Why Teachers College blew up its wireless network

To help prepare Teachers College, Columbia University for the 21st century, the IT department decided the best way to fix its existing wireless network was to throw it out.

What would you do if you could blow up your school’s entire wireless network and start all over again? That’s exactly what Teachers College, Columbia University has done, as the storied institution seeks to position itself for the 21st century, complete with cutting-edge online instruction and highly automated classrooms.

“When I realized that the university was willing to rip everything out and start new, I knew we would be able to do some very innovative things,” said Amir Akbari, chief information security officer for Teachers College. “That’s really important. You need to be able to start from the beginning, and build up a brand-new beautiful foundation.”

For Naveed Husain, hired in 2014 as CIO to direct the college’s IT makeover, the decision to start from scratch wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity. “The college had deferred maintenance on infrastructure IT for several years,” he said. “More than three-quarters of our networking equipment was end-of-life.”

The problem had grown worse in recent years as students and faculty, who together comprise about 6,400 users, flooded the campus network with as many as three devices each. “If our faculty tried to download a movie on YouTube for a presentation, it would lag,” said Husain. “We had 10 gigabytes to the Internet through Columbia, so it wasn’t as if we didn’t have enough bandwidth. It was our network infrastructure that couldn’t tolerate it, and we didn’t have enough Wi-Fi access points.”

Faced with these problems, many universities would choose simply to upgrade their existing infrastructure, adding APs and optimizing performance. But the IT department had grown disenchanted with the level of performance and support from its existing wireless vendor. “We gave the company a significant amount of time to help us redesign the network,” explained Husain. “It’s generally easier to upgrade an existing product, simply because you have a talent set that already knows it.”

But the school’s willingness to head in a new direction was also a reflection of a new philosophy that Husain wants to instill in the IT shop. “We now approach the Teachers College IT department as a startup,” said Husain. “We want to be lean, low-cost, lightweight, and agile. When the president of the college starts using the word ‘agile’ and knows what it means from a tech perspective, you really need to up your game.”

(Next page: Choosing the best new wireless network strategy, services)

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