Future-Proofing with Gigabit Wi-Fi

IoT capabilities and a myriad of benefits come with wireless refresh.

GUEST COLUMN | by Dan Corbeil

CREDIT Dan Corbeil UNH Telecomm accesspoints.jpgAt the turn of this decade, about the time Apple unveiled the iPad, we rolled out a system-wide wireless implementation to address the trend toward students bringing laptops to campus. We took care to align the implementation with contemporary Wi-Fi deployment models, including access points (APs) running down the center of the hallways in our residence halls to provide sufficient coverage.

Fast-forward just four years later and our students were starting to voice concern with their Wi-Fi experiences in their dorm rooms and throughout campus.

Forklift Proves Inevitable

As a flagship research institution, our IT systems support 16,000 students and 2,000 faculty and staff spread across 2,600 acres and 150 buildings that total 10 million square feet. Like many institutions, meeting the connectivity expectations of our constituencies is critical to competing for highly motivated students, faculty members and researchers.

As a flagship research institution, our IT systems support 16,000 students and 2,000 faculty and staff spread across 2,600 acres and 150 buildings that total 10 million square feet.

Upon studying our wireless situation, it became clear technology had evolved quickly and we needed wire-like Gigabit Wi-Fi and a forklift upgrade to an 802.11ac WLAN was inevitable.

The resulting RFP in late 2015 emphasized our requirements for a future-proof solution to handle exploding per-person device counts and enable scaling-up as capacity demands evolved. Additionally, we needed advanced management tools for streamlining WLAN administration and troubleshooting to reduce the burdens of an expanded Wi-Fi network on our lean IT staff.

Contender Stands Out

In early 2016, we began reviewing RFP responses and invited three vendors to campus. Overall, we were most impressed with the technology and the collaborative culture of Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company.

On the technology side, several capabilities stood out. The first was the built-in capability of ClientMatch, where the AP measures the health of all associated clients and shares the information with the controller, which then determines the best available AP for each client. Unique among the leading vendors we considered, the feature ensures smooth hand-offs and provides seamless experiences wherever our users roam.

The intuitive network management platform AirWave was another deciding factor. In particular, we were excited about the Clarity module, which enables proactively monitoring critical non-RF metrics, such as the time it takes for a mobile device to associate with a Wi-Fi radio. In addition, the platform supplies custom alerts and performs simulated client testing.

Instead of the traditional paradigm, where we dispatch service staff when trouble arises, we envisioned using Clarity to detect possible issues and resolve them before they affected users.

Equally important were high-performance 802.11ac Wave 2 APs, for which we selected a series that included integrated Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacon technology. This strategy smooths the path for integrating emerging technologies like location-based services.

Satisfaction Across Classrooms, Dorm Rooms and Our Arena

By start of the 2016-2017 academic year we’d fully deployed our new WLAN in residence halls. Later in the school year, a student survey showed an 80 percent satisfaction rate, which is a vast improvement.

In the classroom, faculty members are excited to begin incorporating more mobile and collaborative technologies into their curriculum.

This summer, we completed the update of our 6,500-seat Whittmore Center Arena, an Olympic-sized venue that is home to our hockey teams. It also hosts NCAA championship games and serves as a concerts and event venue.

Moving to Proactive Management

In IT, we’re benefiting in multiple ways. For example, we see how much bandwidth is being requested for non-academic uses, like gaming or Netflix streaming. This allows us to plan for future enhancements and upgrades accordingly.

We’ve also gained extensive and flexible reporting features for generating intuitive reports for our UNH administration. Such documents help them understand various metrics, such as Wi-Fi utilization rates, growth in connectivity demands and which applications users access. These reports are an excellent way to help non-technical decision makers visualize the Wi-Fi demands of today and partner with IT to plan for tomorrow.

We also adopted Aruba’s network access control (NAC) solution, ClearPass, to enable policy-based device and user access for strong security. As we already deployed CloudPath for onboarding, we integrated it with the NAC solution and the two systems work well together.

Additionally, we’re monitoring performance in lecture halls to ensure we have the capacity to address device densities and curriculum modifications. Should we begin seeing degradation, we can upgrade to APs with faster uplinks.

Next Up: Analytics, Outdoors and More

Moving forward, we’ll start addressing outdoor connectivity, beginning with the highest traffic areas. For that effort, we may consider mesh technology to overcome terrain challenges.

We’re also excited about the potential to leverage location-based services. Although wayfinding could be an option, the innovations are of greater interest for their analytics capabilities.

Location-based analytics could provide us with a granular understanding of how students move around campus and lead to implementing mechanisms that reduce bottlenecks, improve lighting or address other issues where we currently lack visibility.

We’re also interested in exploring the potential for using location-based services to help us understand authentication failures. Currently, we believe most failures result when students move away from covered areas, but are unable to substantiate it or warn users of imminent connectivity loss.

For instance, we could map a student’s device on-screen as a blue dot. Then, as the student moves outside a building and nears the limit of coverage, the blue dot could turn red, as a warning, and back to blue if the student steers back into the coverage area. On the IT side, this type of data would allow us to distinguish which authentications are true failures – and need remediation – versus those generated by exiting coverage areas.

IoT, Sustainability Take Us Into The Future

In short, our new WLAN not only handles current demands, but also offers us the flexibility and scalability to evolve our infrastructure to address the various needs of tomorrow.

For example, our infrastructure holds possibilities for supporting our carbon footprint reduction goals. One mechanism would be IoT sensors. Such technology is increasingly being deployed in higher education to improve efficiencies, like automating HVAC, which helps reduce carbon demand.

As a nationally recognized sustainability leader, it’s beneficial for our Wi-Fi infrastructure to include capabilities that can support our sustainability efforts while simultaneously enabling us to provide the high quality educational and research opportunities our university community expects every day.

Dan Corbeil has been with the University of New Hampshire Telecommunications department since 1994 and served as the Operations Manager since 2005, where he and his team supports UNH’s mission as a recognized national and international research institution. The research portfolio at the three-campus, 150-year-old UNH includes partnerships with NASA, NOAA, NSF and NIH, receiving more than $100 million in competitive external funding every year to explore and define the frontiers of land, sea, and space.

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