Beating expectations with an intelligent wireless infrastructure in Charleston.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jason Trinklein

As in many industries, higher education’s reliance on IT solutions for business operations is increasing rapidly, as are the expectations of users. As a technology matures and the confidence of users improves, IT services become as indispensable as the basic utilities that serve the facility. Wireless networking exemplifies this escalation of expectation.

A technology trio

IT departments industry-wide must provide the technology trio of reliability, innovation, and adaptability. Failure to do so not only negatively effects IT departments themselves, but causes serious consequences for institutional operations and public relations.

For example

The school where I work, The College of Charleston, was struggling to meet the expectations of its community with an aging wireless network infrastructure.

The network was failing the entire technology trio with a high equipment failure rate, lack of cutting-edge feature sets, and inability to adapt to changing demands, resulting in serious consequences for the organization.

The IT department needed additional FTE to manage the failing gear and provide user support and the Helpdesk was frequently overburdened by suddenly failing areas of campus.

Network engineers were stymied by lack of insight into network issues and performance and hindered by unreliable configuration consistency.

Professors were frustrated with poor connectivity and application support in their classes.

Evolution of wireless services

Initially, wireless services were viewed as a convenience, and expectations for speed and reliability were low. Wireless services have now evolved into an essential service with high expectations of coverage, reliability and speed. IT departments are tasked with deploying sophisticated and dense wireless infrastructures to meet this demand.

This is not a subtle shift; such a drastic change in expectation and application requires a revolutionary approach to solving the problem. Old wireless architectures and approaches are simply insufficient to meet modern challenges.

Old approaches

At a time of light infrastructure deployment, a high annual gear failure rate could be ingested into the maintenance labor of existing FTE workloads. Further, device configuration pushes and software updates met with a certain failure rate, at times above 50%. Remediation often required manual intervention.

As deployment for coverage and density has become essential, the device count has multiplied, and these problems led to extended outages, severe frustration and reduced team moral, and drove the labor required to maintain the infrastructure above available FTE hours.

In an environment with little RF competition and light AP deployment, it was reasonable to manually assign RF resources to the infrastructure and perform rolling surveys to ensure adequate coverage.

The days of low contention for RF resources are now a distant memory, and network engineers are faced with an impossible task to perform manually; the RF environment changes on a continual basis, precluding the possibility of hard-setting AP channels and powers. The “set it and forget it” approach to RF is unsustainable and yields missed performance and reliability targets.

User experience and assurance was once a manual and helpdesk-centric process. If wireless services were failing in an area, it was incumbent upon the affected users to report the observed shortfall to the helpdesk for escalation to network engineers.

In an era of low utilization and small expectation, this approach was sufficient.

In a modern era

In a modern era of ubiquitous coverage and utilization, problems should be detected and corrected before a user has a chance to pick up the phone. Lacking that, helpdesk becomes overwhelmed, or worse, problems go unreported because of users who have given up on expecting service at all. It is essential that IT has the tools to be proactive rather than reactive.

Wireless networks are now more interconnected with critical systems than ever before and users have an expectation of data security in all their activities. The attack surface of the network has grown in new ways and beyond the physical limits of traditional wired networking. The security of a wireless network is critical, and the protection of institutional data and systems is vital.

This necessitates a two-pronged approach:

  • First, implement industry-standard security practices to mitigate data security risks.
  • Second, select vendors with robust security features and rapid security patch releases.

Last year, a vulnerability called “KRACK”, or Key Reinstallation Attack, was identified and found in nearly every wireless vendor’s implementation of WPA2. The security implications of this broken implementation caused shockwaves throughout the wireless industry.

The College of Charleston was in the process of transitioning to a new wireless network, however less than 25% of the network had been replaced.

The company we worked with (Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company) patched their software well ahead of the public release of the vulnerability whereas our old infrastructure did not receive the security patch for weeks after KRACK’s publication, leaving the majority of our wireless service vulnerable.

A rapid and dramatic shift

It was clear that a rapid and dramatic shift of wireless technology was required to provide the university with the connectivity and features it needed. After evaluating three major wireless vendors on a variety of metrics, we selected a company. In an urgent sprint, The College of Charleston networking team completely replaced and expanded the wireless network by 50% in under a year.

The new infrastructure has improved reliability substantially. Other highlights:

  • Configuration changes and software updates present little downtime and a low failure rate.
  • The quality of the configuration and monitoring platforms have enabled the networking team to be proactive in resolving service issues.
  • Fully redundant control and dataplane layers eliminate single points of failure.
  • Helpdesk calls related to the infrastructure have plummeted.
  • Large amounts of labor have been made available for other networking tasks and goals.

Many innovative features have yielded benefits, as well. One particular feature has an integrated AI machine learning feature that intelligently and autonomously adapts the entire campus network to the rapidly changing RF environment.

Even in a dense urban environment, the advanced RRM features enable up to 80MHz wireless channel width, delivering up to ten times the bandwidth of the previous solution without introducing interference. With integrated features like Bluetooth Beacons, location services are now possible and are beginning to be offered around the campus. Benefits and features are now provided to the campus before constituents even know they want or need it.

A state of constant change

The requirements placed on wireless networks are in a state of constant change. With band steering and AP load balancing, the resources are evenly distributed, making the College of Charleston’s wireless services reliable and performant even when fully loaded.

With advanced application controls, support is available for VoIP services, AppleTVs, and other emergent demands. The university is now fully prepared to face the future expectations of a demanding user base.

Jason Trinklein is Wireless Network Manager, Division of Information Technology Infrastructure at College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. Write to: trinkleinj@cofc.edu