Introduction and Wi-Fi Project planning:
There are numerous questions a school needs to ask before it considers Wi-Fi. Normally schools will use banks of laptops or tablets, iPods or net books - the question is how many? Will a class of students all be turning on machines and accessing the internet simultaneously, or will the Wi-Fi be used sporadically throughout the school by just the teaching staff on their laptops? How big is the school? What are the walls made of? How many existing Network points are available to use? How fast is the throughput and connection speed of internet into the school? Does the school have a fibre optic connection? The answers to these questions will determine what type of equipment is required, and ultimately the cost. This paper will explain the reasons behind asking these questions, and hopefully leave you much better informed before (and after) purchasing a Wi-Fi Network.
Experience would say that normally, teaching staff will bring banks of laptops into classrooms via a trolley. The computers would be distributed to students, who would all attempt to access the internet simultaneously. Putting such a significant strain on a network means that the correct type of equipment is essential, whether wireless or not. I will base the rest of this article on a basic assumption that most schools will be working to this type of typical scenario or something bigger.
Firstly, it is obvious that you will require more advanced equipment and technology than your average domestic home router or access point (such as BT, Virgin/Sky would supply)! There are a several manufacturers who make these types of advanced Wi-Fi kits, varying in price and features.
The technical bit, explained as simply as possible:
Wi-Fi installations will normally consist of several access points (antennas which transmit the Wi-Fi signal), and a controller - the brain behind the network. A typical site plan will include locations of access points (AP’s) dotted around the school, carefully positioned to overlap signal strength for better download/upload speeds, continuity of connection (roaming), and to allow lots of users (clients) to connect at the same time. Normally a specialised AP will have the ability to support around 30 - 50 clients simultaneously, and have better range than that of a typical domestic set-up. Once AP’s are located throughout the school, they are all connected to a centralised controller allowing the AP’s to talk to each other. This means that a client can roam from place to place without losing connection or speed. The controller can also ensure that other signals don’t interrupt connectivity (explained beautifully in a recent BT advertisement), and also provide client certification and security on the network, amongst numerous other features. It is the controller and its set up, which determines how well the Wi-Fi will work throughout the building.
Cisco and HP are the well known branded manufacturers. They have good levels of security, good range, and can be set up to provide unrivalled coverage. The issues with these two brands however, are that they simply cost too much, and are notoriously difficult to set up. People have built entire careers on their knowledge of Cisco, for example! They are also very difficult to maintain, and when they go wrong (which they will in a changeable environment such as a school), only trained engineers can resolve the issues. This means that unless you purchase an expensive support package, you will have difficulties later on. Generally Cisco and HP are too hi-tech and advanced to be worthwhile placing in schools. Within the IT trade, suppliers often joke that no one loses their job buying Cisco – it simply creates too much work.
Netgear is another well known brand. Even for singular domestic use in the home, these are fairly unreliable units. Connecting Net Gear AP’s together is never a wise thing to do, and I have seen several Net Gear installations in schools and am yet to find one which works correctly! My advice regarding Net gear installations is to steer well clear!
Aruba is a strange manufacturing breed. Even after 10 years I still don’t really understand their technology, and what they are trying to achieve! Historically, they are not a very reliable manufacturer of hardware, and are fairly complicated to set up and maintain as a network. The pricing of Aruba is also an unknown quantity. Getting an accurately priced Aruba quote is impossible due to the temperamental nature of the hardware. Half way through installation, you may require additional hardware or software, and end up with astronomical costs. If a school was dead set to install Aruba hardware, I would advise contacting a top reseller, and expect to pay handsomely for their expertise.
Aerohive employ a slightly different tactic to other manufacturers. They load their AP’s with technology that eliminates the need to continuously communicate with a controller, and consequently quicken operational speed. On the downside, as technology housed in an AP is limited, it doesn’t provide all the features compared to a controller based set up. Also, the AP’s cannot hold any more than 30 clients at a time. However, I believe it to be a reasonable choice for schools (especially smaller ones) as the hardware meets the required specification, and the installation tends to be cheaper. Earohive’s emphasis is on operational expenditure through software licensing, rather than large initial capital expenditure. Generally, I have not found many downsides to using AeroHive within an educational environment, nor have I heard any complaints from schools using Aerohive technology. They address their client usage problems with a scalable solution, meaning you can simply add AP’s as your requirement for them grows. Need more than 30 users to one AP? Simple, just install another AP in the room. It’s a fairly simple solution to what I would call an elegant problem.
Ruckus Wireless is pretty much designed for Education, and is probably the most common type of system found in schools. Firstly, they provide superior range on access points, and connectivity speeds far exceed other manufacturers– this means you need less AP’s and overall cost is cheaper. Secondly, the technology used with Ruckus is the most advanced – it constantly monitors the system, and adapts to what is happening in real time – meaning that if specific demand is put on just a single AP, it can adapt the system to share the load with neighbouring AP. It doesn’t require an engineer on site to adapt or change the network to the correct environment, and can be monitored remotely. It can also switch channel automatically, meaning that conflicting signals are never a problem, and each AP can support more users than its competitor’s comparative model. For a very small school however, I would probable advise against Ruckus. The purchasing of a controller for only a few access points is not really necessary, and I would suggest looking at Aerohive technology. For larger schools however, Ruckus certainly ticks all the right boxes, and is probably the most future proof of all the manufacturers.
