University of the Free State goes Gigabit Wireless

Tuesday 13th May, 2014

When South Africa’s University of the Free State (UFS) updated its wireless network using Aruba Networks, it learned something important: great technology is one thing, but great technology with great support and a track record is a whole lot better.

What won it for Aruba Networks, says Chris Linstrom, UFS deputy director of ICT Services, was the way it works with skilled and experienced local partners – in this case, Khipu Networks – who handle the planning, WiFi surveying and installation, and who understand both the local market and the customer’s needs. The UFS now has over 1,500 Aruba access points (APs) and six Mobility Controllers installed, with plans for more as well by utilising Aruba’s Clearpass Policy Manager to simplify access for over 30,000 users. The effect on staff and students has been electric, adds Linstrom. “No one wants a desktop now, they all have docking stations instead,” he says. “The shift to laptops started a couple of years ago, and this has completed it – our staff can work anywhere now.” It is a huge change from the university’s first-generation wireless network, which was merely APs scattered across the campus with no hope of seamless roaming. “With BYOD and so on, I realised we needed to cover the entire campus,” Linstrom explains. “We also knew from day one that it would be a massive cabling project, so we calculated for that, and we expected switch upgrades. “Traditionally, universities would build labs for students to work in, but that’s not feasible any more. It’s much more cost-effective to supply the infrastructure and let the students bring their own devices. All our residences today have network sockets, but new residences will go pure wireless, especially with new 802.11ac APs available such as the AP-225. At the moment it is a mixed environment, with 11ac for high-density areas and 11n AP-135s for lower density.”

Getting this far took work, of course. UFS didn’t just invite bids, it also took in hardware from the main bidders for evaluation to see which was simplest to look after. “Aruba’s setup and management was so easy,” exclaims Linstrom. “It helps that Aruba is focused on wireless – that’s exactly what I want, and it shows in their software and ease of use.” The century-old UFS, which has around 33,000 students and 4500 staff, has three campuses of different sizes. Linstrom’s team took advantage of this by starting with one of the smaller sites and a proof-of-concept installation that comprised an Aruba 6000 controller, 155 internal APs and 20 external APs – the site includes large areas of open park land and a 2,000-seat arena. “We did the south campus in 2012 as the first phase and also to learn the technology,” he explains. “Then in 2013 we started on the main campus and rolled it out to the medical faculty. We began with the academic sector, so classrooms and offices, then we will do the admin sector and all outside ‘open-space’ locations ” The Main campus now has over 1,400 Aruba APs, plus a resilient management system with two 7210 master Mobility Controllers and three 7000-series local Mobility Controllers, all covering some 150 buildings.

Centralised management and visualisation of the wireless service is made simple and effective using Aruba’s Airwave management system. Chris’ team have complete visibility into everything that affects service quality such as Wi-Fi coverage, access points, controllers and the wired network. Airwave will also improve operations and manage RF security, including user location and mapping, real-time monitoring, proactive alerts, historical reporting, and efficient troubleshooting. “We are still busy with the roll-out,” he says. “You need to examine where you might have congestion and plan for that, but you will only really see it when the students are actually using it. Then you can make adjustments and so on – I will keep a few APs in store for that. We also installed ClearPass and will soon install AirWave too.” The ClearPass solution is now supporting over 30,000 user requests per day, removing previous challenges around RADIUS in that our previous system couldn’t cope with the huge number of users. This as well as Airwave, has made the entire service easy to manage and support. For the moment, all the old wireless equipment has been moved to the third and most distant campus in order to get more use out of it, but Linstrom says that site will eventually get Aruba wireless too. “We have to budget very carefully – we are very budget-conscious,” he adds.

The decision to start with a proof-of-concept paid off in several ways, according to Gareth Trollip, head of technical SA at Khipu Networks. “One of the things we learned from this project is that cablers need to be supervised,” he says. After the South Campus was complete, the university introduced five new cabling teams to do the main campus job.” It also proved that Khipu and Aruba could do the job. The UFS did not have the expertise to design the cabling layout, the AP layout and the edge network infrastructure, but Khipu not only had this expertise, it also had the project management skills that were needed to roll out enterprisegrade wireless across a huge area and to a tight deadline. “What really made me go the Aruba route was Khipu – the kit is only as good as the company that’s going to support you,” confirms Linstrom. “We chose Khipu because of their whole approach to project management post-sales support and documentation, the way they do RF (radio frequency) planning and so on. It all makes my life a lot easier. Khipu will also do remote monitoring, using its KARMA service solution.” He concludes: “My advice is to go for a company and a product that specialises in wireless and has a track record, otherwise you will have pitfalls. In my experience you also get better service from a younger company because you can still talk to them and their management.”