University of Birmingham Installs Foundry Networks' IronPoint Mobility Series of Access Points

Foundry Networks announces that the University of Birmingham is installing its IronPoint Mobility Series of access points (APs) and controllers in a major replacement and expansion programme to provide complete Wi-Fi coverage by the end of 2008 at its main 250 hectare Edgbaston campus, the 80 hectare Selly Oak campus and at the affiliated Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. This makes the project one of the largest deployments of Wi-Fi within a UK university to date.

Often dubbed the Venice of the North, given the miles of canals, Birmingham is home to one of the biggest and most prestigious Universities in the UK with around 30,000 students, 6,000 staff and an income exceeding £354 million. Ranking 5th in the UK for research excellence and a member of The Russell Group, the University of Birmingham was founded in 1904 and has a long history of innovation – its academics discovered Vitamin C, invented heart valves, weighed the earth and harnessed the power of the microwave.

John Turnbull, the University of Birmingham's head of networks in the IT Services department, says: "Our Wi-Fi strategy is to ensure staff, students and visitors to the university have the best experience of using our network in the whole of UK academia. Given our policy is not to allow open network access, this means straightforward registration and authentication with enough capacity to ensure fast and extensive coverage."

In a phased approach first beginning three years ago, the university initially installed Foundry IronPoint access points in select student congregation areas such as main lecture theatres, libraries, coffee areas, some class rooms and certain open air spaces. Chris Lea, senior network specialist explains: "The goal posts with providing coverage are always moving as new applications and devices launch with Wi-Fi. Phase one is complete and our policy now in phase two is to offer full building and campus coverage including sports fields and walkways, upgrading the previous generation of Foundry access points installed in the process."

To deliver this in a secure and easy to manage way, over 300 IronPoint Mobility access points and two Foundry Mobility Controllers have been implemented with the university taking full advantage of the virtual cell technology capabilities included. This means that the various access points in one geographical area all use one channel, thereby allowing IT staff to engineer out any frequency issues associated with other competing Wi-Fi enabled devices such as Wi-Fi alarm systems. The project is being delivered by Foundry partner, Pervasive Networks.

Turnbull explains: "Wi-Fi is obviously unlicensed and many devices use the 2.4 GHz spectrums, so there's lots of potential for interference which could limit our Wi-Fi network design. Virtual cell technology means we've selected one channel for APs, another for alarm systems and so on, with all the Foundry APs sharing the available air space using a time slicing approach. Users therefore connect to just one university AP, don't have to make any roaming decisions as they move about the campus and want connectivity as the Foundry Mobility Controllers automatically do this for them based on the individual AP with best signal in a specific area."

Lea adds: "The virtual cell approach is brilliant for us in terms of achieving complete campus Wi-Fi coverage. We've mitigated the need for time consuming survey work in terms of where to actually place APs to avoid interference issues and roaming is easy as there's zero delay handoff between them. This is key to support popular applications like VoIP and mobile email as users remain connected all the time."

Within this virtual cell, the university has actually been able to set up three SSIDs on the physical equipment: "UOBWLAN" (for staff and students accessing the main Wi-Fi network), "eduroam" (the log in for people who are part of the JANET Roaming Service) and "UOBGuest" (a web redirection service for visitors who are not members of JANET or the university but require Internet access).

In terms of Wi-Fi deployment, the university did have concerns about security and viruses when access points were first installed, as potentially they could sit behind the site firewall and open up the whole wired network to attack or misuse. This issue has been solved by creating a parallel network utilising existing campus-wide single mode fibre freed when the university upgraded its core network to 10 gigabit Ethernet.

Turnbull comments: "Some have said we could have gone down a VLAN route to get to a similar end result, but this would have been extremely complex for a campus of our size. Originally, we had eight 1 gigabit fibre links trunked together between each of our four core switches which have now been replaced by just one 10 gigabit link further to an upgrade of blades in our existing FastIron 1500 Layer 3 chassis switches just over a year ago. This has released seven fibre pairs between each core switch and expensive mini-GBICs resulting in a saving of about £87k which has been a tremendous benefit."

The IronPoint Mobility access points connect into Power over Ethernet-enabled FastIron Edge switches, which in turn use this 'freed' fibre around the campus to link into a dedicated firewall and then the core of the network. This means that security is maintained at all times with no scope for unauthorised access. Equally, the IronPoint access points act as both transmitting and monitoring devices so rogue access points cannot be installed without being detected.

There are other benefits from this parallel network approach, too. Turnbull explains: "While our first goal with Wi-Fi has been to enhance the user experience, it has also added resilience to the network overall. Should a distribution layer switch in our wired infrastructure go down, we still have the parallel Wi-Fi network to provide connectivity."

The importance of this is highlighted in a recent audit of user opinions about the level of downtime acceptable at the university, with students saying they want the same level of service availability now with Wi-Fi as with the wired network. Lea says: "Usage of the Wi-Fi infrastructure is increasing session on session. Three years ago when we first put Wi-Fi in, students said they'd accept four days downtime with Wi-Fi and 30 minutes for the main wired network. Today, they want the same for both such is the increased popularity of it."

Currently, the main use of the wired network is for teaching, research and administration where bandwidth and QoS are the main requirements. The university has invested heavily to create an online virtual leaning environment using WebCT software from another Foundry customer, Blackboard Inc., so that students can access multi media lecture information and content. This is becoming integral in terms of lecture delivery, personal study and revision. In conjunction with this, a student portal has been created which includes individual student email accounts and access to information such as exam dates and results, news and events happening within the University.

Over and above the obvious benefits of wireless, in terms of access to these applications and the Internet, the new infrastructure is enabling exciting new services to be trialled. Turnbull explains: "The student portal is a dynamic environment and we’re continuously being asked to extend content to cover sports given we excel in golf, football, hockey and rugby. We've provided podcasts of key rugby matches and our intention is to offer multicast video of key games across the network plus we’re looking at IP-based TV."

Campus wide Wi-Fi will help deliver this as it is difficult to get wired infrastructure out to remote areas of the university where a lot of the sporting events happened. Turnbull concludes, "The Foundry switch technology is way ahead of its time. When we first chose it in 2002, our needs were more than met and this is still the case five years later. We've upgraded the network to 10 gigabit Ethernet to ensure capacity for growth, built a superb WebCT virtual learning environment and student portal and now Wi-Fi is really adding to the user experience by making exciting new services available which we will build on over time."

Bob Schiff, Foundry's vice president and general manager, Enterprise Business Unit, says, "The University of Birmingham was committed to building a flexible and advanced network for its students and faculty, this project has extended the reach of their high-performance wired network with a world-class wireless LAN. Offering campus-wide access, reliable and flexible service delivery, secure access and unified management, Foundry has provided the University a complete wireless and wired network that will deliver advanced communication services for years to come."

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