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802.11n wireless network keeps college unwired

Morrisville State College is deploying 802.11n to replace its aging wireless network. In a "calculated risk," the college has implemented 10 802.11n access points so far and plans to replace the rest of its a/b/g network by the end of the month.

802.11n, the latest wireless standard, is poised to turn wireless networking on its ear with faster speeds and greater distance. And one college campus is putting the yet-to-be-ratified standard to the test, pushing for a campus-wide 802.11n deployment by the end of the month.

Morrisville State College, an upstate New York school known for its cutting-edge use of advanced technologies, already has 10 802.11n access points deployed in one of its common areas -- a student food court and café. But by month's end there could be as many as 700 access points deployed throughout the campus, offering connectivity everywhere from residence halls and classrooms to the football field and equestrian barns.

Jean Boland, Morrisville State's vice president of information technology services, said the move to 11n falls in line with the college's progressive take on technology, which includes deploying IBM ThinkPads to students, giving them Nextel phones instead of landlines in the residence halls and offering an all-wireless environment. Most residence halls don't even have ports for wired connectivity.

Back in 1999, Morrisville State first went wireless with a frequency hopping shared spectrum solution from Raytheon that offered 2 Mbps of shared connectivity. At the time, 802.11b was the primary wireless option.

That system lasted a few years, Boland said, but didn't really stand the test of time.

"It was more than time to upgrade our wireless," she said, adding that 2 Mbps was inadequate and the product line was at end of life. "We wanted to increase speed and coverage area and wanted a long product life. As we looked at [802.11] a/b/g, our thought was those are near end of life, so we needed 802.11n."

The ultimate goal was to have the entire campus covered inside and out with wireless connectivity. Under the old system, there were just a few more than 300 access points. A site survey found that roughly 900 new access points would do the trick, but that was whittled down to 700. The old solution was swapped out and a/b/g access points were put in as placeholders until 802.11n can be deployed full force. The college's 11n gear will be from Meru Networks.

This month, hundreds of Meru Networks AP300 access points equipped with two a/b/g/n radios will be deployed by an integration team from IBM. Meru uses a channel-layering RF design, meaning the network will support dedicated channels for new 11n clients in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrums and be backward-compatible with legacy 802.11b and 11g clients. According to Meru, speeds will increase from DSL-level speeds to Ethernet-level speeds.

And while most companies and schools would balk at the cost of such upgrades, Boland said it was hardly a tough sell.

"It's a relatively easy sell when you look at the workforce. And we're training that workforce," she said. As an academic institution that encourages nomadic learning, Boland said it's Morrisville State's obligation to its 3,300 students to help them transition to the workplace and offer them an easy environment in which to study and learn.

Currently, there are 10 11n access points deployed in one common area. In testing before the deployment, Boland said, "the speeds were incredibly faster than 802.11g."

One test of the system was a drag-and-drop of a 50 MB file onto a server. With 802.11g, it took 2 minutes and 51 seconds. With 802.11n, that time was cut to 28 seconds.

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Morrisville has also started deploying IBM Lenovo ThinkPad T61s with internal 802.11n support to incoming freshmen. For devices that don't feature 11n support, the school store will sell an 11n adapter.

Already, Boland said, students and faculty are noticing the difference between 11n and 11g when working in the food court/café area.

"One student said 'it's great here; it's amazingly fast, but why is it so slow on the rest of the campus?'" Boland said with a slight chuckle.

The biggest outstanding issues to resolve before Morrisville State cuts over to a full 11n deployment, Boland said, are straightening out some client management issues and figuring out power requirements -- because 11n operates on 30 watts of power in a 3-by-3 antenna configuration. And power over Ethernet (PoE) currently supports 15 watts. That can be worked around, however, she said, by configuring the access points in a 2-by-2 configuration, which uses 15 watts.

While Morrisville State had no reservations about deploying a wireless standard that isn't yet ratified and currently in draft 2.0, Boland said there has been very little criticism. "It's the only fiscally responsible decision we could make," she said. "We're used to being early adopters. This was a pretty calculated risk."

Replacing all of the temporary a/b/g access points for 11n was also a calculated risk, especially since that project was finished just months before it would be taken down for a full-on 11n deployment. The a/b/g deployment was completed just before the start of this school year, which began on August 27.

"We had to be ready; [802.11]n wasn't ready," she said. "But that will be replaced with 11n in October."

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