On the Lambda

Programming, Technology, and Systems Administration

On the Lambda

A Different Way to Wifi Part 0: Introduction

March 27th, 2011 · No Comments · wifi

Over the next several weeks I’m going to talk about Wifi, and how to do an extensive multi-building deployment on the cheap.  I’ll cover required background knowledge, basics and stages of a wifi deployment, site surveys and access point placement, security requirements, access point selection and preparation, and handling density and scale.  From there I’ll move on to the weaknesses of this approach, and how to migrate away from it should you need to.  But today I just want to share some background. 

McCloud Hall

One of many building on campus where wifi didn't work

I’m the Director of IT at York College, a small liberal arts school in York, NE.  When I first came here, the wifi network consisted of a single 3Com controller switch with 9 enterprise access points, augmented by about as many commercial routers literally purchased from Walmart and plugged in nearly unconfigured; it was entirely inadequate.  Even if there had been enough coverage, the controller switch was unable to even keep up with authentication requests, let alone our capacity needs.  The whole thing was a broken mess.

The surprise is that the off-the-shelf “access points” actually worked better than our overloaded enterprise system.  The first 50 people to connect to a router since the last reset (before the dhcp range filled up) would have good internet access. Regular resets kept them mostly responsive for most students, most of the time.

When I started, improving campus wireless access was a top priority.  Given the history here, along with other budget concerns, I felt the need to think outside the box for building out our wireless network rather than using a traditional enterprise product.  I hatched a plan that allowed me to continue using and building on the existing equipment, including the Walmart routers, and move on from there.  We now have more than 40 access points spread over 18 buildings, I expect to grow to 60 or more very soon, and that’s just phase one.

I still have all the original equipment (that now actually works). Everything added since is based on commercial products you could order from NewEgg or Amazon for your home (albeit a little nicer than what you’ll find at Wal-mart) – all without relying on a central controller.  We’re beginning the transition from what I call a first-stage deployment to a second stage deployment (I’ll talk about this in a later post).

Most enterprises have already partnered with a vendor for their wireless deployments, but my hope is that this series will be timely for some who are thinking about the migration to 802.11n.  I expect most will still want to use a traditional deployment, but for some, the current economy might make what I’m about to describe a compelling idea.

Next time: Basic Requirements

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