18 August 2011

Wireless to the Nth Degree

Bartlett adds that because he was open about his process and available budget, the four vendors he tested came up with comparable costs. "They came to within hundreds of dollars of each other," he says.

Ease of use was eventually the deciding factor for Bartlett and his team, which chose Meraki for the district's wireless technology. Contributing to that sense of ease is a cloud-based control solution that hosts functions customarily managed by a controller, a device that sits on the network and connects to the access points.

"It's all done through a secure web browser, so an IT administrator can deploy the network with the appropriate security and guest access policy and access control without having specialized training and wireless certifications," explains Kiren Sekar, director of marketing at Meraki. While it's common practice for wireless companies to offer a web interface, they generally still require a controller.

Bartlett says the department couldn't afford the time and cost of sending an employee to a five-day course to learn how to deploy and manage the network, nor could it "open up the manual and relearn the interface" every time a change to the wireless network was required. The new solution allows IT staff to access the wireless network to make changes and find answers to questions on the fly, even from meetings and conferences, using whatever devices are available.

The Meraki access point/cloud-based control solution incorporates a couple of security features that are especially useful in a school setting. One of these is network access control, a feature that checks devices for working antivirus software before they are allowed to connect to the network. Another feature is traffic shaping, which "can limit how devices are used, when they are used, and what types of applications can be used over them," Sekar says.

That means access points can be set to allow specific educational applications but prohibit students from accessing web sites like Netflix, game sites, or YouTube. Bartlett says that this feature is especially useful in high-traffic areas near meeting rooms and classrooms where students are not able to stream video, suck up the bandwidth, or interfere with instruction.

Bartlett says teachers who are excited by the new technology continually find new ways to use it. He makes note of an iPod reading program that would never have taken place without a better wireless infrastructure. The program's results have been phenomenal, according to Bartlett. In a matter of weeks, students moved from being low-level readers to reading above benchmarks, and classes are now seeing fewer discipline problems.

With exponential growth in the numbers of wireless devices on campus, schools are forced to quickly adjust to these more complex networking challenges, often by employing sophisticated options for managing their networks. At this point, there's no doubt that 802.11n represents the best wireless technology on the market in terms of bandwidth, speed, security, and network management--at least for now.

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