Leveraging 802.11ac Wireless for a University Deployment


From submitting a quiz on their laptop, streaming the latest episode of a hit television program on their mobile phone, or using their tablet to participate in an in-class activity, college students rely on the wireless internet. These days, everything is utilizing the internet for collaboration and communication. Students are carrying several devices and expecting them to be constantly connected.

The explosion of personal wireless devices has created challenges for campus wireless networks around the country, and The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) is not immune. UTSA, a large 4-year public institution, is now experiencing similar issues as the number of wireless network devices utilized by students has dramatically increased. Students, along with faculty and staff, are increasing and expanding their wireless use on campus, engaging in research for projects and streaming content for entertainment. An intense demand for instant access to information for academic and personal use requires solutions to remain innovative and up-to-date.

A Growing Mobile Culture

Wireless usage for student devices such as laptops, tablets, and cellphones has tripled over the past three years. In a growing mobile culture, improving wireless performance is a task that benefits the entire university community. Having these resources available is important for universities competing for students, financial resources, and recognition as top tier institutions. In order to deliver exceptional technology services for the community, UTSA researched a strategy for implementation of a new 802.11ac wireless solution.

Students had previously complained about poor wireless performance in high-user traffic areas (such as the library), as well as difficulty accessing resources over the internet due to the growing use of the network. With 750 802.11n access points and a maximum concurrent usage on the wireless network user range around 17,000, UTSA recognized that the existing wireless network architecture and hardware were no longer able to provide adequate support for students, faculty, and staff in areas of high user density. Advanced system features were required for the desired functionality.

As with many institutions of higher education, consideration of the allotted budget to avoid increasing tuition for UTSA students or decreasing services was essential to finding a solution that could be maintained by the university. In an effort to resolve these issues, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) at UTSA evaluated alternative wireless solutions from multiple wireless vendors to identify one that would provide superior performance without the need to exponentially scale the number of access points installed on campus.

UTSA’s Approach

UTSA’s approach to upgrading the wireless network was through an on-premise controller 802.11ac-based solution. While controller-based solutions have been the status quo, UTSA has found them to be superior to cloud-hosted wireless solutions. From the limited group defined, the list of vendors was narrowed to two (a cloud-based and a controller-based offering), and a proof of concept deployment was done in the area of highest density on campus – the John Peace Library (JPL). During these tests, each vendor solution was evaluated based upon performance and product features. Although performance data can be subjective, it is beneficial to have. Along with other facts, this information led to the selection of a vendor. A vendor with a clear technology roadmap is important in wireless solutions as the technology changes so quickly.

The use of a controller-based system was proven to provide UTSA with the most flexibility in design and performance. Aruba provides powerful system management services and performance tuning and reporting, which has given UTSA the tools it needs to create a robust wireless environment. This allows the university to continue to research in other areas to improve the student experience with technology resources at UTSA.

Simplified design of the system, enhanced ease of use, and advanced security features including firewall and IDS will help protect the network from viruses, malicious actors, and unauthorized access. UTSA has seen a vast improvement in client metrics and performance management with the new system.

With the new wireless solution in full operation, OIT has seen a reduction in complaints from students. The university doubled the access points available to students to 1,500. Increased bandwidth utilization demonstrates the improved performance of the wireless network throughout the UTSA campus. The systems enhance the ability to identify, filter, and manage user traffic to ensure better performance for network-delivered curriculum, and they ensure that the new wireless solution will continue to adapt and serve the university as it continues to transform on its journey to Tier One recognition.