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The challenge of Wi-Fi in an 800-year-old University

Providing Wi-Fi to a University environment can be surprisingly challenging when your campus is a whole city. Alexander Cox, UIS's Wireless Infrastructure Manager, discusses the challenges in his blog for Aruba Networks.

Alexander CoxBy Alexander Cox
(Wireless Infrastructure Manager, UIS Networks Division)

The University of Cambridge has been around for just a little while. With over 800 years of teaching, research and worldwide collaboration we can say, as one of the oldest universities, we have made a real positive difference to the world.

Providing services to such a prestigious institution is a real privilege, but can also be daunting. At Cambridge, the whole city is the campus as University Departments and Colleges span the city. Networking on such a distributed scale is a challenge; we have to take both the narrow and wider view at the same time. 25 years ago, the University had the foresight to begin deploying a pan-city fibre optic network, the Granta Backbone Network, to connect the hundreds of University buildings together. Today this encompasses 60 km of multicore fibre, over which we run a core and distribution router network. Therefore, as all our buildings are networked together, you would think that deploying Wi-Fi on the back of that must be easy. That could not be further from the truth. As hinted at already, Cambridge is far from simple.

University Wi-Fi logoThe most basic thing you do for a wireless deployment is a Wi-Fi survey. Here at Cambridge we have myriad buildings of all shapes, sizes and types. We have buildings that are 800 years old right through to modern structures. The construction of these buildings is amazingly diverse, from metre-thick stone walls to concrete monoliths right through to simple buildings made up of modern partition walls. The latter sounds simple, until you come across that surprise hefty wall with four layers of unexpected insulation, or a signal-killing chimney hidden in the wall. We also have constructions as varied as residential buildings, (that can also act as hotels out of term), office blocks, state of the art laboratories, lecture theatres and seminar rooms, libraries and warehouses. This means that the University Wireless Team have their work cut out surveying each of these unique environments while trying to get ubiquitous Wi-Fi into all areas. We estimate that if we surveyed each building end to end, it would take more than 5 years.

So, presuming we can survey the building and find an acceptable deployment (for example, imagine finding cable routes and dealing with the aesthetics in an 800-year-old building), how do we manage the system itself? In the University, we are approaching 5000 indoor and outdoor Aruba access points installed across the City. With such a large deployment, we need a solution that just works and we need a solution that is easy to monitor and manage centrally. Aruba Airwave allows us to have visibility of the status and statistics of every access point from our office in West Cambridge and that avoids the need for time-consuming site visits. The level of information it provides is staggering; we just would not be able to manage such a large and widespread deployment without it.

Wireless connectivity has become essential to University business and for many people is the default connection method. If we are to stay ahead in student experience, teaching, research and other areas, we need to continue investing in mobility. To do this we are periodically reviewing our wireless deployment and undertaking continual technology refresh. Right now, we are upgrading to a 2N resiliency model for the central infrastructure, investigating new authentication technologies, including Aruba ClearPass, and introducing the new 802.11ac wave 2 access points while making a large investment in phasing out some of the oldest models. We are expanding outdoor coverage to provide mobility in-between University buildings and are working in collaboration with the local authorities to provide public Wi-Fi in the public parks and streets. Lastly, we hope to build on all this hard work to add extra depth to wireless network access. One example would be geolocation technology such as the Aruba Meridian and beacon platform.

This is clearly a lot of hard work and demonstrates we cannot stand still; we have to continue to be responsive. Growth in wireless usage on the University network is going through the roof and reacting to this is a continual challenge. By keeping up with the technology curve and responding to the demand in network growth and digital transformation, we are continuing to ensure that University Wireless is fit for tomorrow's evolving needs.

Aruba Networks, the data networking solutions division of Hewlett Packard, documented UIS's roll-out of Wi-Fi in a series of short films. Cambridge was chosen for the case studies because it is one of the most innovative and dynamic cities in the world, with a highly connected population. During term time, the University Wireless service handles connections from more than 320,000 unique devices and carries 800TB of data per month.

The filming took place over two days in the summer and involved collaboration with UIS's Networks Division and the City Council. The films will be shown worldwide at various conferences and venues, including the Aruba Atmosphere Conference USA.
You can watch the films on Aruba's website and YouTube: