Brandeis University students wanted an all-wireless campus. They were vocal in asking for it, and the administration wanted to be able to grant their request.

In fact, wireless existed in various places on the campus, so at first look, it didn’t seem as though it would be a difficult challenge to make fully converged wireless connectivity available campus-wide.

“We had [wired] VoIP [service] on campus everywhere, so the extension to wireless … seemed like it would be pretty easy to do. It was just a matter of connectivity,” says John W. Turner, director for networks and systems at Brandeis.

But when Turner took a closer look at Brandeis’s current wireless solution, he discovered that it wouldn’t do. The university had two dozen or so wireless access points around campus, but they were basically just “hot spots,” he says.

These various hot spots “were prompted by student groups who were asking for [wireless],” Turner says. “They wanted it in student centers, in the cafeteria. In 2004, they had made a request to have outdoor areas covered by wireless. So we got permission to get access points, to poke holes in rooms of buildings and get coverage in large parts of campus.”

But with so many access points, the solution was becoming unmanageable. When there were connection problems, it could take a while to track down a fix. If there was a code update, it had to be updated at all of the separate access points. “The solution we had was not very scaleable,” he explains.

Turner decided to write a request for proposals (RFP) for a campus-wide wireless solution, which he released in December 2004.

Of the companies that responded, Brandeis narrowed the field to Airspace (which was purchased by Cisco Systems) and Aruba.

Rather than choose a provider based on their presentations, Turner decided to ask for a “wireless shootout” as part of the two companies’ pitches. He had the vendors bring in their implementation partners and work together to make Brandeis’s library wireless.

“There were some wide-open spaces, some stacks of books–it was a fairly complex setup that both vendors had to solve,” says Turner. “I said, ‘We will find a bug on your code that you will have to replace.’ Interestingly, we found identical security bugs in both products, just by chance. Both were vulnerable to an exploit in the exact same way.”

Aruba, with implementation partner Altec Datacom, became the clear winner, not only because of its technology, according to Turner, but also because of the level of expertise it was able to bring to the security issue. “It was really pretty neat,” Turner says. “Cisco was our incumbent in terms of VoIP. Aruba came in thinking they were, in fact, going to lose this deal, and they came out on top.”

By far the biggest challenge in the implementation was knowing where to deploy access points.

“When you plan where you’re going to put access points, you can either make an educated guess where you think it’s going to work best, or you can go through the process where you put an access point in and take extensive measurements of how far it goes, make changes, put it in somewhere else, make changes … that’s called a radio-frequency survey,” Turner says. While an RF survey is an expensive task, it can be worthwhile, he says–though Brandeis chose not to do a survey.

In its response to the RFP, Aruba originally estimated a need for 480 access points. That number eventually was increased to about 850.

The deployments in office spaces were less challenging than on campus. Residential halls, for example, are typically long and narrow, with centralized bathrooms. “It’s difficult to cover both ends,” says Turner. Other challenges included the fact that a new concrete structure will absorb a lot of signal, so with concrete floors, the signal might not carry through to the first floor if you place the access point on the second. Cinder or concrete block walls either absorb or allow for the distribution of radio frequency, depending on the materials. The newness of materials matters, as well.

“If you have new concrete buildings, there’s a lot of water that’s left in that, and it could take years to fully dry,” explains Turner. “So a new concrete structure will absorb a lot of your signal.”

The implementation “got it about 80 percent right,” Turner says. “It’s not 100 percent. There’s definitely a lot of coverage holes. The advantage is, Aruba says, ‘You’ve got coverage holes.'”

Turner plans another sweep to add perhaps another 50 access points in key locations.

Because there was no RF survey, the most expensive part of the rollout was pulling the wire to the locations it was needed to make a permanent installation. “There’s no data in the hallways, no data in the auditoriums where we were placing the access points, so we needed to run cabling,” he explains.

Another challenge has been the end-user connection. With a wired connection, almost all Ethernet cards work the same way: You plug in your network jack and it works.

“With wireless, we use [the security protocol] WPA2, which requires a much higher level of integration between the client and the access point, or–in Aruba’s case–the mobility controller,” says Turner. “You have to make sure you have the correct software on the client and that the client connects correctly.”

