Automotive students can now access the Lawson State network wirelessly, says James Mankowich, a network specialist at the college.

Dec 16 2009

Wireless Helps Prepare Students

A new wireless network allows Lawson State Community College's students to access the network from anywhere on campus and enhances their professional training.

At Lawson State Community College in Birmingham, Ala., aspiring auto mechanics can tinker with the same technologies they will ultimately rely on when working for an automobile dealership. While training on Ford, General Motors and Toyota vehicles as part of the college's automotive program, students can log, chart and graph their findings on personal handheld computers that now access the college's network wirelessly.

“Once they get into the dealerships, they'll be working on cars with computers built in,” points out James Mankowich, network specialist at Lawson State. “We wanted to make sure our labs and our shops had the same capabilities. Students can walk right out to a car they're working on while using a wireless computer and not have to run back and forth to review diagrams and other information. It's all right there – they have a steady reference point right next to where they're working.”

Up-and-coming mechanics can participate in this real-world training at Lawson State thanks to a major network upgrade completed at the public college earlier this year. As part of a comprehensive network overhaul, Lawson State deployed a wireless solution that has significantly enhanced learning opportunities at the two-year institution.

“We wanted to integrate, in a state-of-the-art manner, all of the services that we have, and make wireless the pure medium for delivery of all of those services – voice, video, Internet and online classrooms,” Mankowich explains. “It's been phenomenal for us.”

Indeed, since rolling out 135 wireless access points throughout its two Birmingham campuses (which are located across the street from one another), as well as at a third campus 15 miles away in Bessemer, Lawson State has been reaping the hoped-for benefits.

For example, the college's 5,000 students are now able to connect to the Internet on the fly in classrooms that previously didn't even have a computer.

“In the past, students weren't able to get online with their personal laptops, and we didn't allow them to plug into our network for security reasons,” Mankowich says. “Now they can bring their laptops into any classroom and get online.”

Wireless access throughout the campus has also helped alleviate congestion in Lawson State's computer labs. “Some of our labs can get overcrowded, but now students who are between classes can work from anywhere,” Mankowich points out.

Another advantage of the new network is the ability to stream video on and off campus, a process that was previously hampered by antiquated equipment.

“Now instructors can pull video into their classrooms, record lectures and provide a good level of service in delivering those video lectures to students off campus,” Mankowich reports.

As a result of this upgrade, the college has made every class web-supported. “We post everything online,” says Mankowich. “It's a great medium to deliver course content to the students. They can access what they need from anywhere, rather than just when they're sitting in the classroom.”

Supporting Professional Training

Gwendolyn Finch, whose responsibilities as assistant to the dean of student life include supporting the management of the dormitory, agrees. “Having wireless capabilities throughout campus helps students to access everything in the dormitory, as well as in classrooms,” she says. 

The nursing program also benefits from the wireless technology, says Mankowich. Lawson State's aspiring nurses can integrate the tools they will use in their professional arenas, such as handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs).

“Nurses are having to rely more and more on technology while working in hospitals,” Mankowich points out. “We're trying to get them trained in advance while they're here in school on how to use the PDAs, so it's not something that they need to learn when they're out there saving lives.”

At Lawson State, which offers numerous technical programs, the ability to use personal computers on campus is also reducing barriers to technology for some students, according to Mankowich.

“Technology in schools is often growing at a rate faster than what students can keep up with on their own time,” he explains. “Being able to bring it right to them and let them use their own equipment that they feel comfortable with allows them to get more out of what the program is trying to offer.”

Wireless Across Campus

Lawson State is one of a growing number of higher education institutions benefiting from wireless technologies. Over the past few years, a number of exciting developments have been taking place on campuses across the nation, according to J. Gerry Purdy, vice president and chief analyst of mobile and wireless at Frost & Sullivan.

Approximately 90 percent of colleges currently offer wireless access within classrooms, Purdy says, and many are now moving toward providing Wi-Fi across the entire campus, “so students can connect at the bookstore or in the square or in the coffee shop,” he says.

And as smartphones become more pervasive, college administrators have begun to rely on these wireless devices to distribute pertinent information to students, such as safety alerts, class notifications and cancellations, and other breaking news.

“One of the biggest things we've seen universities do is to very easily send an alert to students if there is any concern or problem,” notes Purdy.

Combined with social networking applications, wireless access is also changing the way college students communicate with one another. “They can now share things going on around campus by immediately uploading the information to their Facebook page,” Purdy points out. “Facebook then becomes a university social facilitator because people will not only post personal things, but also if there's a fantastic rally going on. Between students, professors and university administrators, we're finding that it's becoming a new area for augmentation in the college living experience.”

