A math teacher asks students to use their cell phones to participate in a poll concerning how to solve a problem. In the library down the hall, students do online research for a science project on their notebook computers.
These examples of technology at work in instruction have become common sights throughout the Verona Area School District in the year since it replaced its outdated Wi-Fi network with an 802.11n wireless one. Today, all 4,900 students attending the district's 10 schools in Verona and Fitchburg, Wis., enjoy the educational benefits made possible by an Aruba Networks–equipped network.
The solution currently comprises two Aruba 6000 mobility controllers and 270 wireless access points — Aruba AP-105 APs in classrooms and AP-125 APs in gymnasiums, performing arts venues and "anywhere we think we'll have a higher number of devices," says Network Manager Bruce Kiefaber. "We average 400 to 500 devices on the network at any given time — about half of the network's 1,000-device capacity — and we expect rapid growth."
According to Director of Educational Technology Services Betty Wottreng, room for growth is critical. "Improving our Wi-Fi strategy makes it possible for students and staff to bring their own devices," she says. "Our high school students were anxious for us to have the capacity, and we knew it was just a matter of time before our middle and elementary students also would want access to their e-readers, tablets and other devices at school."
In the Weeds
Having completed their transition to 802.11n wireless, Verona officials recommend these best practices to others that are just getting started.
Do the research. Every district has unique needs and resources. While one might require a turnkey solution installed by the manufacturer, another may have in-house expertise and prefer that its IT staff perform integration and support tasks. Finding the right fit requires due diligence.
At Verona, this included product demonstrations from a half-dozen wireless solutions providers, as well as discussions with peers. "We relied on reference checks," Wottreng says. Of primary importance was finding a vendor with "a very strong record for providing technical support."
Prioritize requirements. Identify the criteria that matter most, and then rank them in order of importance.
According to Kiefaber, Verona chose Aruba because the company's approach simplified expansion. "Just plug an access point into a Power over Ethernet port," he explains. "Because the AP configurations are stored in the controller, the AP pulls down the configuration, reboots, and it's live."
Kiefaber and Wottreng also liked the simplicity of Aruba's interface. Rather than dividing management tools by function, the company puts them all in one place. "The interface makes it quick and easy to do what needs to be done," Kiefaber says.
Most important, Verona looked for high availability with low overhead. "It's no secret that districts have limited budgets," Wottreng says. "Reliability was a common theme among districts we talked to that had adopted Aruba: Once they had it in place, it just worked."
Seek expert assistance. Leverage trusted technology partners to provide invaluable assistance throughout the design and deployment process. For Verona, that meant collaborating with both CDW•G and Aruba.
"We provided our floor plans and building materials to our CDW•G representatives, who used predictive analysis software to determine how many access points we'd need," Kiefaber says. Once the hardware was in place, an Aruba engineer spent time onsite providing setup and configuration assistance.
"We lack the resources to become experts on large new systems," he continues. "It was important to have reliable, knowledgeable partners who could provide us with expertise before, during and after the deployment."
Map it out. Start with floor plans for each building that will be equipped with wireless, and then make AP placement adjustments based on the architectural features of each building, on use patterns and on manufacturer recommendations.
For one district building with a significant amount of glass between a classroom and the hallway, the Aruba engineer recommended moving APs toward the interior, "away from the glass," Kiefaber says. "This prevented the radio signals from passing through the glass as readily and bouncing down the hallway."
The IT team also needed to tweak to ensure the right coverage. Such tweaks involved using a denser mix of APs and running them at lower power to minimize signal interference and reduce congestion.
Plan for permanent, ad-hoc growth. Today's wireless networks are works in progress. As a result, districts must build in capacity to address emerging needs. "If we know we'll have an influx of demand, we can stick in a few temporary APs to bump up coverage," Kiefaber says.
Having that ability to add APs hinges on the functionality of the controllers, Wottreng adds. "We selected a slightly larger model, which enables us to build out quickly and efficiently," she says.
Architect availability. To maximize uptime, pay close attention to design and configuration. For Verona, this meant deploying controllers in a master/slave configuration and placing them in physically distant locations.
Ensuring the seamlessness of the user experience is equally important. "With Aruba, if an access point fails, neighboring access points will sense the failure and boost their signal strength to provide better coverage," Kiefaber says. "We've also enabled features within the controllers to make handoffs smooth for roaming devices."
Adjust the wired network as needed. The basics are the same for all districts: Bandwidth, switches and traffic management are critical. Because Verona's networking infrastructure already used optical fiber, core adjustments weren't required. But the IT team did add HP ProCurve 24-port PoE switches to wiring closets to accommodate the access points, Kiefaber says. "In some areas, we lacked open ports on some of our switches to connect the APs," he explains, "and some of our existing switches didn't provide PoE. Adding the ProCurve switches resolved that."
Additionally, the district upgraded its firewall and web-filtering device to supply better tools for prioritizing and managing Internet traffic.
Set user policies. Include a review of end-user policies and practices in a wireless project to make access rules current and to ensure that the new network is used properly. Then, revise online or printed directives accordingly.
Outlining for users what they can expect from the wireless networking experience is especially important. "We don't grant printing privileges to BYOD devices, for example, and we define what support we can — and cannot — provide for such devices," Wottreng explains.
Stay flexible. Above all, be ready for change. "Flexibility is key," Kiefaber says. "Make sure you can adjust your configurations quickly and efficiently to meet whatever needs come along."
Districts are upgrading their wireless networks to the 802.11n standard for three key reasons.
Dual frequency: Because 802.11n operates at 2.4-gigahertz and 5GHz frequencies, access points will automatically select the one with the least ambient interference.
Higher performance: Improved antenna technology and other advancements make 802.11n networks capable of speeds up to 10 times faster than 802.11g.
Field upgradability: This feature helps future-proof deployments by ensuring compatibility as technology advances.