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Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Division of Information Technology
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Go Wireless: UNCP AirNet

Like many campuses, in fall 2007, DoIT began to focus on a campus-wide implementation of wireless networking.  The results are impressive and recently caught the interest of Cisco Systems staff, the world leader in computer networking equipment.  Unlike the traditional wired network, wireless networking uses radio transmissions between a connecting device and a wireless access point to complete the network connection thus giving the user greater mobility and flexibility for accessing networked resources.

A pilot deployment of limited wireless access to the Mary Livermore Library, Chavis University Center, and Lumbee Hall in the years preceding the campus-wide deployment provided much knowledge about the nature of wireless access.  A few key lessons were learned.  People need to have confidence in connectivity.  If wireless access is advertised it needs to be high quality and always available. To provide the level of quality necessary, any large scale deployment would require the ability to monitor, manage, troubleshoot and maintain the new network with available IT staff.  The new system should be designed to meet the needs of the intended clients while remaining manageable.

Integrating Cisco Systems’ lightweight wireless network devices, 383 access points were installed as part of the wireless implementation for campus.  Every academic building has wireless capability designed to support the rigorous standards for voice transmission as well as data across the wireless.  The level of service along with the sophisticated combination of configuration and control of the wireless access points greatly impressed Cisco system engineers and marketing staff during a recent meeting at their Cary offices.  Cisco staff are in conversation about promoting UNCP’s wireless implementation as an example of best practices in wireless networking.

For DoIT staff, converting to the wireless system was a gradual process and required a detailed work plan.  First, a comprehensive wireless survey was conducted to determine l the number of necessary access points  and their precise locations to cover the targeted areas seamlessly.  Second, data cabling was installed to each location and access points and antennae were mounted and connected to the data cabling.

Unlike the old system which required managing each access point individually, the network staff can manage, monitor, and configure the entire wireless network from the DoIT office via the centralized Wireless Control Server (WCS). The new system is designed with the capability of managing a large deployment with fewer human resources.  The initial survey was designed to take advantage of the self-correcting capabilities of the new system.  The network is intelligent enough to detect trouble spots and adjust signal strengths to compensate for changes in the environment such as new materials introduced into the building or the temporary failure of an access point.  For example, if one AP goes down, the surrounding AP’s can boost their signal to cover the area of the bad one. The self-monitoring nature of the system, along with the intelligent initial survey and design greatly simplifies troubleshooting and greatly enhances the quality of service to wireless users who are mainly concerned with continuity and ubiquitous access.   

Although the access point locations were carefully selected, it is unavoidable that some low signal spots or dead zones may exist due to a particular building configuration. “Our wireless survey helped to minimize low signal points in buildings but you if experience signal issues, a step or two in one direction will get you within range of one of the many access points,” said Chris DeSmit, network and security architect, who is leading the wireless networking project. Kevin Pait, Director of Network and System Administration, adds, “Much consideration was given to the layout of buildings with the intent of providing great coverage in highly inhabitable spaces and decent coverage in areas less likely to be inhabited.  If you are in a lobby, classroom, or office, you should be covered.”

Asked for any tips to avoid wireless connection problems, DeSmit suggested that users make sure not to use both wireless and wired connections at the same time. It will confuse a computer as to which connection is to be used.  He also said, “When the wireless network connection is not working well, look around to see if anyone is using a Bluetooth phone nearby.  Bluetooth phones sometimes use the same frequency range and will interfere with wireless signals.

DeSmit added that the main goal for the wireless network is “to make resources available as seamlessly as possible to students, faculty and staff.”


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