In other words, students and staff members often don’t have the right software. “They never have the right Microsoft patch. They don’t read the pop-up messages or click ‘OK’ in the right place,” he says.

With 5,000 students, 2,700 of whom live on campus, not to mention faculty and staff, there are a lot of clients to service. Turner holds “dorm blitzes” at the beginning of every year, where close to two dozen students go into the dorms to help get them connected.

He also operates a student-run help desk, where students can either call for help or bring in their laptops. The process is easier with faculty and staff, because typically the laptop is bought for them, so they automatically have the correct software.

Although Turner couldn’t cite specific figures, he did say the cost of deploying the Aruba solution was easily two times cheaper than a so-called “fat,” or intelligent, access-point solution, in which the network capabilities are concentrated in the access point itself–and four times cheaper, at least, in the long run when maintenance is taken into consideration.

Brandeis primarily deployed Aruba’s AP70 802.11a/b/g access points, as well as three 6000 Series Aruba Mobility Controllers.

At this point, Turner says, the campus is only 75-percent covered, because the athletic fields are not yet covered. “But when Apple releases its iPhone and wireless iPod, students will want [coverage] on the athletic fields, and they’ll be asking,” he says. “I hate it when students ask me for something. I want to be there ahead of time.”

He adds, “Students expect wireless. They expect it everywhere.”

Jennifer Nastu is a freelance writer living in Fort Collins, Colorado. She writes frequently on technology in education.

The deployments in office spaces were less challenging than on campus. Residential halls, for example, are typically long and narrow, with centralized bathrooms. “It’s difficult to cover both ends,” says Turner. Other challenges included the fact that a new concrete structure will absorb a lot of signal, so with concrete floors, the signal might not carry through to the first floor if you place the access point on the second. Cinder or concrete block walls either absorb or allow for the distribution of radio frequency, depending on the materials. The newness of materials matters, as well.

“If you have new concrete buildings, there’s a lot of water that’s left in that, and it could take years to fully dry,” explains Turner. “So a new concrete structure will absorb a lot of your signal.”

The implementation “got it about 80 percent right,” Turner says. “It’s not 100 percent. There’s definitely a lot of coverage holes. The advantage is, Aruba says, ‘You’ve got coverage holes.'”

Turner plans another sweep to add perhaps another 50 access points in key locations.

Because there was no RF survey, the most expensive part of the rollout was pulling the wire to the locations it was needed to make a permanent installation. “There’s no data in the hallways, no data in the auditoriums where we were placing the access points, so we needed to run cabling,” he explains.

Another challenge has been the end-user connection. With a wired connection, almost all Ethernet cards work the same way: You plug in your network jack and it works.

“With wireless, we use [the security protocol] WPA2, which requires a much higher level of integration between the client and the access point, or–in Aruba’s case–the mobility controller,” says Turner. “You have to make sure you have the correct software on the client and that the client connects correctly.”

In other words, students and staff members often don’t have the right software. “They never have the right Microsoft patch. They don’t read the pop-up messages or click ‘OK’ in the right place,” he says.

With 5,000 students, 2,700 of whom live on campus, not to mention faculty and staff, there are a lot of clients to service. Turner holds “dorm blitzes” at the beginning of every year, where close to two dozen students go into the dorms to help get them connected.

He also operates a student-run help desk, where students can either call for help or bring in their laptops. The process is easier with faculty and staff, because typically the laptop is bought for them, so they automatically have the correct software.

Although Turner couldn’t cite specific figures, he did say the cost of deploying the Aruba solution was easily two times cheaper than a so-called “fat,” or intelligent, access-point solution, in which the network capabilities are concentrated in the access point itself–and four times cheaper, at least, in the long run when maintenance is taken into consideration.

Brandeis primarily deployed Aruba’s AP70 802.11a/b/g access points, as well as three 6000 Series Aruba Mobility Controllers.

At this point, Turner says, the campus is only 75-percent covered, because the athletic fields are not yet covered. “But when Apple releases its iPhone and wireless iPod, students will want [coverage] on the athletic fields, and they’ll be asking,” he says. “I hate it when students ask me for something. I want to be there ahead of time.”

He adds, “Students expect wireless. They expect it everywhere.”

Jennifer Nastu is a freelance writer living in Fort Collins, Colorado. She writes frequently on technology in education.