The Dual-Band MBA Program

By Adam Stone

November 03, 2003

When a Vanderbilt U. graduate school face a bandwidth crisis, it had a choice of leaving current WLAN users behind or adopting a then untried high-bandwidth technology. The solution was easier than they could have hoped.

Most in the technology world view the evolving 802.11 standards as a good thing. With each new iteration the Wi-Fi community gets better speeds and/or better security. But as with all things technological, each step forward comes with a price that is more than merely financial.

There's always questions (such as, did it make sense to trade 802.11b for the speed of 802.11a, with the 11g standard just around the corner?) and they play out not just in the enterprise but also, perhaps moreso, in the arena of academia, where budgets and timelines are tight. At Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management , technology managers learned this recently, when they maxed out the capacity of their Wi-Fi system.

The school began dabbling in wireless about four years ago, and after a successful pilot run administrators instituted a requirement that all students have Wi-Fi enabled laptops. They have since used these devices to access an online course management system, interact with students clubs and administrative offices and, of course, to check their e-mail in between classes.

Those between-class logons were symptomatic of a daily ebb and flow that ultimately became a problem for system managers. With a built-in user base of over 500, "we have some peak loading issues with classes letting out, and high demand for accessing networks between class breaks. So we had sections of the building where you have acceptable-but-diminished performance. We were nudging the performance limits," said Barry Dombro, director of information technology for the school.

With the present system quickly reaching capacity, Dombro and his colleagues started looking around for the next upgrade. That's where timing becomes a problem. The 802.11g standard was nearing ratification this past summer, but had not gotten there yet. Still, something better than 11b was needed, and it would have to be implemented before classes resumed in the fall.

"We were between a rock and a hard place in terms of timing," said Dombro.

Worse still, the MBA program lasts two years, which means that whatever new standard was adopted for the first-year students, the second-years would still be carrying laptops from the previous 11b iteration.

Happily, the students' required ThinkPads were being shipped with both 11a and 11b capacity. This being the case, "the timing issues motivated us to learn more about 11a," said Dombro. In the end the school opted to support a dual 11a/b solution to satisfy all parties. "We had to provide 11b, and yet for the incoming first-year students 11a was a good solution for beefing up the speed of the network."

Returning students now generally carry 802.11b client devices, while incoming students are arriving with dual-band 802.11a/b systems. All are connected through Cisco dual-band access points. By off-loading some of the traffic from the 2.4GHz band, the IT department has enhanced performance for returning students, while allowing incoming students to benefit from the higher bandwidth of 11a.

Such a solution probably could not have been implemented just a year ago, when there were significantly fewer 11a devices on the market, suggested Chris Bolinger, a Cisco product manager.

The large-scale arrival of 802.11a devices has generated not only new flexibility for such large-scale rollouts, but also a new possibility for an economically viable technological evolution for those already involved in Wi-Fi usage.

"People can use this dual a/b solution rather than a wholesale swap-out," said Bolinger. "Realistically that is what I expect most companies to do. You're not going to throw away 11b if you are using it now."

As the 11x standards continue to evolve, observers say, others likely will look for similar solutions in an effort to expand upon existing solutions rather than to replace them entirely. "I think Vanderbilt will be a harbinger of what is going to happen," said Bolinger. "You will see people adding 11a into the mix, rather than just getting of --b."

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