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How to build a better wireless network

4 steps to better Wi-Fi

More and more iPhones, iPads, BlackBerries, Droids, netbooks and even game consoles began appearing on Bryant & Stratton College's campuses--and CIO Ernest Lehman worried they'd lead to big trouble.

These "crazy" mobile devices, he says, tapped unsecured and unmanaged "grandma" wireless networks at the college's multiple campuses across four states (New York, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin). Moreover, students, administrators and professors wanted to use their mobile devices to access the college's Web portal, get data about classes and grades, and conduct research.

Lehman needed to shore up these wireless networks before a serious security breach damaged Bryant & Stratton's reputation. "We needed to have something that could handle fairly sizeable densities in terms of numbers of students," he says.

[ Florida State College is busy learning real-world lessons from its iPad enterprise rollout, reports CIO.com. | Find out why Brother Rice High School gives iPads a failing grade. ]

And so Lehman created a blueprint for a secure wireless network that could be rolled out to the campuses. This network would end up covering an entire campus using wireless access points from Meru Networks. For better security, Lehman separated the network into three parts: student, admin and guest.

The pilot project started last year, followed by a rollout in December, 2009. So far, wireless networks have been installed at 14 campuses with three more to go. "Our estimates and planning indicate as many as 5,000 students will use the wireless networks at Bryant & Stratton in 2010," or 50 percent of the total student population, Lehman says.

Colleges, universities and even high schools are pioneers in the mobile movement, hoping to seize the enormous educational opportunities of iPhones and iPads in particular. As early adopters, CIOs like Lehman are quickly learning about the best ways to support these devices.

Indeed, Lehman has gleaned a lot from his experience and now offers four tips--"lessons I wish I had known," he says--that can help CIOs get their wireless networks ready for the mobile era.

1. Know Thy Mobile User

Lehman did his due diligence researching wireless network vendors and felt he had a strong grasp on the technology. But he wished he had spent more time understanding the needs of the mobile student user. "I don't think we cracked that completely," he says.

For instance, Lehman's team was surprised to learn that students wanted to print documents over the wireless network. Yet Lehman had restricted access to printers out of fear students would print entire books and bog down printers.

So Lehman came up with ways to allow metered printing. For the iPhone and iPad, Lehman had to find workarounds to enable wireless printing, including sizing up printing apps in the App Store. He's also eagerly waiting iOS 4.2 slated to come out in November, which will have built-in support for wireless printing.

"It'll make our lives significantly easier," Lehman says.

2. Wireless Network Support: A Complex Ecosystem

Be prepared to spend a significant amount of time working through support issues, warns Lehman. Why? In the Wild West of mobility, you'll need to support all kinds of consumer devices that tap into your wireless network.

One of Lehman's goals was to have personal tech support for students at all hours. This means he has had to create a tiered support infrastructure leveraging Meru, local IT staff and an outsourcer. "Getting that set up is proving to be more challenging," Lehman says, because of the many kinds of mobile endpoints that need to be supported 24 hours a day.

Apple devices have surprisingly posed less of a problem connecting to the wireless network, Lehman says, compared to older technology and even BlackBerries. "We heard some nightmare stories about the iPad in college environments," he says, "but we have not experienced that at all."

3. Pick Your Partner Wisely

Lehman says that he did not choose the right integrator.

At crunch time in the deployment phase of wireless access points, two key people--a PMI-certified project manager and a Meru systems-certified network engineer--quit the systems integration firm (which Lehman declines to name).

The integrator replaced them with newbies, he says. "We paid dearly for that," Lehman says. "We had to provide more of our internal resources to compensate for their lack of knowledge. It significantly impacted our deployment."

Truth is, advanced wireless networking skills are hot right now. It's hard to keep people. That's why it's important to evaluate an integrator's bench strength prior to signing a contract, Lehman says.

4. Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate

Overhauling a massive wireless network isn't for people with a faint heart or tight wallet--and this spawns a lot of competition.

As negotiations came down to the wire, Lehman was surprised at the price flexibility of wireless vendors. A wireless network is one of those projects that makes even large vendors like Cisco willing to lower their prices, he says.

"I've seen more [price flexibility] on the wireless side based on volume than the wired side," Lehman says. "I think it's because the end marketplace in colleges is being hotly contested by vendors. And frankly, we're spending a lot of money."

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