Tony Brzoskowski says the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wis., built a wireless network that covers 1 million square feet. Photo: Mark Battrell

University Boosts Wireless Network

University of Wisconsin-Parkside builds a new wireless network to meet the needs of students, faculty and staff on the move.

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Before he began to build the University of Wisconsin-Parkside's new
wireless network, Tony Brzoskowski asked the prospective users where they
needed access to the Internet and other computing resources on the 720-acre
campus. The answer came back loud and clear.

“We wanted to let the students drive the placement of access points,
so we asked them where they wanted coverage,” says Brzoskowski, an IS
network services specialist at the university in Kenosha, Wis. “The
answer was pretty simple – ‘everywhere we can be.'”

Students will get their wish when UW-P completes a three-phase project that
will replace the university's existing hodgepodge of indoor wireless
access points from a variety of vendors with a centrally managed Cisco
network. The new network will cover 1 million square feet of the campus, including
parking lots, athletic fields, outdoor classrooms and walkways, along with
academic buildings, residence halls and the headquarters of the campus police
and facilities departments, Brzoskowski says.

The first phase of the project, which replaced existing installations and
provided 802.11n Wi-Fi coverage and a single login system for central campus
buildings, was completed in April. The IS staff is also working to integrate
the new Cisco wireless infrastructure with a Hewlett-Packard-based
wireless network run by Student Life, an organization that includes student
government, clubs and residence hall governance.

The next phase, extending coverage to more indoor academic and administrative
spaces, should be finished this summer, Brzoskowski says. Depending on funding,
the initiative's last phase of expanding wireless connectivity to outdoor
spaces is planned for completion by July 2011.

Expanding overall technology access and the wireless network are priorities
for the university as it works to serve its 5,000 students, says Fred Ebeid,
dean of the UW-P School of Business and Technology.

“This is long overdue. Our students and faculty deserve the access
and flexibility that good wireless coverage provides,” says Ebeid. “We
have lots of computer labs around campus, but students want and need more
flexibility and mobility. They want to be able to communicate and collaborate
just about anywhere, anytime. Wide-ranging and good connectivity has become
a must on campuses, not just something nice to have. It's not just for
notebooks; it's for all the devices people use, especially technology-savvy
students.”

Mapping Out the Project

The groundwork for the new wireless network was laid through an exhaustive
site survey that mapped the campus buildings and grounds, Brzoskowski says.

“We hired a contractor who spent 1.5 weeks surveying every room, locker
room and closet on campus to find the best locations for access points,”
he says. “We told them the level of coverage we wanted, and they indicated
where we would need access points to get that level. The survey is one of
our greatest assets. It gives us a very clear picture of where the entire
project is going and where we have to put access points to give us the coverage
we want in the end.”

The UW-P IS staff had experience with several wireless vendors used in smaller
installations around the campus, but decided to use Cisco products for the
universitywide network project because of their reliability, Brzoskowski says.
Scalability was also a concern, as the UW-P network will grow through the
current three-phase project and beyond, he says.

“We looked at, and seriously considered, other equipment that worked
well for us, but a lot of our research was focused on the setup and how easily
that could be achieved,” he explains. “We chose Cisco because
of its track record and for ease of implementation. The quality and support
we've been getting from Cisco and CDW•G
have been terrific.”

Working from the site survey, the entire wireless networking project will
include installing almost 200 new access points. The initial phase of the
installation consisted of ripping out the existing APs from central campus
buildings and replacing them with 24 Cisco
Aironet
1142 access points providing 802.11n wireless connectivity. A
Cisco
5508
controller running the manufacturer's Wireless
Control System
(WCS) software represents the brains of the deployment,
allowing the UW-P IS staff to monitor and manage the APs from a central console,
Brzoskowski says.

