savings will come from the deployment of a wireless handset that eliminates the need for wired desktop phones. Other potential savings include reduced cellular network charges and the cost avoidance associated with traditional wiring and the buildout of distributed antenna systems in buildings that have poor cellular coverage.

“The campus is well-suited for Wi-Fi phone technology because of the network investment that's already been made and the reality that a lot of the work and communication that goes on here doesn't take place in an office,” says Clay, who adds that if his group's efforts are successful, many faculty and staff won't need desk phones.

“While the verdict is out on this approach and many billing questions related to dual-mode services need to be answered, this is a good time for us to learn more about the technology and benefits of a unified mobility solution, so we'll continue to run controlled pilots for at least six to nine months,” Clay concludes.

Gartner analyst Bill Clark recommends that IT managers start heading in this direction by budgeting for a site survey with Wi-Fi voice in mind. He says voice may be the application that pushes schools and most other organizations to upgrade their wireless networks to Wireless N.

“The vast majority of Wi-Fi networks were designed for data,” Clark says. “In many ways, upgrading to Wireless N only makes sense if you are thinking about expanding your voice network.”

While Clark recognizes it may be more difficult for some schools to afford a site survey today than it was 18 months ago, the launch of the iPhone 3GS this year has created a real inflection point for technology.

“With the increase in processing power and storage on handsets, plus better displays and the new iPhone's ability to run video, users are in store for a much richer experience,” Clark says.

The challenge to IT staffs, he says, is to set up users so they can seamlessly use their wireless notebooks and 3G phones at home and on the road, and then take advantage of the local Wi-Fi network when they're on campus.

It's all doable, but it takes planning and the kind of support that schools like King College, Purdue, Johns Hopkins and the University of Memphis get from their faculty and administration.

The Mobile IT Staff

An important consideration for top IT managers is to develop a staff that can effectively manage mobile networks. Forrester analyst Chris Silva says mobile operations staff should play a central role in the
following activities:

  • PC and handheld device certification and management: Device certification, which is ensuring a platform's ability to be properly secured and managed, is a critical and central component that requires constant attention to changing technologies. Also, the person who plays the key role in device choice should be the same person who supervises the choice of a tool to manage and secure the devices.
  • Carrier relationships: As wireless services more closely align and the devices are able to act as gateways to both an internal IP PBX and a carrier network, working more closely with the carriers becomes a critical element of mobile operations. In the past, this was telecom's territory and not a part of IT, but that will change.
  • Mobile application development: A mobile operations professional should also be regularly consulted and kept apprised of development initiatives that are likely to depend on and may affect the choice of handheld and other devices that will run the new applications. At a bare minimum, mobile operations will provide capability benchmarks of current systems and insight into future capabilities.
  • Internal mobile network deployments: Mobile operations should play a lead role in the timing and rollout of next-generation network technology such as 802.11n Wi-Fi networks. Mobile operations can coordinate the rollout of such a network and help to select devices supporting the faster throughput of the new standard for users.
<p>David Luttrell</p>