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School deploys 802.11n WLAN to support student laptop program

When the Institute of Notre Dame, a Catholic girls' school in Baltimore, decided to issue every student a tablet PC, it elected to provide connectivity for the computers with an 802.11n wireless LAN. Designing the network was a challenge, however, given that the school building was first constructed in 1852 with 16-inch-thick walls.

When a Catholic high school for girls decided to provide a tablet PC to every student, it deployed an 802.11n wireless LAN (WLAN) infrastructure to give them connectivity throughout the school's campus.

The Institute of Notre Dame, a school in Baltimore, is located in a 157-year-old building where many rooms have plaster over brick walls that are more than 16 inches thick. The construction presented a unique challenge to the school. It was hard enough to install a wired network years ago. Now the school needed to figure out how to get a good wireless signal in a building with such thick walls. The access points also had to be aesthetically pleasing.

"When we wired the school 10 years ago [with a network], it was a big challenge because we had to drill through all that brick and plaster," said Fred Germano, the school's director of technology. "We also wanted to hang those access point and wire them as unobtrusively as possible, because from an architectural standpoint this was a building that had [antique] tin ceilings, and we didn't want to mar that too much."

Scott Peterson, a regional sales manager for Trapeze Networks, the school's WLAN vendor of choice, said the building presented an unusual challenge. Typically, Trapeze uses the RF planning module in its RingMaster WLAN management software to plan the layout for access points.

"If it's a new construction, we can input CAD [computer-aided design] files and read all the layers of CAD and take into consideration all the different materials in the building," Peterson said. "We couldn't do that in this case. We had our professional service group do an on-site survey. They came in with an access point on a tripod device and walked through the building."

The on-site survey allowed Trapeze to develop a plan for WLAN deployment at the school.

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"We wanted to have seamless wireless hot spots throughout the building," Germano said. "They placed access points on the ground and measured the signal from each room and hallway in the building, and we installed it in accordance with their plan."

The Trapeze access points were also appealing to the school for their form factor. They resemble small smoke detectors with no antennae protruding from them, so they don't clash with the architecture of the building.

In all, the school installed 40 Trapeze MP-432 802.11n access points, all managed centrally with an MX-200 Mobility Exchange controller.

All of the access points are powered by Power over Ethernet (PoE) via the network that was installed 10 years ago, Germano said. The installation did require him to install six additional switches to boost power and connectivity in the PoE network in remote areas of the building that were far from the wiring closets.

This fall, the school will initiate its tablet PC program, giving computers to each incoming first-year student. At the moment, the wireless LAN is up and running, but only teachers have tablet PCs connecting to it.

Germano said the school tested the robustness of the access points recently when it held a professional development event for 30 to 40 faculty members in one classroom. Each teacher was using the wireless network to connect his or her PC to the network in order to download files for the training session. No one had problems with connectivity, he said.

"The real test will happen when the freshman class arrives in the fall," he said. "That will be 100 new students [with computers], and depending on how individual classes are developed, the network will really be tested then."

Peak usage on each access point will probably be 25 student PCs, Germano said. He will be using Trapeze's RingMaster software to monitor the network through the central controller. "It's very easy to see where the signal is strongest and where you might need to boost power to particular access points to manage load."

The school will also rely on network access control from McAfee to enforce policies over the wireless LAN. For instance, other personal devices, such as iPhones, will not be banned from the wireless network, but Germano will ensure that devices have up-to-date antivirus and anti-spyware protection. The school will also block bandwidth-hogging applications such as MP3 file sharing and video, using the filtering capabilities of its firewall.

Video could be allowed down the road for educational purposes, however. "We're considering wireless video distribution and streaming," Germano said. "But it's just kind of in the exploratory mode right now."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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