Case Study: Yale University

At Yale University, some 90 percent of the undergrads spend most of their college careers living on campus, in one of the school's historic residential colleges. Administrators say this system gives students the benefits of a small community within the embrace of a large, world-class university.

The disadvantage of this system is, when you renovate one of the colleges -- many of which were built in Yale's construction boom between the world wars -- you have to find a place to put the undergrads during construction. The New Haven, Conn., university has solved that problem by creating a "swing dorm" that houses the residents of whichever college happens to be undergoing renovation that year. Built within the last 20 years -- a new building, by Yale standards -- the swing dorm has also become a testbed for Yale's wireless network.

After first launching the network in 2001 as a public-area LAN to serve common areas of the campus, using gear from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)/Aironet, the Yale IT department in the last year has shifted much of the network over to Aruba Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: ARUN) equipment while expanding coverage into the residential colleges. With 56 new Aruba access points installed, the swing dorm is the only residential building so far covered "to the pillow," as they say. Given the age of the buildings and the historic Gothic architecture of the place, says Joe Paolillo, Yale's director of ITS infrastructure services, deploying the new networking gear to the rest of the campus has provided a unique challenge.

"These are old buildings, with the worst environment imaginable for wireless," says Paolillo, "There's lots of steel, warren-like rooms, thick walls, and so on. Plus you have to preserve some element of architectural integrity."

Providing even coverage to the main public areas of the colleges became the most difficult aspect of expanding the network. The solution: Aruba's "thin" AP70 and AP60 access points, running mostly over existing wiring.

In late 2004, when Yale first started looking at expanding its network and was conferring with various vendors including Meru Networks Inc. and Trapeze Networks Inc. , Aruba had just recently developed its wireless "grid" architecture, says Aruba network architect Chris Geaghan. Offering densely deployed, low-cost APs with a high degree of radio-frequency management capability, that solution proved perfect for Yale's aging dorms, dining halls, and reading rooms. Rather than installing APs in the ceiling -- the solution for many new enterprise deployments -- Yale's IT engineers placed nodes at the Ethernet jacks already in the walls. This allowed the school to save money by reusing existing infrastructure and kept the sledge-hammering to a minimum.

"You don’t really want to spend a lot of money adding new wiring," comments Geaghan dryly, "when you're trying to provide wireless access to students."

In the Hall of Mirrors
Since rolling out the new equipment last summer, Yale now has at least partial wireless coverage in about half its buildings, with around 700 total access points. Paolillo declines to discuss price, but, according to Aruba, list price for the AP70 is $595 and the AP60 $295.

The expense, says Paolillo, has been shared among the IT department and the various colleges and academic departments: "We've deployed wireless around campus on an as-needed basis; if it's Yale public space, where anybody can use it, we'll put it in at the expense of the network operational budget. If its 'private' space, where only the department or group or school can use, we'll put it in for the cost of the APs and the installation, and they have to pay for it." [Ed. note: What about Skull & Bones?]

The network upgrade for Yale's graduate school of business, the School of Management (SOM) -- which requires its students to have laptop computers -- cost around $10,000, including hardware, software, and labor, says Ken Wieler, acting IT director for the SOM.

One of the newer facilities on campus, the SOM was already heavily wired with Ethernet jacks and has one central gathering place with a high density of wireless laptop users, particularly between classes.

"It's called the Hall of Mirrors," explains Wieler (yes, there are Versailles-like mirrored walls), "and it's about half-a-block long, with students gathering, desks, tables, TVs, all in the same location. There can be hundreds of people in that area, all trying to connect at once."

With the new Aruba system, Wieler and his staff doubled the number of APs in the Hall from two to four, tuning them (i.e., reducing the signal strength) to avoid interference issues. "We set some of them to 70 percent of full strength," Wieler notes. "You play that game until you figure out exactly what setting you want, so the APs don't overlap and butt heads."

Managed expectations
Another strength of the Aruba solution, say Paolillo and Wieler, is that it integrated well with the legacy Cisco equipment, allowing Yale's IT department to avoid a laborious, and costly, rip-out-and-replace job. "They had a lot of clients already using VPNs [from Cisco], with a concentrator already on campus," says Geaghan. "When we went in, we were able to still use all those clients -- they didn't have to touch a single one."

"We've had no integration issues so far," adds Paolillo.

The only problem so far, in fact, has been managing expectations. Yale sophomore Haven Reininger hasn't had much luck with the wireless network so far, and he's heard plenty of beefing from his fellow undergrads: "I've had two computers that I've dealt with here," says Reininger, "and both were unable to connect to wireless anywhere on campus. I have friends who can connect easily where service is provided, but I also know many who have troubles connecting and getting it to work consistently."

Like IT guys the world over, Paolillo and Wieler find that sort of user comment exasperating.

"We're really working with the social factor," says Paolillo. "People consider it inconvenient or disadvantageous to have to plug in. [Ed. note: Isn't that the maid's job?]

"In the SOM, in the late 90s, we went into all the seminar rooms, lounges, and meeting rooms, and put [Ethernet] jacks everywhere. But the minute we put wireless in, they stopped using the wired network even if they got better performance with the cables."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

Be the first to post a comment regarding this story.
Sign In