WLANs Extend Tarheel Net

Wireless LANs make financial, practical sense to UNC's tech chancellor

Wireless lans represent "a new financial model for delivering technology," said Marian Moore, vice chancellor of technology at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill.

College students are historically on the cutting edge of technology, so the use of laptops on campus is a common sight. Starting with UNCs class of 2004, however, laptops are a required school supply, and Cisco Systems Inc.s Aironet 340 and 350 Series wireless LAN products are being used to ease access, improve collaboration and productivity, and cut costs.

"Physical connections to the campus network are hugely expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain because of life-cycling issues," Moore said. "802.11b [wireless LAN technology] extends our wired infrastructure."

For Moore, the "economic realities" of wireless are hugely important to the bottom line.

"We took a classroom in a relatively modern building on campus, and it cost $150,000 to physically renovate the classroom for fixed network connections and $15,000 a year to life-cycle equipment," she said. "We did the rest of the building with wireless for less than $15,000, and it took two days."

The interoperability of 802.11b-based wireless LAN products was critical for UNC in terms of flexibility and cost. "We believe in open standards," Moore said. "Every vendor has done a little value-add, but all of these products will interoperate. To be able to get good competition among vendors is important for getting the best price and product."

UNC chose Ciscos Aironet 340 Series wireless LAN solution and was one of the beta sites for the 350 Series, which satisfies power needs over the network. The 350 Series, now used in production on campus, has a stronger frequency range, said Moore, who added that 340 Series cards will work with 350 access points but wont get the extended range.

What ultimately sold UNC on Cisco equipment was its management capabilities. At the Chapel Hill campus, there are 16 networking professionals supporting 60,000 ports, "so we have to be really smart about how we do things," Moore said. "We can manage down to an individual card, all the way up to a router. That kind of remote management is extremely important to us."

As for security concerns, Moore said it all comes down to measuring risk vs. reward. "You have to balance security against access," she said. "Its something that we always have to be careful of, and, of course, there are certain applications that you just shouldnt access remotely."

Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc., in San Jose, Calif., said sticking with one vendors products will boost security. "128-bit security is not supported in the same way in all vendors products," Dulaney said. "WEP [the security algorithm built in to 802.11b] is 40-bit and is not good enough."

The freshman class is up and running wirelessly, and Moores team is busy planning a wider wireless LAN rollout for future freshmen as well as other students and faculty who require—or just desire—wireless capabilities. A key factor in that planning process is the next-generation wireless networking specification, 802.11a. While 802.11b operates at the 2.4GHz band and provides throughput of up to 11M bps, 802.11a operates at the 5GHz band and provides as much as 54M-bps throughput.

"We had hoped that there would be more bandwidth increases in [802.11b]," Moore said. "So the next jump will be down the road, and it will be in a different protocol and frequency. The [802.11b] equipment we have on campus wont interoperate with [802.11a] access points."

The 802.11a draw? "Faster, better, cheaper," said Moore. The biggest challenge, she added, is timing: "We dont want to oversell 802.11b because, in two years, 802.11a will be out."

Gartners Dulaney said there is plenty of life left in 802.11b. "There are still a lot of issues with 802.11a," he said. "Go with b and wait for a to sort itself out."