The new Cisco Aironet 1142 802.11n APs offer as much as six times the bandwidth
of 802.11a/g wireless networks, which means the new network will support streaming
video, voice and multimedia applications. The increased range and speeds of
802.11n ensure smooth handoffs from one access point to another for students
using wireless devices on the move, and the new network offers a uniform experience
for users accessing resources on either the wired or wireless network. The
Cisco 5508 wireless controller is capable of managing up to 500 access points
and as many as 7,000 clients simultaneously on the network.

Streamlined Installation

Preparation and installation of the first phase of the wireless project was
“one of the easiest things I've ever done on the job,” notes
Brzoskowski. It took less than 20 hours to install the controller and reconfigure
the UW-P infrastructure for the new APs, he says. The access points run on
Power over Ethernet from existing switches.

After some small adjustments of the UW-P network control protocol, each newly
installed AP found the 5508 controller on the network and downloaded the proper
configuration automatically, says Patrick Ruffino, the university's
other IS network services specialist. Any future changes in the system will
also be pushed out from the controller to all points on the network at once.
This is in “stark contrast” to the old ad hoc wireless network,
where it was necessary to log into each AP individually to make any changes,
Ruffino adds.

Cisco's WCS software lets the IT staff deploy, monitor and troubleshoot
all the APs on the network from a single interface. “We have two people
to take care of all of the university's networking infrastructure and
efficiency matters,” he says. So the central management provided by
the 5508 controller and WCS software is especially important for lean IS staffs
like that at UW-P, Ruffino explains.

Phase one of the wireless project, which was entirely funded by student technology
fees, included the deployment of 44 access points, 24 installed in central
campus buildings, a small number of spares and about 20 deployed in new dormitory
suites.

The most tangible return on the investment can be seen in the increased use
of wireless networks, which has quadrupled since the completion of the first
phase, says Brzoskowski.

“We went from less than 100 connections at a time before the installation
to now almost 400 at peak hours,” he says. “We expect that number
to grow to over 1,000 devices on the network at once, as word spreads about
improved access and the network expands in the later phases.”

Ruffino credits the growing popularity of the new network to the “seamless”
coverage that emerged from access point placements based on the site survey,
along with smoother transitions from point-to-point because the APs are now
on a single network. To answer queries about wireless access, Cisco WCS allows
the IS staff to pull up “heat maps” that show areas of coverage
and the strength of the signal in various locations.

“It must be easier to use because the students are finding the network
and moving around within it,” Ruffino says.

Getting up to Speed with 802.11n

College life is not all physics, English literature and Psychology 101,
which is an important reason why colleges and universities should upgrade
their wireless networks to the high-speed 802.11n standard, says Aberdeen
Group Analyst Andrew Borg.

“For college students, the primary use for wireless networks is entertainment,
not education,” Borg says. “That doesn't mean that they
aren't using the wireless for their schoolwork, but they definitely
need bandwidth for all their devices and games and multimedia applications.”

Colleges have to appeal to students as their primary customers, not faculty
or parents, Borg says. And for the current generation of young people entering
college, their learning styles are not so different from the ways they relax.
The 802.11n network that supports “Star Wars: The Old Republic”
also opens the way for a dazzling variety of bandwidth-hungry educational
applications enhanced with streaming audio and video, as well as interactive
features.

Wireless networks enhance learning by providing interaction and communication
without limits of place and, increasingly with Wireless-N, without worries
about bandwidth, Borg says.

Below are some advantages of 802.11n over previous wireless standards:

  • Theoretical speeds up to 540Mbps, which is 10 times faster than
    802.11g;
  • At close to 300 feet indoors, 802.11n provides twice the range
    of any other version of the 802.11 protocol;
  • The multiple input, multiple output technology on which 802.11n
    is based makes the standard less susceptible to interference from near frequencies
    than previous versions;
  • 802.11n is completely backward compatible to other versions of
    the standard, allowing for a transition through refresh cycles;
  • Most new notebooks and other mobile devices come with built-in
    802.11n adapters, easing the way for users.

 

Jun 11 2010