Michael Vasich had helped install wireless LAN (WLAN) access points (APs) in 25 classrooms with no controller and...
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prayed they would work. His prayers went unanswered. But the IT pro still had to help more teachers at the sprawling Chicago-area high school when they asked for IP video via wireless tablets, despite the school's old buildings that spelled poor coverage for most 802.11n wireless APs.
"People had accepted a level of mediocrity," said Vasich, systems administrator at Lyons Township High School, a historic school of nearly 4,000 students that encompasses two campuses and serves 11 communities. "We really wanted to ensure we could push not just PowerPoint but video from the wireless tablets, so [802.11]g wasn't cutting it.... 'Dramatic' is an understatement, but we saw dramatic speed increases when we switched to n."
After vetting quotes from larger wireless networking vendors, the district chose Ruckus Wireless, a Wi-Fi hardware vendor based in Sunnyvale, Calif. The IT team at Lyons says the decision saved them from buying an excessive number of APs -- they use 250.
In the more than 200 classrooms and other indoor spaces -- cafeterias, offices, gymnasiums -- with Wi-Fi coverage, the 802.11n APs have better throughput in areas with low signal than the legacy 802.11g APs ever did where signals were strong, according to Edward Tennant, director of technology.
"For the other 800-pound gorillas in the networking space, we would've paid for access points in their solution what we paid for the entire Ruckus solution," Tennant said. "And on top of that, we would've had to have paid for their controllers and peripherals to make their systems work."
Ruckus customers typically cut the number of access points they need by 40%, said David Callisch, the Ruckus vice president of marketing. "Beam-forming" antennas on Ruckus APs focus the signal on a connected device to keep throughput stable, he said, rather than projecting the signal in every direction and hoping the device catches it.
"A lot of vendors tout 11n as being good for multimedia, but it's not necessarily good for multimedia just because you have more bandwidth," Callisch said. "The bandwidth with 11n still fluctuates a lot. You have a lot of peaks and valleys.
"It's like an EKG, and that's just not acceptable if you're doing any real-time video," he added. "Video is far and away one of the most challenging things [because] it can't tolerate latency and jitter."
802.11n wireless APs are 'scalable' for the future
When the IT team at Lyons first tried to build out the wireless network, they just added APs. It proved futile for the school, which is so large that it is its own school district, spanning across more than three city blocks and 1.3 million square feet. Some buildings on the campuses date back to the late 1880s and are made of concrete and steel, which blocked the Wi-FI signal within the buildings.
"It started being a taxing support duty … to manage more and more of these access points; and really, in terms of coverage, we were almost seeing the need to put an access point per classroom," Tennant said. "Without an enterprise approach, it got really complicated."
They had eventually bought a controller, but it had shown only whether an AP was connected or not, Vasich said. The Ruckus controller has given him "a live view of everything that's going on" and automatically fixes some basic problems, such as channel interference.
"If we're not getting the coverage we're expecting, we can see that now from our perspective before the teacher starts complaining," he said. "[One teacher] was not getting the same coverage in his classroom as the one next to him. Instead of waiting for him to contact us, we proactively sent him an email saying, 'We'd like to make some changes to your tablet.'"
The school is in the process of expanding and meshing the wireless network to most outdoor spaces, which will allow students doing science experiments outside to log their results in real time or enable students covering football games for the school's cable station to access network resources from the field.
Meanwhile, inside the classroom, teachers have been using video from the local network and the Internet as another teaching resource. All teachers will soon have mobile devices, and some students in specialty programs are using Apple's iTouch to aid in learning, Tennant said.
The district is preparing for the day when every student brings a mobile device to class and when IP video becomes as ordinary as dittos and transparencies once were.
"We know it's inevitable that everybody eventually will have some sort of wireless device, so we have to think to the future and have a solution that is scalable in that fashion as well," Tennant said. "It will be replaced at some point, but by taking the steps to n now, we buy some longevity in this solution."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer
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