McGill campuses deploy wireless LANs

McGill University has begun deploying a new wireless network aimed at combating the performance and security challenges that come with having a downtown-area campus.

Using Aruba Networks Inc.’s adaptive wireless LANs in both its Montreal-based campuses, the school has already deployed more than 2,700 wireless access points since beginning the project last year. McGill’s primary motivation behind the massive wireless network overhaul was to maintain its performance and network connectivity in the face of explosive growth in student demand.

“Density is starting to become a lot more important to us than it was in the past,” Gary Bernstein, director of network communication services at McGill, said. “Five or six years ago, if you went into a student area, you saw one or two kids with laptops. Now, a lot of the desktops in our computing labs are empty and we see more students sitting in common areas using their laptops and collaborating among themselves.”

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Adding to the problem of having more than 30,000 students and faculty members on campus is the geographical location of McGill’s downtown campus, which is surrounded by dozens of apartment complexes and commercial office buildings. Bernstein said that the school’s location alone presented a lot of security and performance issues that the university’s first generation wireless network wasn’t able to handle.

“Let’s say you’re in a school building on a street with some residential housing,” Bernstein said. “You’d be working on the wireless system and then all of a sudden your connection would start to ping pong, jumping between one wireless access point and another. It looks like a rogue access point from our perspective, but the guy is actually just a person sitting in his apartment using his Internet connection.”

Aruba said that that most other systems it’s come across will report interfering access points as rogue access points in almost every circumstance. Its system, however, looks at both the wire and the air to determine a rogue.

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“If we see the same MAC on the wire as in the air we have positive classification,” Fran Sanda, manager of Canadian sales at Aruba, said. One challenge in the McGill deployment was the school’s mobile user group, where large groups of students often take their laptops from class to class.

“You might have a group of 400 people entering or exiting a large lecture hall, so that presents a significant challenge,” Sanda said. “Also, from an IT perspective, these are users you have no control over and you really don’t have any understanding of what devices might be coming onto the networks at all given time.”

And with all this mobile traffic, Bernstein said bandwidth issues have also become a factor. The school already offers all of their lectures to students over the Web and more high-speed services could be in the pipeline.

“Bandwidth management is no joke,” he said. “There’s no problem if you have one access point, but when you add a few more in close proximity to one another, you’re going to see how they start to fight and slow each other down.”

Aruba said its adaptive radio management (ARM) technology addresses this by optimizing network performance to support data, toll-quality voice, and streaming video applications.

“ARM constantly monitors the air for a variety of things, but mostly for interference cause by non-Wi-Fi devices,” Sanda said. “Ultimately its job is to find the optimal channel and power settings so that the users are not impacted by these interferences. It also has the ability to understand when a client is passing traffic and what kind of traffic it is.”

Most wireless systems, he said, would see traffic as simply a bunch of IP packets. But Sanda said the system might treat the radio frequency differently if it knew that it’s not just a data transfer, but in fact, a voice call.

“Because voice is subject to latency, during the time the voice call is active, ARM would tell the access point to stay on the channel to avoid causing any latency or degradation to the phone connection,” he said.

And this will be especially useful for McGill, as the school has begun contemplating a move to Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC) – which allows switching between both GSM and other networks such as Wi-Fi. This means that students might be able to make a wireless VoIP call while on campus and as they leave the area, seamlessly connect to their cellular network.

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