If IT managers at two U.S. universities are any measure, 802.11n Wi-Fi networking has a bright future on college campuses.
For more than two years, many IT shops have been installing access points (APs) and related gear based on a draft version of the faster Wi-Fi standard. The goal: to better support video and other rich data streams.
Two IT managers at separate universities said in recent interviews that they are fully committed to the technology, which offers up to eight times the performance of previous 802.11a/b/g technology.
"N is our future," said John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He said the university now has about 110 APs from Aruba Networks Inc. running 802.11a/b/g/n in newer buildings, with more than 800 APs on a/b/g alone.
All renovations and new construction must include N-based gear, and older APs will be upgraded to N during a network refresh in 2011, he said. Pointing to a trend on all college campuses, he said, "we see an increasing amount of video going over the N AP's."
On the West Coast, Jim Madden, a network architect at the University of California at San Diego, said there are about 2,400 802.11n APs from Cisco Systems Inc. installed in almost all of the school's 150 buildings, except for dormitories. The university serves more than 40,000 students and staff and has 28,000 active Wi-Fi users.
The N deployment took 18 months to complete this summer and involved replacing 802.11a/b/g APs from Avaya Inc. The project cost several million dollars, Madden said.
"A/B/G certainly wouldn't have given us the bandwidth we needed," he said, noting that video and other data-rich applications used for academic purposes are expected to mushroom in coming years. "I think we can say that N and Wi-Fi improves education," Madden said, noting that students in some classes are required to use a laptop, which can benefit from high-bandwidth wireless networking.
The Wi-Fi expansion hasn't been universally welcomed. Some faculty members asked that wireless access be disabled in their classrooms to prevent students from sending instant messages (IMs) during lectures and discussions, Madden said.
But the IT staff did not make the change because doing so wouldn't stop IMing if students use wireless broadband cards in their laptops to communicate via cellular networks, Madden said.
Even as both IT managers at Brandeis and UCSD strongly endorse the use of 802.11n, they remain dubious that their campuses will ever completely do away with wired networks -- especially network backbones that sometimes run multiple 10 Gigabit Ethernet connections.
"Wireless and mobility are the future of all edge technologies," Turner said, noting that the Brandeis network upgrade in 2011 will move the wireless network into the primary network. At that time, the school will eliminate wired ports in dorms.
Asked whether he feels there will always be a wired backbone, Turner said: "I think, yes, for many reasons, including resiliency, security and throughput." But he hedged, noting that some organizations use point-to-point wireless links for a portion of their network backbone.
Madden said he isn't sure 802.11n networks would satisfy users enough as bandwidth requirements explode. "As a shared medium, it will be a long time before N can satisfy the bandwidth requirements of very high-end computing for large numbers of people," he said.
He's already heard complaints from faculty members who grew used to the faster network when there were only a few users, only to find that data speeds slowed down after they publicize 802.11n's virtues and others joined in. "It suddenly became much less attractive."
Madden said his projections include the need to have 300 different users simultaneously make 100 Mbit/sec transactions. "It's hard to accommodate that," he said.
With so many users running rich media applications -- and with the need for security and resiliency -- Madden joined Turner in predicting that wireless networks will never completely replace wired backbones .
"I don't think that will happen, " he said, noting after a pause that "prognostications of that type have been wrong in the past."
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