University converges wired, wireless nets with Cisco WiSM

* Cisco WiSM gear aids university network provisioning, upgrades

Back in 2002, when the University of British Columbia in Vancouver decided it needed wireless classroom connectivity for enabling Internet-assisted teaching, the idea of “wireless switching” was a gleam in the industry’s eye.

For context, the university began deploying its Cisco 1200 Series-based distributed wireless LAN in September 2002 - the very same month that Symbol Technologies announced the industry’s first enterprise wireless switch. At that time, Cisco was still years away from acknowledging the potential benefits of centralized, switched WLAN architectures, preferring an architecture using stand-alone, intelligent access points (AP) that were provisioned and managed individually.

But when the university found itself under-budget on a fiber cabling project, it diverted the leftover funds to building the Cisco WLAN. Initially segregated from the wired network, the Wi-Fi network spanned 400 buildings and 1,000 acres to serve 35,000 full-time students, explains Marilyn Hay, manager of the university’s network management center. That 1,400-AP infrastructure is now migrating to the lightweight APs and switched architecture Cisco inherited from Airespace, which it acquired early last year.

UBC - which has since expanded to include another campus in Kelowna, B.C. - is also now using the Cisco Catalyst 6500 Wireless Services Module (WiSM) to converge its wireless and wired networks.

“We’re seeing lower costs to converge deployment of wired and wireless services to each building,” Hay says. For example, she says the university - which participates in Cisco’s beta programs - saved about $10,000 last fall in network management costs using the pre-release WiSM to configure networks in a new building with about 400 wired ports.

AP installation is faster and easier, she says. Previously, field technicians would assign an IP address to each AP, configure each for which channels to use for communication and management, and configure a Service Set Identifier (SSID) number.

“They'd do all that manually, then physically go to the location, install the AP and test for client-to-AP and AP-to-network connectivity,” Hay explains. “If the wrong IP address was assigned or an AP had to move to a different building, it would have to be physically reconfigured with the right IP address.”

Now the WiSM handles the automated configuration of the APs centrally. Configuration templates can be pushed to multiple APs at once, she explains, and UBC schedules automatic firmware upgrades at particular times.

The WiSM blade is aware of all APs and which client is connected to which AP. “So when a client moves, it is tracked through the WiSM and doesn’t have to re-authenticate, allowing roaming across the whole campus,” Hay says.

UBC also recently began deploying the Cisco Wireless Controller System (WCS) “for being able to get a much better overview of RF issues,” such as rogue device discovery and finding where signals aren’t working well, Hay says.

UBC had been using Cisco’s previous management alternative - the Wireless LAN Solutions Engine, or WLSE. “But it wasn’t suitable for field techs and front-line personnel; it was too cumbersome,” she notes.

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