For some enterprises, success with a wireless local area network (LAN) doesn't depend on sophisticated engineering within the access points (APs). Instead, success depends on the wireless LAN management and scalability afforded by a vendor's controllers and management software.
For Oklahoma's second-largest school district, flexible and scalable wireless LAN management remains a critical part of its budding wireless network, which spans 96 buildings and is supported by just four networking pros.
"We can't emphasize this enough -- [the challenge] is on the administrative side for us," said Kirk Damron, director of systems architecture at Tulsa Public Schools, which serves 50,000 students and staff on its network. "[We need] the ability to [manage a growing] number of devices with a smaller amount of work and a smaller workforce."
The district's early forays into wireless networking were patchy when they began about two years ago. One school would ask for a Wi-Fi hotspot, so Damron ordered an autonomous AP from Cisco Systems. He chose Cisco by default, since he had long used the networking giant's routing and switching gear.
"We never had a true vision to go and do a whole wireless deployment for the district, so it kind of ended up being this 'onesie, twosie' kind of thing … and that's if we had control over it," Damron said. "Sometimes we didn't, and next thing you knew, you had a NetGear router somewhere that somebody bought at Office Depot."
Looking for scalable wireless LAN management
Over the years, Tulsa Public amassed 250 Cisco fat APs across various buildings -- each site needing a virtual LAN (VLAN) manually configured from within the district's Catalyst 6500 series switches to connect the devices back to the district's main network.
Damron needed a more scalable and centralized option for wireless LAN management, but with the legacy equipment he had, his only choice for centralized wireless LAN management had been Cisco's Wireless Services Module (WiSM). He was turned off by the "extraordinarily expensive real estate" it took up in a blade chassis.
After evaluating offers and testing gear from Cisco, Aruba Networks, Trapeze Networks and Motorola, the networking team narrowed the choice to Cisco and Aruba. Easy and scalable wireless LAN management became the deciding factor, Damron said.
Tulsa Public gravitated to Aruba rather than Cisco because of Aruba's ability to support 2,000 APs with one controller, he said. The comparable Cisco controller supported only 300 APs. Over the past 18 months, Tulsa Public has deployed about 450 Aruba APs and has either traded in or tossed its old Cisco gear.
The district plans to grow its WLAN with 1,800 APs over the next five years -- hoping to migrate its Aruba 802.11a/b/g network to 802.11n toward the tail end of the process -- to support its "One-to-One Computing" initiative that would provide a wireless client device to all 43,000 students.
"We were looking at having to purchase multiple controllers to do the same thing as we could've done with one Aruba controller," Damron said. "It was hard for us to move past Cisco because we are a big Cisco shop, and when I say big, I mean big. We have millions of dollars of Cisco gear here, but they really did not have the same technology Aruba did."
Wireless LAN management simplified
Instead of three network engineers having to scramble to put out fires on Tulsa Public's growing wireless network, data engineer Charlie Diebold can handle most day-to-day operations from his seat in the district's data center.
Using the Wireless Intrusion Protection module in Aruba's controller, Diebold can remotely monitor security threats as they hit the APs -- rather than at the switches, as Cisco offered. The software also enables him to remotely customize security policy and set up one VLAN pool for all wireless devices.
Diebold said he also relishes the fact that overloaded APs are becoming a distant memory with Aruba's Adaptive Radio Management (ARM) software, aiding wireless LAN management by automatically load balancing APs.
"In the past, we always had to manually configure each device," he said. "Now, all I have to do is plug them in and they're on their way."
Although the upgrade has simplified wireless LAN management for Tulsa Public, some kinks remain. The district uses Microsoft Active Directory for all of its directory services, and Damron said that "the wireless network doesn't really integrate into that component as well as it should."
It's a minor quibble, though, relative to all the headaches the system has cured with simpler wireless LAN management.
"We're getting better performance out of the Aruba network. It's configured better and it's maintained better," Damron said. "I'm not saying Aruba makes a better access point than Cisco, but we're managing it much better, so we're getting a better product and a lot less complaints."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer