802.11n pioneer sets ‘wicked fast’ expectations for wireless

Students become the playground for next-generation wireless

The unlikely pioneer for 802.11n is a small state college in rural New York, the site of the first large-scale 11n Wi-Fi deployment two years ago. On the surface, not much has changed at Morrisville State College -- except for the expectations of users and the IT department.

“I was talking to a student about his experience with our wireless network,” says Jean Boland, vice president for information technology services at MSC. “He said, ‘when I go home, my wireless at home is REALLY slow.’ I think we’ve changed the expectation of users. Wireless is now wicked fast.”

For MSC users, “wicked fast” means all the bandwidth they need, wherever they are, for just about whatever they want.

802.11n set for final approval; timeline of 802.11n development milestones

In early 2007, the college decided to scrap an aging pre-802.11 network in a few areas and replace it with a campus-wide WLAN. In a surprising move, the MSC board approved Boland’s recommendation to go with 802.11n, which had achieved draft 2.0 status just a few months earlier. After evaluating options, the college chose the newly announced equipment from Meru Networks. Meru had not yet ramped up manufacturing, and the college first deployed the company’s existing 802.11abg access point during the early part of the summer, replacing them with the spanking new 11n gear a few months later.

It was the first large-scale deployment – about 720 access points – for 11n. It’s now dwarfed by such massive 11n deployments as those at Duke University, with 2,500 Cisco access points, and Carnegie Mellon University, with about 3,200 access points from Aruba and secondarily Xirrus. 

Such deployments are raising a host of IT issues, as a highly mobile user community – students – opts for wireless connections even when they have a wireline option. One result is that access layer switches are going almost entirely unused (some schools report that more than 90% of wired ports are now idle). Some IT groups are starting to debate when or whether it makes sense to cut the Ethernet access cable.

At Morrisville, the 11n network blankets the entire campus, and extends to a number of off-site locations such as the horse barns. Since the late 2007 deployment of the 11n access points, the network has run reliably. In the dorms, Wi-Fi is the only network access available. There are 3,300 students on campus, and the average online peak is about 1,500 users. There are now about 800 access points.

Students are outfitted with the campus standard notebook, a Lenovo ThinkPad 400 with an integrated Intel 11n adapter. Over the last two years, there has been a big jump in the number of other Wi-Fi-enabled devices on the network, from 80 to about 400 devices. These consist mainly of iPhones and other so-called dual-mode smartphones, along with Xboxes and other gaming consoles.

As with other colleges and universities, Morrisville is making changes in the way it networks new or refurbished buildings as a consequence of 11n. The newest building on the MSC campus, for industrial and other design disciplines, will offer only some wired ports for printers and other gear. Students and faculty will rely on 11n for CAD and other bandwidth-hungry applications. The Wi-Fi network also lets the building be laid out with flexible workspaces, which can be easily modified to meet student needs.

“We’d be hard-pressed to do wired at this point,” Boland says. “The cost difference [between wireless and wired access] is substantial, and 11n can handle everything we have.”

“Our approach now is ‘we have wireless for access. Do we need wired also?’” says Matt Barber, MSC’s network administrator.

The college is in the midst of a one major change: installing power injectors to support an upgrade to 3x3 MIMO, along with attendant gigabit Ethernet switches. Multiple input multiple output (MIMO) is a key reason for 11n’s performance gains: A high-rate data stream is split up into several slower streams in a single channel, and each is transmitted, and received, on separate antennas. The spatial diversity of the antennas lets 11n create and combine parallel data streams, multiplying the capacity of the connection.

(WLAN vendor Ruckus Wireless recently introduced a 3x3 11n access point, and chipmaker Quantenna Communications demonstrated a 4x4 chip at CES last January.)

A 3x3 infrastructure needs up to 32 watts per port, says Barber. And MSC is using PowerDesign’s injector line to support the higher demand. With 3x3, users will see higher throughput that is sustained over longer distances from the access point.

The infrastructure change anticipates what both Boland and Barber see is a strong trend toward digital distribution of content and growing interactivity. Instead of buying a paper textbook for anatomy class, students will have ebook capabilities to combine a wealth of multimedia video, pictures and text, linked with other online resources.

This always-connected world is what today’s students expect. Boland recalls chatting in 2008 with a student who stopped by the IT help desk to report a problem. “I asked him if this occurred when he was plugged into the network,” she says. “He looked at me as if I had two heads. ‘You mean that cable? I never use that,’ he said.”

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