How to avoid the Wi-Fi blues in academia

Campus IT staffers have tracked the Wi-Fi demand of mobile devices like the iPad.

Back-to-school season brings as much dread to IT executives in the education field as it does to the students sitting at the desks. As the proliferation of wireless devices in the classroom becomes widespread, the use of iPads, iPhones, and Android handsets by students and faculty causes a constant strain on school wireless networks.

It’s not just the increased number of wireless devices accessing those networks, either. Some websites, applications, and devices are notoriously data-hungry.

The average iPad consumes 400 percent more Wi-Fi data than the average Android, iPod, and iPhone, according to a recent study from Meraki, a company specializing in cloud computing that has worked with Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

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The push of iPads into the classroom is undoubtedly creating a richer learning environment by integrating multimedia and increasing access to information.

Gone are the days of lugging around textbooks and study guides. Unfortunately, this convenience comes at a price — overburdened wireless networks that move at a snail’s pace.

iPads aren’t the only devices that are increasing consumption of Wi-Fi data. Laptops are used extensively on campus, consuming gobs of bandwidth in the process. In higher education networks, Meraki’s study found that laptops consume three times more Wi-Fi data than laptops in general use networks.

Combined with the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, this means that network administrators must brace themselves for bandwidth consumption unlike on any other type of network, even when accounting for an equal number of devices.

The inherent mobility of students also means they will strain the network bandwidth across many different campus locations, so network administrators can’t simply strengthen certain parts of the network while ignoring others.

Such massive data consumption surely causes network administrators to ask themselves about the source of the traffic. Where is all the bandwidth going?

The most ubiquitous applications aren’t necessarily the ones that consume the most bandwidth. Facebook, for example, one of the most popular applications among students, does consume significant bandwidth, but it isn’t usually the highest consumer of data.

Video and music applications, including services such as Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, and Pandora, often trump all other activity, including social media applications like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. File sharing can also have a huge impact on network traffic, usually through servers or peer-to-peer applications like BitTorrent.

What can overworked network administrators do? Here are five best practices that school network administrators should follow when deploying Wi-Fi on campus or across a school district, in order to ensure a successful wireless experience for students and faculty.

1. Deploy 802.11n

Relying on older wireless technology like 802.11b/g to support the influx of devices and the application traffic of students is a recipe for disaster. 802.11n provides the wireless foundation on which a school’s high-capacity network should be based, because it has the performance capacity to support high-density environments and high throughput applications.

2. Ensure adequate coverage

Whether blanketing classrooms, student residences, or both, it’s essential to provide the coverage that supports the level of client density expected across different campus locations. Pay special attention to challenging wireless environments, such as campus buildings with high student density or buildings constructed from materials such as brick, concrete, or steel, and deploy additional access points in these areas if necessary.

3. Enable robust wireless security

Security on campus is important for students, faculty, and guests alike. Following best practices will maximize the security of the wireless network, for example by enabling strong WPA2-based encryption and access control, applying appropriate group-based policies to allow faculty and staff access to data not accessible by students or guests, providing guest access that is isolated from campus servers and resources, and protecting the network against viruses through network access control (NAC).

Especially for schools that need to meet CIPA requirements, content filtering can be critical and will also need to be enforced on the wireless network.

4. Manage application traffic

Data consumption by students won’t slow down anytime soon, and network administrators need to prepare for the bandwidth strain students will bring.

By keeping a close eye on application traffic, administrators can ensure no single application is hogging most or all of the bandwidth and degrading the wireless experience for students using other applications. Identifying the most bandwidth-hungry applications and throttling them to manageable speeds will help ensure that critical tools, such as learning applications, perform adequately and meet the needs of teachers and students.

Organizations concerned with the potential legal implications of student file sharing can also use traffic shaping to throttle or even block peer-to-peer applications, such as BitTorrent, Gnutella, and encrypted peer-to-peer programs.

5. Use centralized tools for troubleshooting and multi-site management

Using cloud-based networking tools lets administrators manage campus-wide wireless and even perform live troubleshooting tasks on network infrastructure and client devices.

School districts with distributed multi-site networks and universities with extended branches and campuses will especially benefit from centralized monitoring and management tools, access point provisioning, network-wide visibility and control, and firmware updates.

It’s clear the proliferation of devices such as smart phones and tablets will only continue, and education networks are at the forefront of wireless bandwidth consumption. Students using iPads, iPhones, and laptops have an insatiable demand for bandwidth across all kinds of applications. By following the best practices above, network administrators can take a huge step toward providing reliable, high-performing, and secure networks.

Campus wireless doesn’t have to buckle under the strain of students and faculty, and cloud-based networking provides network administrators with the tools they need to ensure a superior wireless experience for all.

The author is chief technical officer and cofounder of Meraki.

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