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June 25, 2008

Birmingham University installs campus-wide WiFi

The University of Birmingham is installing what it believes to be the largest WiFi network of any college in the UK.

By Janine Milne

Some 300 Foundry Networks IronPoint access points and two Foundry Mobility controllers have been installed across the campus and the university intends to set up another 360 to go to complete the network.

Initially, access points were appointed in selected group areas such as lecture theaters, libraries, and coffee areas, but now the university IT team, together with Foundry partner Pervasive Networks, are rolling out IronPoint to cover the full campus, including sports fields.

The network employs virtual cell technology which means that access points across the same location can use one channel. This enables IT staff to prevent possible frequency clashes with other WifFi-enabled devices, such as alarm systems.

From a client’s point of view, all they will see is one large access point, even though there may be a lot. It takes away the roaming decision from the client. Taking away that decision from clients is obviously important for applications such as VoIP. It mitigates the channel interface issues of legacy systems, said Chris Lea, senior network specialist at the University of Birmingham.

So, users can connect to one access point and won’t need to reconnect as they wander round campus, because the Mobility Controllers will automatically pick out the access point with the best signal for them.

The capacity is up to 10 times higher than the university’s earlier WiFi network, enabling in theory up to 100 clients per access point. While in the legacy system clients were given bandwidth allocations, in the new system clients are given time slots, so everyone gets a fair crack of the network.

John Turnball, head of networks at University of Birmingham, said: Our unique approach is based on a parallel network rather than integrating the access points into the existing network.

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Keeping its wired and wireless networks separate is important from a security standpoint because the university was worried that the whole network could be vulnerable to attack if the access point was behind the firewall.

Another benefit of the parallel approach is that it provides resilience. If for some reason the network goes down, then wireless would still be available. The only other possible approach would have been to go down the VLAN route, but this was deemed to be too complex for the size of campus.

The roll-out of the parallel infrastructure was made possible because a previous upgrade of the wired network had freed up fiber links. Originally the university had eight 1 Gbit fiber linked trunked together between four switches, but this was replaced by one 10 Gbit link over a year ago. This opened up seven fiber pairs between each core switch as well as expensive mini-GBICs. Recycling fibers for use in the wireless network has enabled the university to save 87,000 pounds ($173,000).

Both the wired and wireless networks are managed together and the team can monitor traffic and quickly figure out if there’s a virus or worm outbreak. Each IronPoint access points act as both a transmitting and monitoring device, which means that it’s impossible to set up rogue access points without detection.

There are three different types of wireless service: the main service for the 6,000 staff and 30,000 students, the eduroam service to enable visitors from other sites to use the wireless link, but they are authenticated back at their own site. Thirdly, there’s a service for guests, which redirects them to a site provided by Virgin Media.

The university has invested in creating an online virtual learning environment using WebCT software from Blackboard, enabling students to access lecture information, for example. There is also a student portal where student news and event are posted.

We want students to be able to access resources at any time: accessing virtual learning, email, and the web. From September we’re looking at rolling out IPTV to students. It’s all to do with enhancing the experience for students, said Turnball.

The IT Team have already provided podcasts of rugby matches onto the student portal and the idea is to extend this with IPTV. So, for example, the university will be able to broadcast university rugby matches, with commentaries made by the students themselves, over WIFi.

But the university is still uncertain about rolling out VoIP campus-wide. For one thing the students aren’t really interested in having phones in their rooms, the only calls that are made are between rooms rather than externally, said Turnball.

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