What’s New in the ADM Tech Department: Managed Wireless

One of the projects that the ADM Schools Technology Department implemented during Summer, 2012 was deployment of a district-wide managed wireless network.  Basically, there are two types of wireless networks: managed and unmanaged.

Home wireless networks – you plug one or two wireless access points or wireless routers into your home’s DSL or cable internet connection, and create a wireless network name and password by connecting to the access point itself – are examples of unmanaged networks.  In an enterprise environment (such as a school district), this type of network can be cumbersome.  Each access point has to be programmed individually when first deployed, and when settings change (i.e., a password is compromised or the wireless network name (SSID) needs to be changed), that change must be made on each access point separately.  Further, if a problem with wireless crops up, it can be a guessing game to try to find the faulty access point, as a computer having wireless troubles in one room may be relatively close to several access points, any of which could be the problem.  Prior to last summer, the district relied on about 50 unmanaged Apple AirPort wireless access points, which had relatively low bandwidth, regular power and connectivity issues, and needed to be programmed individually.

Wireless access points in managed wireless networks do not need to be programmed individually, and instead get their programming information from a central controller as soon as they’re plugged in to the network, making configuration of a new access point literally as easy as plugging it in.  Further, since the configuration of all of the access points is handled by the controller, a change (to a password, network name, etc.) only needs to be made once, on the controller itself.  If the district wanted to add a separate wireless network for a wrestling tournament being hosted during a weekend, for instance, the change would take several minutes to apply district-wide, rather than the time spent programming (and then deprogramming) the change in individual access points.  Additionally, when problems do crop up, the controller will immediately notify district technology staff that an access point is having problems, and will identify which one(s), in many cases also providing diagnostic information that helps to determine the nature of the problem.

The district implemented a 70-access point Meru wireless network, using a centralized Meru controller.  Since all of ADM’s buildings are now on the same physical network, the same is true of our wireless network, where all access points in the district are configured identically and in real time.  The bandwidth supported by most of our older AirPort access points was just 11Mbps, whereas the Meru AP320i devices support roughly 300Mbps each, a 30-fold increase.  This has allowed us to transition to nearly all devices using wireless – rather than wired – network connections, reducing the number of network switches (at $3000/each) that we need to deploy throughout the district by 60%.  Further, with a more robust wireless infrastructure, the district has been able to implement a guest wireless network, which will be written about in more detail in a future “What’s New” post.

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