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802.11n pioneer sets 'wicked fast' expectations for wireless

Morrisville State College deployed first large-scale 11n network

By , Network World
September 11, 2009 01:11 PM ET

Network World - The unlikely pioneer for 802.11n is a small state college in rural New York, the site of the first large-scale 11n Wi-Fi deployment two years ago. On the surface, not much has changed at Morrisville State College -- except for the expectations of users and the IT department.

“I was talking to a student about his experience with our wireless network,” says Jean Boland, vice president for information technology services at MSC. “He said, ‘when I go home, my wireless at home is REALLY slow.’ I think we’ve changed the expectation of users. Wireless is now wicked fast.”

For MSC users, “wicked fast” means all the bandwidth they need, wherever they are, for just about whatever they want.

802.11n set for final approval; timeline of 802.11n development milestones

In early 2007, the college decided to scrap an aging pre-802.11 network in a few areas and replace it with a campus-wide WLAN. In a surprising move, the MSC board approved Boland’s recommendation to go with 802.11n, which had achieved draft 2.0 status just a few months earlier. After evaluating options, the college chose the newly announced equipment from Meru Networks. Meru had not yet ramped up manufacturing, and the college first deployed the company’s existing 802.11abg access point during the early part of the summer, replacing them with the spanking new 11n gear a few months later.

It was the first large-scale deployment – about 720 access points – for 11n. It’s now dwarfed by such massive 11n deployments as those at Duke University, with 2,500 Cisco access points, and Carnegie Mellon University, with about 3,200 access points from Aruba and secondarily Xirrus. 

Such deployments are raising a host of IT issues, as a highly mobile user community – students – opts for wireless connections even when they have a wireline option. One result is that access layer switches are going almost entirely unused (some schools report that more than 90% of wired ports are now idle). Some IT groups are starting to debate when or whether it makes sense to cut the Ethernet access cable.

At Morrisville, the 11n network blankets the entire campus, and extends to a number of off-site locations such as the horse barns. Since the late 2007 deployment of the 11n access points, the network has run reliably. In the dorms, Wi-Fi is the only network access available. There are 3,300 students on campus, and the average online peak is about 1,500 users. There are now about 800 access points.

Trace the evolution of Morrisville’s pioneering 11n deployment

Students are outfitted with the campus standard notebook, a Lenovo ThinkPad 400 with an integrated Intel 11n adapter. Over the last two years, there has been a big jump in the number of other Wi-Fi-enabled devices on the network, from 80 to about 400 devices. These consist mainly of iPhones and other so-called dual-mode smartphones, along with Xboxes and other gaming consoles.

As with other colleges and universities, Morrisville is making changes in the way it networks new or refurbished buildings as a consequence of 11n. The newest building on the MSC campus, for industrial and other design disciplines, will offer only some wired ports for printers and other gear. Students and faculty will rely on 11n for CAD and other bandwidth-hungry applications. The Wi-Fi network also lets the building be laid out with flexible workspaces, which can be easily modified to meet student needs.

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