802.11n starts its wireless stress test at university

A zone of 11n access points sets new expectations for WLAN performance

There are two things different about Morrisville State College this week. One is the campus-wide wireless LAN, with about 700 access points, including 10 brand new draft IEEE 802.11n access points from Meru Networks.

The second thing is there are now 3,000 students back on campus, all extremely unwired.

And while they can connect wirelessly to the campus net in classrooms and dorms and even outdoors, the place where they notice a real difference is in "Mustang Alley," a combination food court, coffee house, and general student hangout. It's here the first crop of 11n access points have been deployed, where they are guaranteed to get a workout. By later this fall, the campus will be all-11n, the first large-scale deployment of the high-throughput standard.

Tests by the IT staff found the 11n access points were delivering "unbelievable results" compared to performance of 11g an 11a access points. The incoming students are noticing a difference between the Mustang Alley 11n 11n zone and the rest of the net.

Jean Boland, the schools' VP of Information Services has been visiting Mustang Alley, chatting with students who are working, socializing or playing on their wireless notebooks. "The most interesting response I got was from one student who said the wireless network is 'wicked fast here' at Mustang Alley," she says.

That's a telling comment. The campus is now blanketed with Meru's 802.11abg access points, each one making available to a group of connecting students about 20-25Mbps throughput. Also part of the deployment is Meru's companion high-end controller, the MC5000. But each of the two 11n radios in the Meru access points can deliver 150Mbps or more, and do so more consistently and reliably.

"Once we get 11n up and running everywhere on campus, it will become the new norm, the new expectation for WLAN performance," says Boland.

That same shift in user expectation may start to occur in other enterprise deployments as more WLAN vendors introduce draft 11n access points later in 2007. Just last week, Cisco unveiled its own 11n product line, with network officials at beta tester Duke University reporting similar throughput as Morrisville.

And Morrisville's decision to create an enterprise WLAN based on WLAN might foreshadow enterprise IT thinking: facing either a new WLAN roll-out, or a major expansion or upgrade to an existing WLAN, some enterprises may decide to go with 11n sooner rather than later.

The rural New York college had to completely overhaul its slow, outdated wireless net. But given the availability of early enterprise-class 11n access points and both embedded and pluggable 11n NICs, the college decided that the draft 11n standard was ready for graduation.

During the past summer, the college IT staff with Meru and IBM's systems integration arm deployed across campus the vendor's existing top of the line 11abg access points. The first group of 10 11n devices arrived in August. The next batch is due on September 24, and after that, Morrisville gets priority on every 11n access point rolling off Meru's production line until all the 11abg devices are replaced, later this fall.

The deployment of the high-speed access points at Mustang Alley was smooth, says Matt Barber, the college's network administrator. "We're seeing a lot of people on it," he says. Overall, the entire WLAN will routinely have 1,000 simultaneous users, with traffic heaviest during the evening hours at the largely residential campus. "We've not come close to capacity anywhere on the wireless side," says Barber. And the college previously upgraded its Internet connection to two DS-3 circuits, with a combined capacity of 90Mbps. During busy times, traffic runs in the 50-60Mbps range.

The only glitches, annoying but minor, have been on the client side. One problem arose with the new notebooks for incoming freshmen: brand new Lenovo T61 notebooks, with an internal 11n radio chipset (which also can connect to 11g or 11a nets) and Microsoft Windows Vista. Vista's power management feature would repeatedly shut off the internal wireless card. The current work-around has been simple, says Barber: turn off Vista's power management.

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John Cox

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