By the time the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) ratified a final version of the 802.11n protocol last September, Bryant University had been using technology based on a draft of the wireless standard for more than a year.
“We were in the position where we secured funding for a major wireless upgrade, and it only made sense to go with 11n,” says Richard Siedzik, director of computer and telecommunications services at Bryant, a private business and liberal arts college in Smithfield, R.I.
“It was a little early, but it was mature enough that we were going to get everything we needed with the draft, and we felt that anything else was mostly bells and whistles,” Siedzik says.
Bryant is one of many colleges and universities that moved ahead with 802.11n deployments before the IEEE completed its long journey to final approval of the high-speed standard, which has been under consideration and development since 2002.
With theoretical speeds of up to 600 megabits per second, which is 10 times faster than 802.11g (and twice the range of any previous 802.11 protocol), Wireless N was too good to wait for.
“Wireless is the preferred method of connecting to the network,” Siedzik says. “Some students, especially freshmen, have never plugged into a network through a wire in their lives. There's an expectation from the students and their parents that wireless will be there and that they can run almost anything over it.”
Bryant students are certainly not unique in their expectations, says Andrew Borg, a senior research analyst at the Aberdeen Group. With many prospective undergraduates comparing IT infrastructures before they choose a college, the pressure on institutions to offer high-speed wireless is mounting, he says.
“The pressure comes from undergraduate consumption of broadband media content,” Borg says.
60%: The number of IT managers at colleges and universities who say that pressure from users to deliver wireless LAN coverage at all locations is driving their wireless technology investment.
Source: Aberdeen Group
Bryant, which has a Cisco wireless infrastructure, accomplished the switch to Wireless N by swapping out its existing 802.11g antennas deployed in 500 access points in classrooms and residence halls across campus and replacing them with 802.11n hardware. The university has not yet installed outdoor access points, but the extended reach of the indoor network usually makes a wireless connection available in the outside areas where students congregate.
Wireless N delivers increased performance and reliability, Siedzik says. The new protocol also supports some voice and video applications that were marginal at best over Bryant's 802.11g network – capabilities that prepare the university for the future.
Barnard College's IT staff definitely looked to the future when in 2008 it began to replace a deteriorating wired infrastructure in the school's dormitories with a wireless network, says Thomas Sobczak, director of management information and network services at Barnard in New York City, a private liberal arts college for women.
As they compared offerings from manufacturers, Sobczak and his team initially considered products based on 802.11a-g. Eventually, they selected Meru Networks because of its high reliability and the way it easily managed handoffs between access points as user sessions traveled through the network. Once they decided on Meru, the Barnard IT staff opted for an 802.11n network.
“We decided we wanted to build for the next 30 years, not just catch up from the last 30 years,” Sobczak says. “We bit the bullet, and the cost difference wasn't really all that great.”
Six of Barnard's 10 dorms are now equipped with 802.11n and two more are scheduled for a Wireless N deployment this summer, Sobczak says. The remaining residence halls were the test sites in the vendor selection process and have 802.11a-g wireless that will be replaced by N when it's time to refresh the hardware, he says.
Common areas on Barnard's New York campus have had wireless connectivity since 2004, and have now been switched to 802.11n as well. The college also plans to build a wireless VoIP phone system based on Meru's Wireless N technology within the next few years.
“It's a little early, but after a year N has been more reliable and throughput has been greater,” Sobczak says. “Because of the technology we chose, we rarely if ever get a drop-off, and we don't get any complaints at this point.”
Administration of the wireless access points has been the biggest challenge arising from Barnard's 802.11n deployment, Sobczak says. The Wireless N features that create increased broadband speed and connectivity, such as multiple antennas and additional channel width, also create complexity, he says.
“I would recommend that any institution taking the N route, no matter what technology they use, look seriously into the management of those wireless access points before taking the plunge,” Sobczak says.
The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., upgraded to 802.11n in summer 2008, although the school first deployed wireless in 2002, says Harold Knapp, associate director of IT services and network operations director. By 2006, the college's existing network of autonomous devices was becoming increasingly hard to manage, and the IT staff investigated Aruba technology using the Lightweight Access Point Protocol (LWAPP).
“Initially, we were kicking the tires of their b and g products and started deploying them in 2007,” Knapp says. “At that time, Aruba was in the development stages of their Wireless N products, and we learned the N products were flash-ready, so you could update them as the standard was evolving.”
By 2009, Holy Cross was using 802.11n-based products exclusively for new installations or refreshes in the wireless network, which covers more than 80 percent of the private liberal arts college's campus. Aruba technology automatically determines if devices on the network accommodate 802.11n and, if so, connects them via the new standard, says Patrick Gemme, the college's technical services engineer.
“If you can connect to N, you get much faster speeds,” Gemme says. “The range is definitely improved. With multiple inputs and multiple outputs, signals are automatically adjusted to better navigate around obstacles such as the many concrete walls and bookshelves that we have on college campuses.”
Attention must be paid to the wired infrastructure for a wireless deployment to be successful, says Ellen Keohane, director of information technology services. Holy Cross upgraded its network switches to gigabit speeds to prevent 802.11n access points (which can accommodate up to 600 megabits per second per client) from oversaturating the wired network.
“I teased the staff, asking why we have to upgrade the wired infrastructure in order to do wireless, but it's important,” Keohane says. “I think people are getting a false sense that faster wireless relieves the burden on your wired infrastructure.”
Thomas Sobczak says Wireless N positions Barnard College for the decades ahead.
Photo Credit: Andrew Kist
Any institution contemplating an 802.11n installation or a switch to the new standard on an existing wireless network should consider completing a thorough site survey and analysis before beginning implementation, says Aberdeen Group's Borg.
“You've got to treat wireless like the core technology it's become,” he says. “You'd never just run wires willy-nilly, and you have to take the same care with wireless. That incremental extra effort can bring real returns in the form of measurable performance gains for your end users.”
The blazing throughput speeds and expanded coverage offered by 802.11n are likely to make it the pervasive wireless standard and also slowly reshape IT investment strategies.
“It's not as though we're going to rip out all our wires, but it's pretty clear that wireless is transitioning to N, and the capabilities of 802.11n mean that many applications will be just as capable on a wireless network as wired,” says Keohane.
So, given the already established acceptance of 802.11n, was final ratification significant in any way? Yes and no, says Borg.
“Ratification of the standard means a lot, and it also means a little,” he says. “For the Draft N equipment already in place, it's a nonevent. They're entirely compatible with the new standard and do not need to be recertified. The real impact is that it diminishes the risk factor to really risk-averse institutions and unleashes a lot of pent-up demand for 11n. It puts pressure on the vendors to take advantage of that latent demand, and it's driving down prices.”
Wireless N Considerations
Before upgrading to Wireless N, keep these factors in mind:
- Consider the long-term benefits of wireless. Take into account how popular wireless is with students and how Wireless N can be used as a recruiting tool for the university. Robust wireless networks are essential for colleges and universities now and will only become more important in the future – upgrade as soon as your budget allows.
- Take advantage of the latest management features. Make use of the controller-based architectures 802.11n manufacturers are developing. Many products now offer central management of network deployment, performance and security.
- Remember the wired infrastructure. A robust gigabit backbone prevents wireless signals from interfering with the wired network as your wireless network expands.
- Manage user expectations. Make sure students understand the limits as well as the capabilities of the 802.11n network and that they understand the rollout timetable – you don't want routine gaps in your rollout to lead to unnecessary complaints.