OIT completes upgrade of campus wireless network

Over the summer, the office of information technology (OIT) began an upgrade of the College’s wireless network. The upgrade, completed last month, allows for faster wireless connection speeds and less interference with the network.

“Our goal was to try to have our wireless infrastructure nearly as fast as our wired infrastructure,” said Edward Nowlan, director of networks and systems. “We had heard complaints from students especially about slow wireless connection speeds.” Nowlan added that with the old access points, top connection speeds ranged from two to 10 megabits per second (Mbps). The upgraded network allows for connection speeds of 20 to 144 Mbps.

Much of the $1 million budget allotted for the project was used to purchase new access points and other equipment. Access points are the physical devices present in campus buildings; computers’ wireless adapters communicate with the access points, which are connected to the wired network.

In addition, Nowlan said that the upgraded system’s new access points utilize Clean Air technology, which mitigates the impact of wireless interference caused by, among other things, microwave ovens, cordless phones, motion detectors and neighboring wireless networks. Clean Air technology, Nowlan said, can identify the source of interference and make automatic adjustments to optimize wireless coverage.

According to Nowlan, OIT began looking into the possibility of upgrading the network in the summer of 2009. “Our access points were at a point that they could not run any of the new code releases from the vendor,” Nowlan said. “Although they may have continued to work, the longer we held off the harder it would have been to get replacements should they fail, and if there were issues with clients connecting to them, we would be unable to make any changes because no more software updates were available.”
Aside from the outdated nature of the system, Nowlan noted that another important reason for the upgrade was the increased number of people using the wireless network.

“When wireless was first implemented it was deemed a secondary network, giving students, faculty and staff another method of connecting to the Williams network,” Nowlan said. “Over the past five years, wireless has increased in use for all users, but for students it is nearly all they use. Even knowing that the connection speeds of wireless were less, students chose to use wireless over the wired network.”

Nowlan added that statistics from the current year show that 95 percent of students have used at least one wireless device on campus this fall. Meanwhile, fewer than 15 percent of students have a wired connection – a good portion of which are used for gaming consoles.

In undertaking the upgrade, OIT decided to upgrade all access points and controllers at once, instead of implementing a phased rollout.

“We believed that it could be done over the summer months while students were off campus,” Nowlan said. “Academic and administrative buildings were also upgraded mostly during the summer, and the outages were relatively short and announced.”
With the new system, the wireless network has over 800 access points in over 100 buildings across campus. All student residence upgrades were completed before the first week of classes, while other buildings were completed in September.

Garnering approval for the wireless upgrade required OIT to present their concerns to the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR). According to Nowlan, the CPR and senior administrators of the College saw the need to keep the wireless network as reliable and high performing as wired infrastructure. Following the support of the CPR, the College’s Board of Trustees approved the $1 million budget for the project.

Nowlan said that maintaining a reliable and high performing network requires scheduled replacements, as much of the equipment has useful life cycles of only five years.

“A lot depends on the vendor support of the hardware and other times it is the functionality of the hardware,” Nowlan said. “When we requested the latest capital budget, we stated that in five years, we most likely would have to do this again.”

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