The following graph is a study completed by an independent tester, who inspected and used each manufacturer’s hardware in a series of controlled environments. The full report can be found at http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/wi-fi-performance,2985.html. Numerous tests were completed, the overall theme being that Ruckus came out on top on nearly every test, with Cisco coming out second (although not best demonstrated in this particular graph below). When considering the comparative price between Cisco and Ruckus, the decision becomes a fairly simply one. This graph represents the performance of each AP whilst being used simultaneously by 60 laptops. Interesting to note that some manufacturers couldn’t even complete the test! The frustrating element of this test however, is the notable exclusion of Aerohive technology, probably because of their inability to connect more than 30 clients at a time.
Once the basics have been understood, a school should invite suppliers or re-sellers to visit site and complete surveys. Any decent supplier or re-seller will offer this service for free. Schools usually require three quotations before placing orders, so this process in mandatory, as well as providing you with a significant amount of information. Be patient! Companies will normally need a lengthy walk-through of the school, and copies of the site plans. Bear in mind you will have to provide this type of documentation and give up your time on at least three occasions. Site surveys enable providers to determine wall types, available network points, and get an understanding of cabling requirements.
Please bear in mind that the above review on manufacturers has been based on my experience and generalisations. A particular site plan may suit a specific manufacturer’s hardware – so the information above is meant as a guide, not as definitive instruction.
As a general rule of thumb, the more available network points a school has - the cheaper the installation costs due to a smaller amount of cabling requirements. The introduction of a Wi-Fi network throughout the school may render some computers in the classroom obsolete. Money could be saved if a school thinks in advance and removes the odd computer from the internet or classroom, then freeing up a Network point for a new AP. It is surprising how many schools realise the amount of money that they could have saved by simply moving a computer to a different location, or by taking it off-line.
This point is worth noting during site surveys. The companies asking you to move computers or freeing up network points are the good ones, as they display an intention to keep costs to a minimum. If not it’s not possible to free up network points, they should still be exploring other possible alternatives, such as meshing-shown top left in above diagram.
Each company will then be able to provide you with a quote, and a decision would then be made. Ensure that the number of access points and hardware is roughly the same. Don’t always go for the cheapest quote! If a company is suggesting that you only need 10 access points when other companies suggest you need 20 – exercise caution. Occasionally a company will reduce hardware costs to provide the cheapest quote. You will end up with a network that doesn’t fully work – and you will have to go back and spend more money in the long run. Although this is very rare – I would certainly check out the company’s credentials before placing your order.
A reputable company will also offer support on their product. Ask what their expertise is in this area – usually a company will have a specialist individual who deals with support – and you should ensure that there is a point of contact for any issues which arise in the future. By its very nature, Wi-Fi can suffer from glitches every now and then, however technology exists for your networks to be monitored remotely if required. Reputable companies should be able to offer you these services because they are approved suppliers and registered with the manufacturers – not just your average fly–on-the-wall re-sellers waiting to catch a ride. Again, this is also a decent way of determining the credentials of the company you work with. Take note of the companies which offer you premium partner support – they are generally the better and more reputable businesses.
Decision time – choose your best quote, and submit your purchase order, but don’t forget to look for that hidden gem – some companies may throw in a little sweetener – free hardware or a discount on further products. This will depend on the rapport you build with each supplier throughout the process, so I would always bear this in mind during the site surveying process. Worth remembering if you have two almost identical quotes!
Depending on the site size, installation can usually take between 2 and 4 days. This is largely down to cabling requirements of the school. A decent installation team should be able to fit around the schools working day as best possible if completed during term time. Full access will need to be given to the engineers during the installation process, and relevant arrangements should be made to accommodate this. Only sign off the project when checks have been completed, and some basic training on the system has been completed. To highlight the comparisons of manufacturers, training in Cisco systems would take a day or two – Ruckus or Aerohive would take an hour. It is best for both parties if the installation is completed outside of term-time, although not always feasible or essential.
It is worth noting that a company should be able to provide CRB check results on their employees. It is a basic expectation in this day and age and suppliers with public sector experience will be able to provide relevant information and documentation when required.
Rather than finishing on a negative note, I wanted to comment on the benefits of Wi-Fi installations within education. Laptops, tablets and wireless communications are the future of e-learning and education. Text books, new examination marking techniques and online learning platforms are not a futuristic dream – they are an existing reality, living and breathing in schools throughout the UK and beyond. The possibilities are literally endless. As Apple stated in their marketing campaigns for the ipad – “this is just the beginning”. I for one, am looking forward to seeing what the future will bring.