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University's wireless 11n net quickly becomes a high-bandwidth way of life on campus

Morrisville State College has 720 access points supporting 3,000 users on its high-throughput wireless LAN

By , NetworkWorld.com
March 10, 2008 06:20 PM ET

NetworkWorld.com - Network World has been covering Morrisville State College's deployment of 802.11n WLAN as it unfolds to study the challenges facing early enterprise adopters of 11n. This is the fourth update (part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here) and will be followed soon by a special Network World Clear Choice Test, comparing the performance of the 11n network with that of Morrisville’s early 802.11abg network. (Compare 11n products with our online buyer’s guide.)

Patrick King, a senior at Morrisville State College, remembers the exact moment when he discovered the impact of the college's change-over to a 802.11n WLAN.

This small state college, covering nearly a square mile of rural central New York state, is the first fully-deployed, large-scale 802.11n deployment. The WLAN, based on gear from Meru Networks, covers 44 buildings, outlying horse barns and a working dairy, and a satellite campus 30 miles away. It serves about 3,000 total users, with an average of 1,000-1,500 logged on.

So far, IT staff, students such as King and faculty agree the college is getting what it paid for: in many cases, noticeably better throughput compared to 802.11abg, better signal quality and range, and higher throughput over longer distances. The Meru access points have two 802.11n radios, one in the 2.4GHz band, one in the 5GHz band. In theory, the available bandwidth is 300Mbps per radio, though actual throughput may be one-half to two-thirds of that, shared by the number of clients associated with a given radio.

The school needed to replace an obsolete pre-802.11 Raylink WLAN, which had a date rate of 1Mbps to 2Mbps at best, and was limited to the dorms and a few other buildings and wanted to extend it to cover the entire campus. Given the costs and work involved, MSC decided to take an additional step: to jump to 11n, with its promise of greater bandwidth, range, and reliability, as soon as those devices became available in the fall of 2007. It chose Meru in part because the Meru access points can all be set to use one channel, instead of a checkerboard of different channel assignments. Meru touts the benefits as being simpler management, faster hand-offs, and greater scalability.

In the summer of 2007, the college rolled out the first phase of the new WLAN, installing just over 720 of Meru’s existing dual-radio 802.11abg access points. Then, last October, Morrisville started replacing those devices, one-for-one, as Meru ramped up release of the new dual-radio AP 300 11n devices. The replacements were done by late November with no problems, according to IT staff, and the network has been stable.

Student Patrick King, a software developer, was one of those who noticed an immediate difference. King knew during the summer of 2007 that “11n was coming.” Copying a classmate, he was an early buyer of a third-party 11n adapter card for his college-issued Lenovo ThinkPad (about 800 freshmen have ThinkPads with 11n built-in). The combination ran well on the new 11abg network. “It was fast, but I expected a lot better,” he says. Then, one day last October as the 11n access points were being installed, King started to download a gaming video over a wireless connection. “I started the download, and then it just went through immediately. I went ‘whooooooo!’” he recalls.

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