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

Aug 05 2010

Wireless Boost

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

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

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 its existing hodgepodge of indoor wireless access points from a variety of manufacturers 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 an HP-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 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 a week and a half 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 products from several wireless manufacturers, used in smaller installations around the campus, but decided to use Cisco products for the universitywide network project because of their reliability. And with the UW-P network slated to grow through the current three-phase project and beyond, scalability was also a concern.

“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.”

Rip and Replace

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 an 802.11a/g wireless network, which means the new network will support streaming video, voice and multimedia applications. The increased range and speeds of 802.11n ensure a smooth handoff 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 can manage 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,” Ruffino says. So the central management provided by the 5508 controller and WCS software is especially important for a lean IS staff like that at UW-P, he 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, about 20 deployed in new dormitory suites and a small number of spares.

The most tangible return on the investment is the increased use of the 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 that result from having the APs on a single network. To answer queries about 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

Wireless networks enhance learning by offering communication without limits of place, and now with Wireless-N, without bandwidth worries, says Aberdeen Group analyst Andrew Borg.

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 than previous versions to interference from near frequencies;
  • 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.
<p>Mark Battrell</p>

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