Feature-rich management tools are making it easier for IT staffs to gain visibility and keep wireless networks available 24x7.
Washington and Lee University sits between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains in the bucolic town of Lexington, Va. Named for George Washington, who endowed a hefty amount to the new school in 1796, and Robert E. Lee, who served as its president from 1865 until his death in 1870, the liberal arts college is steeped in history.
The university is also steeped in 21st century technology that delivers wireless access to computing resources throughout the campus. On top of the wireless network, W&L's IT department has layered management tools that help administrators and the help desk keep the wireless infrastructure up and running around the clock.
In summer 2010, W&L redesigned its wireless network, standardizing on a single manufacturer. Now there are 460 802.11n access points and six controllers from Aruba Networks that support an average of 1,000 students, faculty, staff and guests at any given time. Aruba's Airwave software delivers the management and monitoring capabilities.
The newly refreshed wireless network is a must-have today, says Thomas Tinsley, W&L's director of networks and telecommunications. He says students expect wireless access for their notebooks, smartphones and tablets from wherever they are, whenever they need it.
"A network cable is often as foreign a concept to the students as a slide-rule," Tinsley says. "A robust wireless network is simply a given."
W&L Network Engineer Michael Courtney recalls a day not too long ago when, because of work that had to be done, some students were asked to plug their computers into the LAN. The response? "A cable? That is so 1990s," laughs Courtney.
This high demand has put the wireless network – and the administrators and help desk staffers who monitor it – on notice. That's why W&L uses Aruba's Airwave software, which offers the staff insight into all of the areas that affect the network's performance and quality, including the radio frequency environment, the controllers, access points – even the wired infrastructure. It delivers real-time monitoring, proactive alerts, historical reporting, location and mapping and troubleshooting via an easy-to-use interface.
Such features have become very important to IT managers today. Tracy Corbo, senior analyst with Enterprise Management Associates, says because many existing network monitoring tools may not offer enough end-to-end visibility into the network, it is critical that the wireless manufacturers make their solutions as rich and insightful, yet easy to use, as possible.
"Any tools that can help quickly resolve a problem, or at least task the right team members quickly to resolve a problem, are always welcome," she says.
Other universities are also using the latest tools to manage wireless networks. At Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa., a Cisco Systems wireless network offers students, faculty and staff access to all buildings and residential dorms. During peak times, there are as many as 1,275 wireless clients – everything from notebooks, smartphones and even various game consoles – authenticated to the wireless network, says Matt Haile, network specialist at the college.
Haile and his colleagues manage the wireless network's performance using the Cisco Wireless Control System, as well as surveys and end-user input. The WCS offers a comprehensive view of the entire network via a web interface and can be used to manage the controllers to ensure that configurations stay consistent throughout the entire wireless LAN.
The WCS dashboard offers a variety of information, such as how many radios are up or down, which are the top APs by client count, where coverage holes exist and even how many rogue devices are connected, Haile notes. There's even built-in troubleshooting that gives Haile and his colleagues a real-time view of a client trying to authenticate and connect to the wireless network.
Bryant & Stratton College uses Meru Network's E(z)RF Network Manager, which delivers statistics and information, such as the number of users and total throughput, by culling data from the controllers. The tool offers visibility and troubleshooting capabilities across the network. That's important to the institution, which has 18 campuses in Ohio, New York, Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as an online campus.
The wireless network comprises about 350 access points, and each campus has its own controller, says Ernest Lehmann, the college's CIO. The campus controllers all feed into one main controller at one of the college's main sites in Buffalo, N.Y. The IT staff use the management software for monitoring critical alerts, network traffic and users who have trouble connecting.
The solution also has a graphical map that delivers visibility into all of the college's access points, as well as rogue access points. "We can also update controllers for firmware or any changes," says Lehmann.
The percentage of students surveyed who own either a wireless notebook or netbook
SOURCE: EDUCAUSE survey of 36,950 college students
Thanks to these wireless management software systems, help desk administrators can now handle basic connectivity issues that come up, which lets IT focus on more critical problems, as well as other IT initiatives that require their attention.
At W&L, improving the help desk is a big win. "Before the redesign, the wireless network was like a black box," says Courtney, explaining that the help desk could walk users through problems on the phone, but couldn't see the network. Typically, the help desk would have to pass a problem on to the next tier of response, even if it might have been easily resolved. Now, the help desk staff has full read-only access to Aruba's Airwave.
Using Airwave, the help desk can see the type of connection, whether it is a staff, student or guest connection, or whether the connection is performing optimally. Help desk staffers can view a single screen and instantly see how well the nearby radios are performing and whether there are any trouble spots. If the network performance looks good, the help desk can deduce that there is probably something wrong with the notebook and suggest that the user bring it in.
Airwave's capabilities will be expanded, says Tinsley. In the future, W&L plans to take advantage of a number of other features, including heat maps that deliver data visualization using colors to represent data values in a two-dimensional image, the ability to instantly locate any client and a variety of canned and customized reports.
Wireless Management Must-Haves
Here are some of the top features to look for in wireless management software:
- Real-time alerting
- Authentication and authorization services
- Automated configuration management
- Automatic audits of infrastructure that can be compared with policy to catch vulnerabilities and security risks
- Dashboards designed for different tiers of support, from the help desk to the CIO
- A data repository for analyzing historical performance, trending and planning
- Integrated spectrum analysis that can scan the airwaves for interference