802.11n upgrade: College ditches legacy network for new vendor

The University of Rhode Island sought to deploy a wireless LAN with its wired network vendor. But increased bandwidth demand meant a change in networking strategy to consider other wireless vendors.

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When David Porter first deployed a wireless LAN (WLAN) in 2002 for the University of Rhode Island's Kingston campus, he turned to the vendor he trusted with his wired network: Cisco Systems. However, when it was time for an upgrade to 802.11n, Porter decided to look at other network vendors.

Porter, the university's director of media and technology services, would have been happy to follow a simple upgrade path with Cisco, but he discovered that the vendor was abandoning its legacy fat access point approach in favor of controller-based WLANs. This strategic shift meant a total forklift upgrade for his entire 1,200-acre campus, and that prompted Porter to look at other vendors. Eventually, he chose the No. 2 vendor in the market, Aruba Networks.

"We either had to do a forklift upgrade of our current platform or go look at other vendors."
David Porter
Director of media and technology servicesUniversity of Rhode Island

"I did consider the pros and cons of using a wireless vendor other than Cisco and did not have any hesitation in switching to Aruba," he said. "When you consider that Cisco is a company whose diverse product line has come mainly through acquisition, you can appreciate how long it takes to tightly integrate their products.... The fact that Aruba is only focused on wireless networking was in their favor. There were really no tradeoffs."

If it makes financial or logistical sense, taking more of a hybrid network approach is not something network administrators should be afraid to do, said Craig Mathias, principal of research firm Farpoint Group.

"We have built this industry around interoperability, so it is certainly possible to mix and match and get the best of all worlds. It may involve a lot of work, but usually the solutions are quite effective," Mathias said. "An experienced network professional is not going to have a lot of trouble with this. You don't have to use every single option the vendor gives you."

From fat to thin WLAN access points

Prior to divorcing his wireless network vendor, Porter had scattered nearly 900 Cisco fat access points (APs) -- mostly 802.11b and 802.11bg -- throughout the campus in 2002. When he approached Cisco about an upgrade in 2006, he got an unpleasant surprise: Cisco's 1999 acquisition of Aironet had transformed the vendor's WLAN strategy and had left the university behind.

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"It changed their direction from this fat AP platform we had deployed to a controller-based platform, and much of our investment was going to be useless," Porter said. "It actually caused a lot of frustration in the industry with other Cisco shops we spoke with…. We either had to do a forklift upgrade of our current platform or go look at other vendors."

He began vetting solutions from Meru Networks, Aruba and Cisco starting in 2006, but it wasn't long before state funding began to dry up and the project went on hold for another year. By that time, pre-standard 802.11n products were hitting the market, Porter said.

"Then came the decision: Do we look at the bleeding edge or play it safe and potentially have to revisit this again to update?" he said. "When it came to 802.11n, Aruba had the most graceful approach to powering the access points."

As of today, the campus has about 800 Aruba AP-125 access points capable of allowing users to download high-definition video over wireless, though Porter said he is not quite ready to allow it. "We don't have the switches yet to provide the power to all of the access points," he said, adding that he expects to launch that next fall.

"In terms of sheer capacity, the services that we can offer to students and the amount of restrictions we can take off of them make it so that wireless can really be a replacement for wired network services," Porter said.

Tossing a legacy network

But it wasn't just more power Porter said he was seeking with another networking vendor. Aruba's management console, Adaptive Radio Management (ARM), gave him more control over the network and enabled him to troubleshoot wireless LAN issues with more ease.

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Manav Khurana, head of industry marketing at Aruba, said the console ensures that Porter will not have to send a technician to tweak APs every few days.

"The wireless LAN automatically adjusts or adapts to the changing wireless environment," Khurana said. "In those cases where there is congestion -- where there are many users in the same room -- the wireless LAN automatically load balances and ensures consistent performance across different devices."

That centralized management is especially valuable in a higher-education setting, where network administrators have to brace for a lot of unpredictability, Porter said.

"We're very much on a shoestring budget," he said. "We have [fewer] IT people per capita than our peer institutions, so human resources are extremely valuable here, and we've been running this Aruba platform with half a [full-time employee] with no problems.... Their Adaptive Radio Management was very impressive."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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