When Gallaudet University wanted to deploy a campuswide wireless LAN in the fall of 2003, it turned—as did other enterprises at the time—to a relatively unknown technology company. Gallaudet, one of the nations most prestigious schools for the deaf, wanted to provide mobile data access to students, faculty and guests as they traveled among the Washington universitys 32 buildings.
But Gallaudet wanted more than just wireless access. It was looking for a WLAN that included centralized management as well as security. On top of that, the university wanted some assurances that its WLAN switch provider would survive the economy. At the time, analysts predicted that only some of the companies in the crowded WLAN switch market would last long-term.
After a review of its products and management, Gallaudet officials made an educated guess that Airespace Inc., then one of many WLAN switch startups focused on centralized management, would address all their issues.
At the time, the long-term viability of Airespace “was a concern, but they had such heavy-duty representation on their executive board that we felt very confident in them,” said Meloyde Batten-Mickens, technology infrastructure manager at Gallaudet. “I just took the risk. We went through three months of grueling evaluation.”
“You get a one-stop shop [with Airespace]. You get a secure gateway, and they have their own access points.” To oversee the WLAN installation, Gallaudet turned to IT consultancy Ease Technologies Inc. Ease echoed Gallaudets initial hesitation to trust a then-unknown company.
“That was one of our biggest concerns,” said Bruce Brooks, consulting manager at Ease, in Columbia, Md. “We got on the line to talk with [Airespaces] executives. They talked about their venture funding and so on. It was a gamble because, at the time, they were just selling themselves. But we were pretty sure theyd be a big player in the wireless arena. The product spoke for itself. In retrospect, I feel smart.”
The Airespace architecture centralizes RF (radio-frequency) intelligence, security policies and QOS (quality-of-service) parameters within a switch, eliminating the need to configure and manage hundreds of distributed access points individually.
The first phase of deployment entailed installing 63 access points in nine buildings. Gallaudet continued the rest of its WLAN deployment without Eases help. The network now includes seven switches and some 150 access points in 32 buildings.
“I could definitively say that was the fastest install Ive ever seen,” Brooks said. “You took everything out of the box, did some basic config and everything else was self-configuring.”
All told, the project took about three months to complete: two months of preparing the WLAN with RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service) servers for 802.1x authentication and POE (power-over-Ethernet) equipment and a third month for installation.
For the switches, the Gallaudet IT staff, together with Ease, installed Airespaces AireWave Director Software, which monitors RFs and adapts to changing WLAN conditions such as traffic and interference. The software automates tasks such as channel assignment, power control and load balancing.
The team also installed Airespace Control System software, which uses a GUI to illustrate parameters such as signal strength and VLAN (virtual LAN) assignments.
In addition, the team supplemented the Airespace gear with site survey and positioning software from Ekahau Inc.
“Its really slick,” Batten-Mickens said. “You load it into the laptop and scan to see whats the best placement of the antenna.”
The first challenge of installing the campus WLAN was controlling all the ad hoc WLANs that already existed, said Brooks. Rogue access points had beaten official campus access points to the punch.
“We presurveyed their campus and found about 20 different wireless networks,” Brooks said. “Most of them were not secured or optimizing the channels.”
Batten-Mickens was not surprised. Setting up an insecure WLAN is as easy as plugging something in, and most consumer-level access points will work even if the user does not implement security protocols.
“People could pop in a D-Link [Systems Inc.] or a Linksys access point anywhere,” Batten-Mickens said. “It wasnt malicious; it was just a matter of ooh, a new wireless technology and ooh, lets give this a shot.”
The university responded to the unofficial networks by publicizing the official network and offering free WLAN access across the board, concentrating on areas where ad hoc networks already existed.
“Where we found hardware already, they made sure we saturated that area as sort of an offering,” Brooks said.
Now that the official WLAN is deployed, the Airespace software detects and blacklists rogue access points, but rogues are much less of an issue now that the university community knows about the official WLAN, Batten-Mickens said. Users log in to the system with an authorized ID. Generally, the WLAN supports both Windows- and Mac OS-based notebooks, but use of Wi-Fi-enabled handheld devices on the WLAN is also increasing.
As with many universities, Gallaudet is supporting all three IEEE WLAN protocols on its campus: 802.11b and 802.11g at 2.5GHz and 802.11a at 5GHz. Most of the traffic is on 802.11g.
Gallaudets plan for the 5GHz band is the only thing that distinguishes its WLAN as a network for a deaf clientele. 802.11a is gaining popularity in the industry as a potential protocol for voice traffic because it has more channels than the other protocols. Clearly, Gallaudet doesnt have a pressing need for VOIP (voice over IP). But the additional channels could be useful for multimedia applications when the 2.4GHz band gets crowded.
“There could be the need for [802.11a] in the future,” Batten-Mickens said. “Were obviously video-intense here.”