Open, Unwired Design
The centerpiece of that effort is the new Natural Science and Engineering Laboratory at UTD, scheduled to be finished late this year. Being built at a cost of $85 million, the new facility is funded by a joint private/public effort dubbed "Project Emmitt" -- a multi-billion-dollar economic-development agreement announced last year by Texas Instruments (TI), the Texas state government, and the University of Texas System. Project Emmitt includes the new $3 billion semiconductor plant being built by TI in Richardson, not far from UTD. And the new NS&E building, in turn, will be a showcase and testbed for the new state-of-the-art wireless network that, on its scheduled 2008 completion, will blanket the UTD campus with ubiquitous WiFi coverage, including VOIP capability.
The new, interdisciplinary lab will feature an open-plan interior design with common areas intended to foster interaction and collaboration among scientists and students in different fields. That design is based on the recognition that the lines dividing science, technology, and engineering are increasingly fluid.
"Engineering and some of the sciences are so connected these days," Bob Helms, the Dean of engineering and computer science, told the campus newspaper, the Mercury, earlier this week. "Where does one stop and the other begin? The boundaries are very mixed together."
'Screaming Out of the Gate'
Advancing the notion of unlimited interaction will be the wireless network permeating the new lab, says Mike Griego, the WLAN project manager for UTD. "The new lab is going to be the centerpiece [of the campus-wide network]," Griego says. "That building is very interesting because it's a result of the partnership between UTD, TI, which is just down the street, and the state of Texas. They really pushed for a state of the art network in there."
While many large universities are now pushing for campus-wide wireless coverage, both to facilitate learning and attract top-flight faculty and students, UT-Dallas was in the forefront of the wireless transformation as far back as the late 1990s. The university installed a network using early-generation Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) equipment that would eventually extend to cover some 80 percent of the campus.
"A few years ago we were in the forefront in the .edu space [in terms of wireless networking]," observes Griego. "We really came screaming out of the gate with this."
As the Lucent equipment aged, and Proxim Wireless Corp. took over that product line, it became apparent that retrofitting and upgrading the network made less sense than installing a brand new system. UTD looked at equipment from several vendors including Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), which became prominent in the wireless LAN space through its acquisition of Airespace. Ultimately, the "virtual access point" technology from Meru Networks Inc. tipped the balance in favor of gear from the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based wireless networking provider.
"Since we were looking at VOIP as one of the primary applications on the wireless network, the way that Meru's virtual AP handled the traffic really caught our eye," Griego explains. "As far as I know none of the Cisco/Airespace products do anything like the virtual AP -- they don't do the single-channel, highly orchestrated access to the medium that the Meru system does."
Live Animals, Too
In the most recent fiscal year UTD spent just under $125,000 on the new network, Griego says, averaging around $600 per access point after educational discounts.
"As universities build out their communications infrastructure, most want pervasive network access," says Meru vice president of marketing Michael Tennefoss. "It's part of the basic business and connectivity required for the students and faculty. And when they look at ongoing costs, by going wireless and deploying it pervasively, there's greater operational savings and lower total cost of ownership the more broadly wireless is deployed."
In fact, UTD has estimated that it will achieve full return-on-investment within three years -- which would be a remarkable feat in academia, where wireless access is considered a "must-have" feature rather than a competitive differentiator.
What's more, the new NS&E facility will present some unique challenges to Griego and his team. "They're doing some interesting things in there -- it'll have a vivarium," (a facility where animals are housed for observation in environments resembling their natural habitats) he chuckles. "It'll definitely have some interesting RF challenges."
— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung