First large-scale 802.11n wireless LAN now operational

Morrisville State College has 720 access points that create a pervasive, reliable, high-throughput wireless LAN
  • John Cox (Network World)
  • 30 November, 2007 08:23

The world's first large-scale 802.11n wireless LAN is now operational. And students using the network at the small, rural New York state college where the wireless technology is deployed say they see a dramatic difference in what they can do with it, along with a more reliable WLAN connection.

The 11n WLAN, based on gear from Meru Networks, is still in its shakedown phase, according to Morrisville State College IT staff. The 720 new AP 320 11n access points, hot off Meru's assembly line, replace the same number of 11a/b/g access points installed over the summer in the first phase of Morrisville's migration to 11n.

There's been no time yet for systematic performance and capacity testing, but students and IT staff say they're seeing improvements compared to the previous 11a/b/g infrastructure. Bandwidth-hungry applications are noticeably faster. Classrooms can run video newsfeeds and online conferences without buffering delays. Users don't have to struggle with dropped connections.

MSC student Timothy Koch, a senior in the Network Administration bachelor's degree program, says 11n throughput and capacity are changing what can be done in classrooms. In his Network Defense and Countermeasures class, for example, students now can work effortlessly with streaming video feeds and online security conferences. "The wireless [network] that was provided before wasn't fast enough to watch the video feeds," Koch says. "The videos would still take time to buffer, and it was annoying when you're trying to participate in class exercises and the video streams do not want to function properly."

Currently, Morrisville is seeing just over 1,200 simultaneous wireless clients at peak periods. There are about 3,000 official, registered users. Besides laptops there are about 80 other devices on the network to date, including new wireless iPod Touches, a few Apple iPhones, some other handhelds and wireless gaming consoles.

Meru was the first vendor to ship Draft 2-compliant 11n gear, but its rivals are crowding close behind. Colleges and universities are among the first organizations to take the plunge with 11n. Duke University is piloting Cisco 11n access points at several dorms, and Carnegie Mellon University has announced its decision to deploy 11n gear from Aruba Networks and Xirrus in 2008, in a massive, campuswide WLAN.

The advent of Draft 11n equipment could mean the "end of Ethernet" as the medium for client access, says Burton Group analyst Paul DeBeasi. One reason for the willingness to adopt the new equipment is the 11n interoperability testing now under way by the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Still unresolved: Power over Ethernet

One major issue still unresolved is whether to upgrade the campus to the higher-wattage Power-over-Ethernet standard, 802.3at, sometimes called PoEPlus. The WLAN vendors are handling this in different ways. Currently, 90% of the Meru access points are using the campus' existing 15-watt 802.3af-based PoE infrastructure, drawing power through the Gigabit Ethernet ports of Enterasys Networks LAN switches.

This limits the access points to what's called a 2x2 antenna configuration, which breaks a data stream into two substreams for transmitting and receiving. To run both radios at the same time in a 3x3 antenna configuration, which Meru supports, requires higher wattage, however. According to Meru, there is no difference in data rate and throughput. The difference is in the reliability of the signal: The more streams there are, the more reliable is the signal. And the 3x3 arrangement will support more clients on each access point, the vendor says.

PoE gear based on the 30-watt 802.3at standard is only just starting to become available. MSC is testing an 802.3at power injector from Phihong to see what impact the third pair of antennas will have, says Matt Barber, MSC's network administrator. The performance question is complicated by the fact that all existing 11n clients have only a 2x2 antenna arrangement, says Jean Boland, MSC's vice president of information services. They'll be testing the 3x3 AP configuration with several embedded and plug-in 2x2 11n client radios.

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150Mbps per radio

In November, MSC and its systems integrator, IBM Global Technology Services, finished installing the 11n access points. During the summer, the college deployed Meru's new MC5000 high-end controller, which was designed for large 11n networks. Currently, all 11n gear is based on Draft 2 of the pending IEEE 802.11n high-throughput WLAN standard. Both radios in the Meru AP 320 can support as much as 150Mbps of shared throughput for student and faculty laptops that are fitted with embedded or plug-in 11n radios.

This year, freshman received new college-owned Lenovo ThinkPad T61s notebooks, with a built-in 802.11a/b/g/n chipset. Those PCs access the campus WLAN on the 5GHz band, via the radios in the Meru access point. The second radio, on the 2.4GHz band, will devote one 20MHz channel to 11b/g clients. The remaining two 20MHz channels will be combined into a wider 40MHz 11n channel to support laptops with an 11n plug-in card or USB dongle. Currently, nearly all such adapters work in the 2.4GHz band.

There is some early, anecdotal evidence from students that these legacy 11b/g clients are seeing slightly improved performance and more reliable connectivity. "The reliability of the [11a/b/g] connection has improved, by not dropping the connection like it did [in the past]," says MSC student Jason Witter, a junior in the Network Administrator program who also works on the campus laptop help desk. Witter has experimented with the wireless settings on his own laptop and found the changes did improve performance "a little bit" for the 11a/b/g radio connecting to an 11n access point.

Longer range, better signal quality

"The signal for each access point, for both radios, is definitely going further," Barber says. In effect, more access points can now "see each other," a situation that could cause interference. But Meru's architecture lets MSC put all the 2.4GHz radios on one channel and all the 5GHz radios on one different, non-overlapping channel. The result, Barber says, is a dense coverage with many access points in proximity that supports a lot of users and provides high throughput with no interference.

The quality of the 11n connection seems markedly better as well, though again this is based on early, anecdotal evidence. Barber says that during the summer he was testing an early Meru 11n access point, using his wireless laptop. "I was sitting at my desk and my laptop preferred to connect to the 11n access point rather than to an 11g access point that was closer to me," he says. "The laptop got higher throughput from the 11n connection and preferred that."

Another issue to be explored is whether the so-called legacy wireless clients will slow down performance for the 11n clients, as is the case today when 11Mbps 11b devices connect to an 54Mbps 11g access point: 11g clients end up behaving as if they were 11b clients. That shouldn't be a problem at MSC, according to Meru, because the Meru controller manages the client's access to the wireless medium, instead of leaving it to up the client, as is customary. Meru allocates each client the same amount of time to transmit or receive. During that time, the 11n client can transmit far more than an 11b or 11g client can, for example. Without this time-slicing, a slow client can hog the connection and degrade performance for faster clients.

One novel problem has been the disruptive interference in the 2.4GHz band caused by Microsoft Xbox game consoles. Barber and his team noticed a strange pattern of interference: a strong signal jumping around all the channels on that band. The team gradually narrowed the interference down to a few areas in some dorms, and by a process of elimination focused on game consoles.

To confirm it, Barber brought in his own Xbox from home, plugged it in, and found the same "very strong, crazy interference" pattern showing up on the radio-frequency analyzer. "It was even worse with multiple Xboxes in a given location," he says. So far MSC hasn't come up with a solution. But it was found that shielding the Xboxes with the antistatic bags used to protect electronic equipment from electrostatic discharge during assembly and shipping led to a noticeable drop in interference. It's probably not a long-term solution because "that's not good for the heat [level]," Barber says.