Mark Young and David Hamwey of the University of Puget Sound say that the new campuswide wireless network attracts students to the university.

Feb 05 2011

Puget Sound's Quest for Wireless Network Expansion

The University of Puget Sound delivers more speed, coverage and access campuswide.

The University of Puget Sound delivers more speed, coverage and access campuswide.

The drive to remain a competitive and modern learning institution prompted the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., to initiate a $240,000 wireless network overhaul, bolstering coverage from approximately 150 access points to nearly 400.

“There was the realization on the university's part that wireless access was really a differentiator in terms of competing for students,” says Mark Young, Puget's Sound's director of network and server systems. “We view a campus with a wireless network as something that any good college should have.”

The move to wireless at the university dates back to 2003, when the campus deployed wireless access points to a handful of residence halls and public areas such as the library and student union building.

“We considered expanding in 2004, but we found it was going to be difficult due to the cost involved and the fact that the existing system wasn't easily manageable,” Young explains.

A couple of years later, during a science center expansion, the university sought to make the newly renovated building entirely wireless, adding an Aruba system to the facility.

“The new system not only offered better manageability than the existing one, but we also found it to be more cost-effective,” Young says.

However, operating two disparate systems in parallel posed its own set of challenges, from both a monetary and a management standpoint.

“After the expansion of the science center, we ran the two systems but always meant to transition to just the new Aruba system,” Young explains. “But we [couldn't] make the transition easily to completely get rid of the old system.”

Puget Sound is not alone in its struggle. In fact, one of the main reasons colleges deploy a campuswide wireless network is because those with older buildings tend to have limited wired and data access.

“Often it is easier and more cost-­effective to ‘light up' a campus than to rewire a building,” explains James Brehm of research firm Frost & Sullivan.

By summer of 2008, Puget Sound recognized it could no longer make do with the disjointed combination of access points, which together covered only 30 percent of the campus's
indoor facilities.

“We decided to just cut the knot, bite the bullet and do the project,” Young says.

With the goal of extending wireless coverage to all residential, academic and administrative spaces, as well as key outdoor areas, Puget Sound began investigating comprehensive alternatives. Ultimately, the university settled on an Aruba wireless network controller and access points, which it implemented in summer 2009.

Improved Learning

Since rolling out the new system, administrators have noticed a clear shift in how students study, from researching topics to cramming for exams.

“The wireless access has really enhanced the quality of study habits,” Young points out. “We've seen computers playing a much bigger part. Students tend to come together all over the place in small study groups, and they can all gather easily with their notebooks now.”

Lestraundra Alfred, a senior majoring in business, reports that the new system has dramatically increased the convenience of online access and has also significantly bolstered productivity, as students no longer have to wait for slow, shared Internet connections.

“The wireless additions on campus have truly enriched my academic experience,” she says. “My freshman year, I lived in a residence hall that did not have wireless Internet access, and I would often find myself having to go to other venues to get a fast, reliable connection to conduct research and fulfill my assignments. Now, the ability to do that anywhere on campus is very helpful.”

The new network has also been embraced in science labs, where reliable wireless access assists with analyzing and collecting data. The system has even improved leisure time across campus, with many more students relaxing in campus coffee shops with their computers open, according to Young.

“Before, the notebooks tended to stay in the bag,” he says. “Now we can support students bringing their notebooks to class or wherever else they desire.”

Campuswide Convenience

Instructors are benefiting, as well. “Our faculty have a portability they didn't have before,” Young notes. “They are able to locate themselves wherever they wish.”

“I use wireless all the time,” says Barry Goldstein, a professor of geology at Puget Sound. “Since my university computer is a notebook, it allows me to instantly access everything available on [the faculty information portal] or on the web, wherever I am on campus. And it allows me to more effectively work with students, faculty and staff in a much broader array of situations than if I were tied to a desktop.”

The university's staff is also taking advantage of wireless.

“To some extent, the wireless access has changed the face of meetings,” Young explains. “Administrators and faculty can now be connected during meetings and look things up or make notes as needed.”

For the university's IT staff, the Aruba solution has dramatically simplified network operations. “It is so much easier to manage one system than two,” Young confirms.

Furthermore, because the Aruba solu­tion offers thin access-point technology, network administrators can maintain the comprehensive, campuswide wireless system by using the controller in the server room.

“All we have to do to bring up a new AP is plug it in to the network, and it gets its configuration from the controller and begins serving almost immediately,” Young reports. With the old wireless network, every AP had to be configured individually.

In addition to its ease of use, Young values the additional functionality of the Aruba solution.

“It has so many more capabilities than our previous system,” he says, pointing to advantages such as the ability to map campus buildings and receive information about the performance of each access point. But, by far, the most indispensable benefit is the solution's level of reliability.

“With our previous wireless network, students were impacted, and it caused interruptions in their day,” explains Network Manager David Hamwey. “Customer complaints are what we are trying to avoid. Ease of use and flexibility are required for today's wireless demands.”


The estimated percentage of U.S. colleges that will offer campuswide wireless access by 2014

SOURCE: Frost & Sullivan

The old wireless network also demanded considerable technical support and troubleshooting, consuming valuable administrative time, Hamwey acknowledges. “The majority of my support was related to wireless issues.”

The new wireless system is poised to accommodate the university's growth, particularly from a user's perspective, by adapting to technological trends.

“We are experiencing an ever-increasing demand on our wireless network from smartphones, iPads and notebooks,” Hamwey says. “The Aruba network has the capacity to meet this.”

“Universities have tremendous bandwidth demands,” confirms Frost & Sullivan's Brehm. “In addition to using the network for research, lecture halls must serve a large number of users with multimedia content at any given time.”

Brehm adds that enhanced physical security is yet another benefit derived from implementing a wireless network. “If you deploy Wi-Fi access across the campus, it is very easy to also deploy IP video surveillance for student protection,” he notes, adding that certain layered security solutions can offer even more security than a wired LAN.

The wireless implementation earned an A+ from the university. “It was a really straightforward project,” Young says. “It was a lot of fun to do, and it's really been a great experience.”

<p>Paul S. Howell</p>