Academic Wi-Fi Graduates in Style with Aruba
If you want to know how to build best-of-breed networks, universities can be good places to look. London’s University of Westminster is no exception: its network has grown and changed vendors over the years as the demands on it have increased. It is now on its third iteration of Wi-Fi, for which it chose Aruba Networks, running via an HP wired network and a Brocade core.
“We introduced our first Wi-Fi network in the early 2000s. It’s grown exponentially from there and now it’s a must-have utility,” explains Daniel Halter, the University of Westminster’s Head of IT Infrastructure. “Our previous wireless wasn’t entirely working as desired, so we went to market to see what to see what else was around. As a result, we installed Aruba last summer.”
To give an idea of the scale involved, Halter says there is an average of 47,000 unique devices seen on the wireless network, which comprises some 500 Aruba access points connected to a pair of 7220 controllers. While some of the devices are laptops loaned by the University library, many belong to students, and each brings its own connectivity challenges.
“We had two major issues before – one was that we had never done proper RF [radio frequency] planning, so while our Wi-Fi coverage wasn’t bad, it had grown organically,” Halter says. “The other was that our previous system had become unmanageable. We also had different controllers and wireless networks, with separate configurations for each which made it hard to manage. We had no statistics on usage, no metrics, no proactive support data.”
Wireless is a utility now, our users expect it to ‘just work’ – and with Aruba it does. Our users are getting much better coverage and signal quality, and can consume our services much more easily.
Daniel Halter, Head of IT Infrastructure, Information Services, University of Westminster
Compared to that, moving to Aruba was a revelation. “Our evaluation was 40/60 on cost/quality – the Aruba was not the cheapest, but it was competitive on cost and then won it on quality,” he explains. “The thing is it’s a packaged solution, not just a wireless service or raw connectivity. It was really important for us that our new network made things better for us, that it enabled our support team to become proactive, not just reactive. Now, with Aruba it’s all about the ability to plan, to identify peaks and troughs.”
The University uses both Aruba Airwave for alerting, reporting and planning, and ClearPass for 802.1x authentication and reporting. ClearPass also helped simplify the wireless network, not least because it integrates with Eduroam, which is a world-wide scheme for academic institutions to authenticate network users. This enables all staff, students and academic visitors to use a single SSID (a named wireless network), and this in turn reduces both the administrative overhead and the number of SSIDs that Halter’s team must set up and support.
“ClearPass also does device fingerprinting – we’re seeing Kindles and other e-readers, a lot of iOS and Android – there’s very little Windows Mobile, and then it’s laptops, roughly 50-50 between OSX and Windows,” Halter notes.
On top of that and the library laptops, more and more University departments are providing devices. For example, the Westminster Law School equips students with Nexus 7 tablets as content readers.
A key advantage of Airwave with this variety of client devices is that it enables first and second level help-desk staff to handle most of the problems reported by users. In the past, many of these had to be passed to Halter’s team because of the complexity of diagnosing wireless problems. Halter says that it will also allow them to add FAQs (frequently asked questions) and other documentation, so users can fix the more common problems themselves.
He adds that integrating the new Aruba equipment with the rest of the network was not a major challenge, even though it is a pretty complex environment. “Our data centres are Brocade, that’s where the Aruba network is connected.
We have connections going to Janet [the UK’s academic internet], and we have Alcatel-Lucent for IP telephony.” One of the advantages here was Aruba’s strategy of selling only through trusted local partners, especially since the University’s existing IT partner was Khipu Networks, which is also an Aruba Platinum Partner. This meant that not only did the Aruba/Khipu bid have very strong underlying technology, it also had that essential service and support element.
“We have worked with Khipu for many years,” Halter says. “They support our Infoblox and Palo Alto Networks systems too, and we knew Aruba was in their portfolio” He adds: “Khipu knows us and vice versa – they’re small enough to care but big enough to deliver. For instance, we had some initial teething issues on the RF planning, so they sent in their engineers and fixed it.
“I do like to buy commodity equipment direct on cost grounds, and where the supplier has belief in its products. Where working with a partner works well is when it knows you and your industry. With wireless it can get quite granular on where the problem lies, and you need the partner to work with you.”
Support from an experienced partner was also important because the University’s estate is both widespread and varied. As well as eight sites around central London, the network also covers the reception areas at student halls of residence, and the University Sports Ground in Chiswick, West London. Halter says that Aruba’s Remote Access Point (RAP) technology has been particularly useful, as it can extend the core Wi-Fi network to a remote site over a simple broadband connection.
“Most of the challenges were logistical,” he continues. “Our RF planning dictated new cabling in some of our estate – we put in CAT-5e for future-proofing to support the multi-gigabit uplinks needed for 802.11ac, and in greenfield sites we put CAT-6. The next refresh will be to deploy Class 4 Power over Ethernet (PoE). We only have Class 3 now, and for the full spectrum of 802.11ac Wave 2 [which will bring higher data rates and the ability to focus transmissions at a particular client] we will need up to 30W per port, which means Class 4 PoE.
“11ac increases capacity by getting users on and off the network quicker, although I suspect that eventually that advantage will disappear as they will simply use it more!
There’s only a few 11ac devices now, but we needed to replace 11n and we couldn’t wait for 11ac Wave 2 which needs new chipsets.
“There’s also seasonal timing effects,” he says. “For instance, arranging the logistics so your external contractors can cable the parts of the estate used for learning when they’re vacant. And give yourself more time than you think you need for it to bed in and for you to start using the tools proactively.”
Halter notes that while the University’s previous Wi-Fi networks included some 330 APs, it bought 500 from Aruba. The increase was partly to cover more buildings, but he says that it is also important to buy a few spares.
“Even after RF planning you can still have density issues, for example you might find you need more capacity in the learning spaces allocated for students – especially since we now have to plan for maybe three or four devices per user,” he explains.
And of course demand can only grow, especially as more and more of the academic staff embrace Wi-Fi within their teaching plans. “This is a significant investment by the
University, so we are really keen to see how the academics embrace wireless and use it to deliver teaching and learning, and for delivering content in the classrooms.
“There’s a whole drive around ‘learning futures’, with IT natively embedded in every lesson, and that means building a platform where that can happen. Our previous network wasn’t where it needed to be – this one is!”
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