Learning to push the wireless boundaries in schools

New College Swindon has taken a giant leap for wireless connectivity by running its PCs, laptops, phones and photocopiers, as well as guest access for students, on a Xirrus system. ICT manager Phil Quinn explains the thinking to James Atkinson

Learning to push the wireless boundaries in schools

New College Swindon in Wiltshire is one of the largest campuses in the UK for A-Level and GSCE students. Back in 2005, it installed a basic Wi-Fi network using HP ProCurve 420 wireless access points running on the 802.11b Wi-Fi standard. 

It was initially designed to provide Wi-Fi access for around 100 staff laptops, but the students soon started asking for access too. The student body includes approximately 3,000 16-18 year-olds and 10,000 adults on full-time and evening courses.

The college responded by starting a pilot and adding guest access for students. Everything was running fine, reports ICT manager Phil Quinn, until demand reached the point where the system couldn’t cope. ‘We went from no more than 50 devices on the network at any one time to about 200 to 300,’ he says. ‘So, the real push for our Wi-Fi upgrade came from the students – it was led by demand.’

Quinn notes that coverage wasn’t really the issue, but density was. ‘We have 600 staff using 200 to 300 laptops; a stock of about 1,300 physical PCs and laptops on site; and then all the devices the students bring in.’ 

Tender process

The college was due to build a new annexe building, so money was set aside for a wireless refresh as part and parcel of the build. The tender went out through one of the education purchasing consortia and was won by US Wi-Fi equipment manufacturer Xirrus. 

Price is always a factor in choosing an equipment provider, but it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to compare one set of Wi-Fi equipment with another.

‘You have to rely on lab tests, publications and networking with colleagues who have installed Wi-Fi systems to find out what has been put in,’ says Quinn. ‘All the systems we looked at were all out there and working. You also talk to vendor sales and technical people. But I would say that purchasing is the hardest part of any project.

‘Yes, money is important,’ he continues, ‘but it is value for money that you are after. Some things may be more expensive, but may be the better product to put in.’

Quinn adds: ‘Managing density is one of Xirrus’ main selling points, so it just fitted our needs here.’ Another benefit of the Xirrus system is that it is very easy to scale up the network as demand rises, as more radios can be added to the ceiling-mounted chassis without having to rip and replace the arrays or redesign the network by having to install new cabling and add new physical points.

‘The problem with the HP arrays was that we couldn’t do that,’ says Quinn. ‘But we can with Xirrus, so I have something that should last for five to 10 years, is reliable and can cope with demand. We’ve planned for expansion and I want to push as much as I can onto Wi-Fi. We have a system that can do it and one that is nowhere near at capacity yet.’

Guaranteed service

One of the big selling points for Xirrus was its guarantee, which promises that the college will have a network that provides guaranteed signal strength, throughput and coverage for the devices. 

Xirrus’ selection was followed by a site survey to establish where the wireless arrays should be sited and how many would be needed. This was not the easiest of tasks, as the new annex wasn’t yet built. Xirrus then installed the equipment, followed by a short ‘bedding down’ period, and then Xirrus undertook a further post-site survey.

‘If at that post-site survey stage you have gaps in your coverage, under the guarantee, they will give you more arrays free of charge – that’s a nice comfort blanket and I had to use it,’ says Quinn. This was largely because the walls of the new annex soaked up more of the radio signal than anticipated.

‘In certain areas there was not enough coverage,’ says Quinn, ‘and fair play to Xirrus, it gave us another array. So I know the guarantee works.’

Network management

As regards managing the network, the Wi-Fi does not have to have a controller, but Quinn wanted one.  In particular, he wanted the management system to provide warnings if the system went down. Quinn wryly notes that he has a spare Xirrus XN8 array in his office to meet such a contingency.

He also wanted his management system to get performance statistics. ‘I want to know it is being used and that the college is getting value for money,’ he says. 

The equipment includes 48 arrays installed around the site comprising a mixture of Xirrus XN8s and XN4s 802.11n arrays (the previous range to Xirrus’ current XR arrays), which provide multiple access points housed in a single ceiling-mounted array. 

In the older parts of the campus the arrays are Ethernet powered. However, the new annex building is completely wireless with no fixed Ethernet connections and is running far more than just mobile laptops and mobile phones. 

Equipment on the network

All the college’s PC work stations run off it using wireless cards. The college phone system is also running off the Wi-Fi. The phones proved the trickiest bit, not because the Wi-Fi couldn’t cope, but because it wasn’t easy to integrate the QoS for voice over IP telephony software with the Wi-Fi system.

Finally, the multi-functional devices (MFDs) are also using the Wi-Fi network. The MFDs are huge Konica Minolta photocopiers that work off the PaperCut MF system using FollowMe printing. This queues jobs up on the server and calls down the print job when you want it to print, thereby reducing traffic to the printer and making it more manageable.

Quinn found there wasn’t much evidence that MFDs could be run off Wi-Fi – some manufacturers even told him it wasn’t possible. But Konica Minolta was game to try and supplied ZyXEL Wi-Fi bridges, so the Wi-Fi can talk to the photocopier.

Access policy

The college has established a number of different levels of access for the Wi-Fi: a specific area for all college devices, although it will not let a non-college device run on the internal network, so all college laptops are separated from the rest of the areas.

There is an area for the printers, so the traffic can be kept separate; one more area handles the phones. There is the guest Wi-Fi for bring your own device (BYOD) access. ‘This is a challenge because our policy is to be inclusive,’ says Quinn. 

‘The students can bring in any device that they are comfortable learning on to make their learning experience better. So, if it is your dad’s secondhand six year-old laptap – as long as it has wireless, we’ll try to get it to work.’

This is a challenge, because the main college network operates in the 5GHz unlicensed Wi-Fi band, but many of the legacy devices being brought in by students will only work in the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi band. ‘So that means we’ve got to put 2.4GHz in everywhere and you’ve got to be able to use the 802.11b/g Wi-Fi standards, so when we do upgrades we’ve got to make sure all the old devices still work,’ says Quinn.

The guest Wi-Fi access is designed to be easy to use. Students power up the device, connect to the wireless guest area, put in their student account details and they are in.Quinn says they are still obliged to log on each time as the college has not opted for automatic device recognition. ‘We need to know what our users are doing and make them accountable for what they do, so access is on a per user basis.’

The Wi-Fi system has been installed for nearly three years now and Quinn says it has met all expectations. New College Swindon has made a brave step moving so much functionality onto a Wi-Fi system. It is to be hoped that others will follow its example.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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