UNC Charlotte goes for gigbit wifi

UNC Charlotte solves wireless demand with gigabit Wi-Fi

Colleges and universities vie for students in myriad ways, including offering top-notch technology programs. But to stay competitive, schools also need an up-to-date technology infrastructure that supports both educational programs and students’ personal devices. To that end, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is upgrading its wireless connectivity to include gigabit Wi-Fi and add nearly 1,000 access points.

The problems UNCC wants to solve are two-fold, its CIO, Mike Carlin, said. First, its Meru Networks setup could no longer keep up with on-campus Wi-Fi demands. Second, faculty members are increasingly using Wi-Fi-connected devices to teach courses, further straining the existing system.

“Quite frankly, as the usage increased across the campus, as the number of devices increased, [the Wi-Fi] really began to collapse under its own weight in terms of performance [and] reliability,” Carlin said.

In addition, UNC Charlotte wanted to “change the way that students and faculty engage on the campus, in terms of BYOD (bring your own device), in terms of flipped classroom designs -- changing the way that [faculty members] engage with students in the classroom through the use of technology,” Carlin said.

“We couldn’t do that with the existing wireless. We really needed a whole new way of looking at this.”

UNCC selected Aruba Networks’ 802.11ac Wave 1 and Wave 2 wireless local-area network to replace its Meru system particularly because of Aruba’s 320 series access points. The APs comply with Wave I IEEE standard 802.11ac, the first release of gigabit, or next-generation Wi-Fi, and with Wave 2, which provides multi-user multiple input/multiple output (MU-MIMO) grouping.

“I’d say at a high level, Wave 2 is about improving efficiency,” whereas Wave 1 was more about gettingt more devices on the network and boosting the throughput, said Christian Gilby, director of product marketing at Aruba. “It adds another spatial stream, which means it boosts performance 30 percent. It doubles the frequency width, the channel width for Wi-Fi. In theory, that can double the speed.”

UNC Charlotte officials also liked the MU-MIMO capability, which allows for transmission from one AP to multiple clients at the same time. “It’s the first time you’ve ever been able to do that with Wi-Fi because prior to this, it was purely a shared medium, and an AP could only transmit to one client at a time,” Gilby said.

Using Aruba’s MU-MIMO-aware ClientMatch technology, the APs can group Wave 2-capable devices on the same stream. This will especially help connectivity in high-density areas of campus such as lecture halls and dorms, he added.

For the first phase of the upgrade, UNC Charlotte had to install Aruba controllers and upgrade its data center to accommodate the Aruba APs, going from a 10-gigabit interface to a 40-gigabit one. Because the APs use Power over Ethernet-Plus (POE+), which means more power over the cabling, the university also had to buy POE+-compliant switches.

Other aspects of the new system include AirWave, which is the network management platform for configuration, setup and monitoring. IT managers can use it to diagnose problems across wired and wireless networks. On the security side, Gilby said, Aruba’s ClearPass Policy Manager onboards devices, grants guest access and provides authentication. Because ClearPass can be layered across both the Aruba and Meru implementations, students will get the same experience when they access the network, he added.

The result at UNC Charlotte is better and centralized insight into bandwidth spikes and the number of clients connected to the controllers. For student and faculty users, there’s no discernible difference except for better speed and fewer problems, UNC Charlotte Vice Chancellor for Enterprise Infrastructure Jesse Beauman said.

“We expect the campus to really enjoy the new wireless system and be able to use it for both teaching and learning as well as for students in their recreational use,” Beauman said.

Right now, UNC Charlotte expects to complete the first phase of implementation in March. During this time, it will deploy access points in 22 to 24 buildings – four of which are already done. But this represents only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the total.

The university has already purchased 1,200 APs from Aruba, Carlin said, and once deployed, they will cover about half the 1,000-acre campus. At the end of the project, Beauman said he expects to have about 2,500 APs replacing the existing 1,600 Meru ones.

The 320 series APs also integrate a Bluetooth Low Energy Beacon, which would let UNCC provide wayfinding for people new to the campus and send push notifications about on-campus events or emergencies.

Universities aren’t the only places learning the benefits of gigabit Wi-Fi. Oklahoma’s state government has also turned to Aruba’s ClearPass system, while Cuyahoga County, Ohio, opted for a solution from Cisco Systems. Federal agencies such as the U.S. Postal Service and the Homeland Security Department are also testing uses for the new Wi-Fi standard.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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