Managing a wireless network that spans more than 900 acres is no mean feat. So when Maurice Ficklin had the chance to participate in a device management study with two major technology companies, he jumped at the opportunity.
Ficklin is director of technical services and CIO at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which includes a 141-acre main campus and an 800-acre farm campus.
The university has been testing wireless technology for several years, and most of its students and faculty use wireless technology in some regard. This made the institution an ideal testbed for new wireless management software from Computer Associates International Inc., of Islandia, N.Y., and a prototype wireless PDA/phone from Intel Corp.
“We did the proof of concept over the last two or three months with CA and Intel,” Ficklin said in an interview. “This is some big-time new stuff.”
The school tested CAs new Unicenter Wireless Site Management software, which went into wide beta in May. The software handles WLAN (wireless LAN) management tasks such as managing encryption keys, detecting and disabling rogue access points, and provisioning user access. General availability of the software has yet to be determined.
The software managed Intels prototype handset, which is based on the Santa Clara, Calif., companys Universal Communicator research platform. It supports voice and data over cellular or 802.11-based networks. Intel has yet to announce commercial plans for the device.
With the additional help of an access point, a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server and an HTTP server, the two companies showed university officials how they could provision an operating system image to the device, reprovision a device with an updated operating system and render unauthorized devices inoperable.
Ficklin said he is excited about the test for several reasons. Should the concept turn into reality, it would save time for him and for the students and faculty, he said. As things stand now, students who want access to the wireless network come to the IT office, and the IT department assigns each device a static IP address and MAC (media access control) number. Pine Bluff has been doing things that way since 2000. It works, but not elegantly, Ficklin said.
Now, he said, “the student wont have to come to us. [The system] has the added feature of locking down security in terms of roaming. You can see the particular wireless endpoints move over your network, and you have a graphical depiction of where they are on the network.”
Ficklin said he has tested other WLAN management software, such as Cisco Systems Inc.s WLSE (Wireless LAN Solution Engine). But he said hes planning to standardize on CAs platform because of its GUI and because the university was using Unicenter management software for nonwireless functions anyway.
In addition, the school hopes to capitalize on the idea of roaming between cellular networks and WLANs, which the Intel prototype device allows. Several other companies, including Motorola Inc., have announced plans for such a device.
The university has been offering voice services over a WLAN for two years and is ready to take it a step further. The school has a wide deployment of VOIP (voice-over-IP) phones from Cisco and is working with the San Jose, Calif., company on a possible implementation of its 7920 wireless IP phones as well. Currently, the 7920 supports only LANs, but Ficklin said Cisco representatives are helping him figure out how to bridge WANs and WLANs.
“What we want to do in the future is take the 7920 phone and give every student, resident and nonresident [the ability to roam],” Ficklin said. “When they leave the campus, it becomes part of the regular cell phone network. That gives us the ability to provide our students with services that we can get cost recovery off of.”
In the meantime, Ficklin said he is looking to bridge the main Pine Bluff campus to a farm campus 12 miles away.
Currently, the main campus runs some 180 WLAN access points from Cisco, supporting a mix of 802.11b and 802.11g networks on the 2.4GHz RF (radio-frequency) band. The wireless bridges, also from Cisco, will sit atop 100-foot towers and will communicate via 802.11a, which, like 802.11g, offers data rates of up to 54M bps but operates in the less crowded 5GHz frequency band.
By June of next year, the university hopes to have the farm campus fully equipped with wireless. “You need video to make sure people are not robbing you of your fish and robbing you of your crops,” Ficklin said. “In agri, your farm is your classroom. Were a land-grant institution, which means were responsible for coming up with inventions, research, discovery—not only for Pine Bluff, Ark., but for the world.”