Aruba’s Wi-Fi Wins Cambridge Honours
When Fitzwilliam College, part of the University of Cambridge, looked to build a new college-wide wireless LAN, both time and money were tightly constrained. Yet by working with Aruba Networks and local IT partner Khipu, it was able to implement a sophisticated controller-based network that met the high expectations of students and conference guests alike, swiftly and within budget.
Today’s universities are very diverse places. As well as students and staff there are visitors to consider, both academic and non-academic, and increasingly there are also guests attending the conferences and other events that help colleges to get more use – and revenue – out of their buildings and other valuable resources.
It was a very smooth project, and that was down to the support we got from Khipu and Aruba.
Susan Park, IT manager, Fitzwilliam College
In some ways, that diversity is even greater at collegiate universities such as Cambridge. While they come together under an overall banner, and their students are taught within the University’s departments and schools, the colleges are all independent – sometimes fiercely so. So while the University’s IT department also runs a wireless LAN it is only available to colleges as a chargeable service, Fitzwilliam’s IT manager Susan Park says that Fitzwilliam College’s specific meant that it wanted its own service and at the time it made financial sense to do so.
“The University has a centrally-controlled and managed WLAN, based on Aruba and called Lapwing, which it federates out to the departments and some colleges,” she explains. “We didn’t want to buy into that – we wanted to manage our own service – but the fact that they’d done the due diligence and comparative surveys did help in our decision making. Plus, the fact that Lapwing is also on Aruba means we’d be ready to join if we decided to.”
Part of the challenge was that Fitzwilliam has a fairly big site, including bedrooms, meeting and teaching rooms and some off-site student residences. Park says that the wireless project started in March 2012 – prior to this, wired connections were provided as standard in student rooms and other buildings, while 10 to 15 meeting rooms had individual wireless installations.
“The demand for wireless came from students and especially from conference guests – they wanted to connect devices that didn’t have wired connections, such as phones and tablets,” she notes. “We always had BYOD for students, but it became much more mobile-oriented.
“The reason it probably takes colleges a lot longer to get on with such things compared with hotels or businesses is firstly finance, and second, the buildings you’re putting it into. We have 650 students accommodated on site in accommodation that wasn’t designed with cabling in mind.”
However, the demand continued to increase, and the last financial hurdle was lifted when the College’s Bursar [finance director] went to a conference at another college which already had wireless, and returned fully enthused. It helped too that Park’s team could demonstrate that Aruba wireless actually meant less infrastructure to install and manage. In particular, they realised that because access points such as the Aruba AP-93H use Power over Ethernet (PoE), they could be fitted in individual rooms with just the existing Ethernet port and no need for any extra wires.
The Fitzwilliam team consulted with several suppliers and had an initial site survey carried out. Of three vendors considered, only Aruba could provide the controller-based system that Susan Park’s team wanted, and Aruba’s installation partner, Khipu, also provided the most convincing site survey. “Khipu was not the cheapest and required more access points (Aps), but we felt they were the most thorough and professional, and really knew what they were doing,” says Park.
“Thanks to support from Khipu and Aruba, we had 80 percent complete by the start of term in October – that’s just a few months, which is pretty fast for a project of this kind. Summer is both a challenge and an opportunity. Meeting rooms had to be pushed to the end because of conferences.”
“We did the main site, then the residences, then we reviewed the coverage and identified a few gaps to plug. Since then, all the sites are covered and we don’t envisage doing much more, in the absence of new buildings or renovations to existing buildings.”
Fitzwilliam College now has three Aruba controllers – two active, plus a third for resilience – managing almost 250 APs, mostly internal models but including a few for external coverage. Guest access is managed by the college’s firewall, and it has implemented eduroam, the world-wide roaming scheme for students and academics.
Asked for her advice to anyone else planning a wireless roll-out, Park says it is vital to be sure of three things: the site survey, an installation partner you can work with, and the capability of your existing network hardware.
“You do need to be sure about your survey, too. Khipu had been thorough, but we still realised we needed more APs. Fortunately, provisioning the APs was relatively easy because Khipu had preconfigured most of them, and adding extra ones is relatively straightforward.”
Park adds that one thing that impressed her most was the genuine sense of engagement she got from both Aruba and Khipu – indeed, she still gets occasional calls to check how things are going: “So I know the support is there should we have an issue.”
She continues, “We felt very much that it was a partnership between Aruba and Khipu, not just a reseller pushing equipment. Aruba was very much part of the project, and someone from Aruba was in most of our meetings with Khipu too. Aruba came on site a couple of times before our final decision, and we felt we weren’t having to work second-hand on sales and specs, then they stepped back and it was down to Khipu to sort out installation and all that.
“It works very well now; a lot of the time we don’t even have to set up accounts for visitors because they’re academics so they already have eduroam.”
Park says she must measure its success by the shortage of complaints rather than the volume of praise. “This was a massive project and a lot of money for us,” she concludes. “We rolled it out to the students and they take it for granted. We only ever hear from them if there’s a coverage problem, we don’t often get any credit or thanks!”
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