Reducing Support Costs

The implementation of wireless throughout Lawson State's campuses (approved by the university president's cabinet) was part of a larger network upgrade intended to simplify support requirements for the college's limited IT staff while cutting overall costs. Prior to the upgrade, an in-house survey examined such factors as power consumption, the cost for purchasing additional switches to service new network locations, the cost for traditional wiring of the labs, and what was being spent on workstation repairs.

“What we're trying to do – with a very, very small staff – is to bring everything closer, back into our department, and provide more remote availability for computers,” Mankowich reveals. “We decided that if we implemented a wireless system, it would eliminate a lot of those extra costs.”

Furthermore, after deploying a major VoIP solution several years ago, the college required a stronger core infrastructure to deliver services. “The wireless network has allowed us to accomplish that,” reports Mankowich.

The solution has also helped Lawson State deploy racks in a much more streamlined strategy because “it doesn't matter where we locate computers,” says Mankowich. Both of the college's libraries were also converted to wireless, which enabled 40 computers to be placed at the sites, where previously there were only eight.

As expected, the solution has also been a boon for the college's bottom line, reducing costly switches and cabling expenses, and it has allowed Lawson State to easily create new computer labs for which it otherwise would not have had funding.

Centralized Management

To facilitate its wireless network, Lawson State selected the Foundry (now Brocade) IronPoint Mobility Controller 3000 system, which can accommodate up to 150 access points. Offering centralized configuration and management for ease of deployment, the solution eliminates channel planning and cochannel interference problems, while also delivering multilayer security. In addition to integrating easily with existing infrastructure, the solution provides the level of scalability sought by the school.

“We wanted to step forward in the future,” Mankowich explains. “As the school experiences future growth, we don't want to have to upgrade the hardware.”

Instead, the solution allows Lawson State to complete small license upgrades to deliver more service to access points. This scalability also enabled the college to seamlessly comply with the recently approved 802.11n wireless standard; that upgrade was completed throughout campus in March.

Another reason Mankowich chose the Foundry/Brocade system is its ability to operate on a single channel, which was paramount to the college's existing VoIP system. “Many wireless solutions use separate channels. And as you travel from one access point to another, you often experience a discontinuation of service as you change channels,” he explains. “Since we integrated this with VoIP, by not having to change channels, it maintained the quality of service we were providing on the phone side.”

A variety of Foundry/Brocade Networks FastIron SX PoE-ready Layer 2/Layer 3 switches were also deployed throughout campus to deliver a reliable and secure Ethernet and IP service infrastructure, as well as a Foundry FastIron SX 800 chassis bundle.

“The chassis was a major part replacement for the core of our entire network,” Mankowich notes. “It allows us to deliver quality service to the three separate campuses, and increases our ability to process web traffic.”

When it came to securing the network, Mankowich acknowledges that he used a creative approach – coupled with an additional firewall – in order to completely isolate all student traffic from the remainder of the network. “Students and employees log on to different networks, and I can split the traffic,” he adds.

All in the Planning

For other higher education institutions considering a wireless network, Mankowich recommends implementing a careful and systematic design process.

“Make sure that you've planned out your system and the locality of each access point, giving a good balance to where computer labs are and where students are most likely to want to access the system,” he suggests.

The network specialist also cautions IT personnel to thoroughly understand both the architecture and infrastructure of their campus. Noting that some of Lawson State's buildings are approaching 60 years of age, Mankowich says that the construction of the aging buildings is very different from that of newer campus structures.

“It is also important to understand the needs of each individual department, and balance that against how much money you want to spend and the quality of service you want to deliver,” he adds.

At Lawson State, the entire network upgrade – from mapping out the system through implementation and testing – took about three months from the time the equipment was selected. “It took a lot of planning, and there was no magic solution,” Mankowich points out.

Assisting Lawson State at every step along the way was CDW•G, with Account Manager Tyler Davis coordinating the effort.

“I like the person who's selling me equipment to understand what it does, and Tyler has done a great job,” Mankowich shares.

802.11n Takes Wireless to New Heights

Wireless users are now enjoying a much higher standard of service thanks to the recent ratification of 802.11n, an IEEE addendum to the base standard for wireless local area networks (WLANs). 

The key benefits of 802.11n include drastically higher data rates, better throughput, more robust connections and potentially longer range than previous 802.11 wireless standards.

For higher education environments, the standard will support additional users, allow for bandwidth-intensive applications, provide more robust connections and improve applications, such as voice and video, that are sensitive to latency and jitter.

“The higher education environment is right for the 802.11n standard because it enables things like video sharing on campuses to become very viable,” confirms J. Gerry Purdy, vice president and chief analyst of Mobile and Wireless at Frost & Sullivan.

<p>Paul Howell</p>