A university IT perspective on creating an all-wireless residence life environment.
GUEST COLUMN | by Richard Chan
At West Chester University, the largest of the 14 universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, we faced a significant IT challenge. Our 5,000+ students living on campus were bringing their own wireless routers and plugging them into the wired ports in our residence halls and student apartments. As the volume of these routers grew, the problems caused by interference – and the resulting calls to our Help Desk – escalated. Clearly, we had to figure out a better way to deliver the reliable, high-performing wireless access our students were demanding, while meeting the network security and cost efficiency parameters that our IT Department required.
The new 802.11ac student housing wireless LAN (WLAN) is also supporting online courses, distance learning, social media and HD video streaming.
After reviewing our options, we elected to deploy a new 802.11ac infrastructure throughout our student housing, covering both indoors and out. The higher speeds, throughput and security of 802.11ac make it a solid match for supporting the escalating number of devices and bandwidth-intensive applications our students are using on campus. Working with technology solutions provider Comm Solutions, we deployed an Aruba Networks Gigabit Wi-Fi infrastructure and can now accommodate the more than 50,000 unique devices we see on the network almost daily. Additionally, by eliminating cabling costs and going all-wireless in our student housing, we’ve been able to realize over $1 million in total cost savings. As an added bonus, decreases in electrical consumption and wired switch cooling costs have offered significant reductions in the carbon footprint of our student residence facilities, matching our larger sustainability initiatives and goals by enabling us to reduce our carbon emissions by over 100 metric tons.
In addition to providing for our students’ basic wireless needs, the new 802.11ac student housing wireless LAN (WLAN) is also supporting online courses, distance learning, social media and HD video streaming. So far, we have been getting positive reviews of the network from our students. They appreciate the ability to reliably connect from anywhere in the residence areas.
The new infrastructure is comprised of over 1,000 indoor and outdoor access points (APs) with the company’s ClientMatch™ technology, which intelligently pairs wireless devices with the best available AP to ensure the highest network performance and the best user experience. It does this by gathering performance information from mobile devices and using it to intelligently steer each device to the best AP based on signal strength, traffic load and connection type. With ClientMatch, our students are able to move seamlessly between locations served by the Wi-Fi network.
With the number of apps being used by our students continually rising, the AppRF technology in our APs has been important in helping to ensure critical apps have priority on the network. With AppRF, we can set a policy and limit bandwidth for streaming video from specific apps for specific groups of users. Just as easily, all streaming video apps can be rate-limited across all users to ensure first priority is given to academic related apps.
Robust security and management capabilities were also a key consideration when making decisions about the new student housing network. We are using the same company’s ClearPass Access Management System to manage network policies, onboard and manage devices securely and admit guest users, all from a single platform. With ClearPass, we are able to get the 50,000 unique devices we are seeing daily connected and configured quickly and efficiently. Our students can now configure their own devices for secure access without involving our IT department, saving time and resources. We can also automatically check every computing device that connects to the network, regardless of ownership or type, to ensure it meets security compliance requirements. Devices that fail to comply can be redirected for remediation. In addition, we are able to use contextual attributes for controlling network traffic priority, which ensures wireless activities related to teaching and learning, aren’t competing with off-hours endeavors.
On the network management front, we are utilizing Aruba’s AirWave Network Management System to help us diagnose network issues. With AirWave, we are able to access a visual representation of each AP, and its location, at every facility, along with the number of users connected to a specific AP and whether they’re using an institution-owned or BYOD device. We are also able to access current and historical device information and reports on applications and their performance. With this level of visibility, we can resolve in minutes problems that previously took hours to address, improving our operational efficiency and reducing network downtime.
With the new student housing infrastructure, more than 95% of our campus has wireless coverage. As our connectivity needs continue to evolve, due to changes such as offering more online courses or mixed classrooms, we plan to move to 802.11ac and all-wireless for the entire campus. The success of the residence life deployment is giving us the confidence to review the potential of an all-wireless enterprise, campus-wide.
Richard Chan is Assistant Director of Networking and Telecommunications at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.