Connecting in a Wi-Fi-Challenged Environment at MIT

Learn how network pros solved an unconventional wireless networking challenge in a cutting-edge building design—while also maintaining security.

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Sean Pavone

It started as a Ph.D. thesis project at one of the world’s premier institutions of technology research and higher education. Now it’s back to benefit a new generation of students and researchers.

An advanced yet easy-to-use wireless network from Cisco Meraki – with origins in research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – has solved one of the university’s most intractable problems: providing robust Wi-Fi access in a challenging radio frequency environment.

From research to product

The Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT is home to cutting-edge research in the areas of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine vision, networking, and more. In 2006, researchers developed a novel plug-and-play Wi-Fi networking system that they spun out into a company called Meraki.

Acquired in 2012 by Cisco, Meraki develops powerful, yet easy-to-deploy wireless networks. Among the many innovations the company has pioneered: the ability to manage networks from anywhere in the world with a web-based dashboard interface hosted in the cloud.

One key to Meraki’s commercial success—and for solving CSAIL’s connectivity problems—is the ability for its access points (APs) to communicate with each other wirelessly to form stable, cohesive mesh networks. As long as a given AP can “see” any other AP, it can route signals around challenging architecture to communicate across the entire network.

An intriguing Wi-Fi challenge

One of the best examples of such challenging architecture can be found in CSAIL’s unusual building: a 720,000-square-foot, Frank Gehry-designed structure called the Stata Center. Its eight stories are full of sharp angles and sudden curves, and include a mix of materials such as brick, steel, and aluminum.

Writing in the Boston Globe shortly after the building opened in 2004, architecture critic Robert Campbell called it “a metaphor for the freedom, daring, and creativity of the research” that goes on inside. It’s also a nightmare when it comes to conventional wireless networking, as radio signals bounce around, hit impenetrable obstacles, and disappear around the blind curves.

As complaints about connectivity from CSAIL’s 800 students, faculty, and staff members mounted, Jack Costanza, CSAIL’s Assistant Director, and his IT staff knew they needed a better wireless network. Specifically, they needed a network that improved reliability, reached more areas of the building, and could easily grow with CSAIL’s needs.

They couldn’t just replace the building’s existing network, however. Any new system had to support the university’s security policies, which required assigning different access levels to different devices even when joining the same network.

Problem solved

A total of 80 Meraki wireless APs turned out to fit the bill. At the same time, system administrators applied bandwidth limits, firewall rules, and even different splash pages for individual devices, all without any user effort.

Most importantly, from the user’s point of view, “We were seeing strong signal in nooks and crevices that we had previously written off as impenetrable dead spots,” said Costanza.

The benefits also extend to the IT team as well. The number of help desk tickets is down, and those that remain get handled more easily thanks to Cisco Meraki’s cloud-managed platform. “Meraki,” said Costanza, “have a system that’s really intuitive and easy to manage. It’s a great experience for both wireless users and IT administrators.”

Meanwhile, researchers at CSAIL and engineers at Cisco Meraki continue to innovate. A recent project at CSAIL uses wireless signals and artificial intelligence (AI) to sense people through walls, while Meraki has added 360-degree fields of view to its lineup of AI-powered smart cameras. It’s all part of innovating wireless technology for the benefit of generations to come.

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