Schools Unwire Through Thick and Thin

By Eric Griffith

October 13, 2006

A new survey says that learning institutions with Wi-Fi often have a mix of legacy and modern architectures in place.

Colleges, universities and even K-12 school systems have been among many of the early adopters using Wi-Fi for communication and learning in the classroom and beyond. A report called the Campus Computing Survey, done every year since 1990, says that in 2006, 51.2% of all college classrooms had wireless LAN (WLAN) access -- and 68.8% of campuses have a strategic plan for deploying WLANs.

But do those plans include traditional, legacy access points (APs) without centralized management?

Recently, one of the leading infrastructure companies, Meru Networks, made a lot of noise about the fact that it had landed several educational contracts. Many, if not most, involved replacing existing equipment to upgrade the capacity and capabilities schools have today.

And that may be where it's all headed: switching out the "thick" or "intelligent" APs without a centralized management structure for a distributed architecture with centralized intelligence. Even Cisco offers that.

But AirWave Wireless, a company that makes software to control networks, says it's not happening as fast as you might think.

"If you read a lot of press, you get a sense of a rapid shift from the thick access point to thin access point architecture -- what emerges is more complex," says Greg Murphy, COO at AirWave, which conducted the random survey of 200 IT pros in higher education in August.

"People are moving to centralized APs, but a substantial number have both [thick and thin APs] with a mixed architecture," Murphy says. "As you look forward, they talk about implementing mesh, arrays and outdoor equipment. They'll pick the products to meet their needs in a specific location [rather than stay loyal to one vendor]."

Of the respondents, 64% have WLANs with 100 APs or more; 11% actually run over 1,000 APs. 78% of the total respondents still have "thick" APs, while 36% have distributed thin APs and 20% have a mix. A full 44% expect to still have a mixed "multi-architecture" network two years from now.

This is all good for AirWave, of course, as the company sells a management system that works with APs from several vendors, including Cisco, Aruba, Symbol, Proxim, HP and more, and doesn't really care whether the setup is with thick or thin APs.

New Schools

Meru continues to announce new education customers. The Castle School District of New Castle, Indiana will have a Meru WLAN spanning 10 schools, an admin building and a tech center for use by 4,000 students and 500 staff and faculty. Farmingdale State University of New York on Long Island spans 380 acres with 24 buildings, all unwired.

Both of those may pale in comparison to the news from competitor Aruba Networks that Ohio State University has installed what it thinks could become the largest WLAN ever: 10,000 APs (and 40 centralized controllers) covering 400 buildings on a 1,800 acre campus. Minimal coverage still requires a whooping 3,000 APs. At least 1,700 APs are live now in just 28 buildings — which apparently were all installed and activated in three weeks.

Multiple APs are one method, but 5G Wireless prides itself on minimal equipment for maximum coverage. The company said this week that it has installed units at Monmouth University in New Jersey. The campus is covered with just four outdoor base stations, an outdoor microcell and 33 indoor microcells. 5G has plans to unwire Denison U. in Ohio, and has deployed at schools like Cedarville U., College of DuPage, and UCLA's Anderson School of Management.



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