Our Journey to Gigabit Wi-Fi

Strategic initiative positions University at Buffalo for the future of mobility and IoT.

GUEST COLUMN | by J. Brice Bible

CREDIT Univ of Buffalo IT.jpgDespite every higher-ed constituency relying on Wi-Fi, for most of us our students clamor the loudest. And, like others, we learn at least as much about how well we’re meeting the expectations of University at Buffalo students from social media as we do from help desk calls. Our legacy wireless network – originally designed for basic, low-bandwidth connectivity at the turn of the millennium – became the top complaint across the board. When I arrived in 2013, criticisms on social media proliferated and our help desk calls overflowed. At about the same time, we launched an institutional growth period.

As we continue preparing our university for the future, we plan to extend coverage to outdoor areas and evaluate new wireless-enabled technologies – like mobile engagement for location-based services and wayfinding.

Thankfully, our progressive new leadership recognized the need for modernizing technologies to meet our various goals. This made a Wi-Fi refresh Priority One.

Transformation Begins

As the IT department for the flagship institution in the State University of New York (SUNY) system, we support 30,000 students and over 6,000 employees across our three campuses, which are comprised of more than 1,200 acres, with 150 buildings totaling 10 million square feet.

When we kicked off the project in 2015, our existing network was based on 802.11n technology. This made a wholesale upgrade to 802.11ac the clear choice for gaining wire-like Gigabit Wi-Fi performance in our densely packed environment and meeting expectations for fast connectivity, everywhere, all of the time.

Further, given the explosion in Wi-Fi demand, we decided to plan for device counts of three to four per person in order to size our wireless LAN (WLAN) adequately, meaning we’d need to roughly double the number of access points (APs) as we’d had before

This worked out to installing about 6,000 APs just for our academic buildings and residence halls. Sports arenas would come later.

To manage such complexity also required robust tools to automate access, provide strong security and streamline network administration. This included unifying access for the new WLAN with our existing wired network.

As we looked for the best way to build out our new WLAN, we evaluated several solutions and ultimately selected Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company.

Then we divided the WLAN environment into three categories: wireless hardware – including access points and mobility controllers, network management and network access control (NAC). For each category we conducted a formal proof of concept (PoC), using a complete floor in our Computing Center for each contender.

Although we were open to a heterogeneous solution, in each category we selected Aruba based on taxpayer-friendly pricing, intuitive management tools and the availability of appropriate products, such as a cost-effective, high performance “dorm/hospitality” type of AP.

For NAC, we were particularly impressed with the greater flexibility of deployment configurations and customization options with context-aware policies, which will help us meet two organizational goals. First, we can achieve differentiated and secure access across our wired and wireless networks. And second, it permits creating a guest network we can leverage for automatically nudging users to register all of their personal devices.

Parallel Deployment Tracks

While relatively uneventful, deploying our new solution involved an abundance of moving parts. To make it manageable, we divided the project into two parallel tracks – one for academic and classroom buildings, the other for residence halls.

On the academic side, we started in the largest buildings with the biggest concentrations of academic spaces, including libraries and large lecture halls, based on age of the existing technology. We sprinkled in smaller buildings as we worked through the schedule, again replacing the oldest tech first.

At this point, we’re nearly finished with the academic buildings and, because we can only access them in the summer, about half of the dorm rooms. Regardless, we’re on track to complete the deployment before the 2017-2018 academic year begins.

Social Media Complaints Erased

In the locations with new Gigabit Wi-Fi, we’re seeing a range of positive results. First, residence halls equipped with the new Wi-Fi infrastructure have seen a 21% increase in satisfaction, based on student surveys, compared to those still on the legacy network.

Via Aruba’s AirWave network management solution, we’ve witnessed Wi-Fi statistics going through the roof. As soon as we complete a residence hall, wired utilization drops by roughly 75 percent.

Academically, students report an increasing reliance on Wi-Fi for classroom collaborations. Plus, we’re able to support our institution’s strategic move to online and hybrid leaning models, where videos and recorded lecture utilization is growing exponentially.

Lower Management Overhead

Operationally, the deployment is reducing IT burdens while also achieving our wired and wireless access security objectives. Although we’ve significantly increased the number and density of APs, the new management solutions are reducing complexity and enabling us to focus on other tasks.

For NAC, we’re working toward unifying wireless and wired management across our environment, as the Aruba ClearPass tool enables us to do both within the same software.

On the wireless side, we’ve already condensed our previous landscape of six SSIDs down to three. Ultimately, our goal is one SSID for 802.1x access to our internal systems and one for everything else.

In addition, our new NAC is helping us move to required registration and authentication of every networked device. For example, today we have approximately 6,000 APs, 10,000 VoIP phones and over 100,000 other end-user devices. The NAC determines whether a device is an AP, a phone or other device and applies the appropriate policies in real-time, avoiding the need to individually register all devices. With the expectation for IoT devices on our network to continue to increase, this capability will become even more critical.

Next Up: Analytics, AI and Ever-More IoT

As we continue preparing our university for the future, we plan to extend coverage to outdoor areas and evaluate new wireless-enabled technologies – like mobile engagement for location-based services and wayfinding.

What’s more, we’re excited about the possibilities that forthcoming Wi-Fi innovations – like integrating machine learning and big data predictive analytics – offer for helping us to adaptively, and proactively, managing our network for even greater resiliency and IT efficiency.

Bottom line: in a world where Wi-Fi needs to work at peak performance, 100 percent of the time in all locations, we now have the infrastructure we need for today and the scalability we’ll require for meeting the evolving demands of tomorrow.

J. Brice Bible has served as Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the University at Buffalo, the flagship campus of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, since 2013. He is responsible for the oversight of all components of UB’s information technology with a particular focus on advancing UB’s research and education mission as a progressive university. He has over 20 years of experience in higher education information technology services and has managed $35 million annual budgets with divisions as large as 300 people.

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