Case study: City of London School goes wireless

The independent boy’s school installs a wireless network and mobile device management systems to enable staff, pupils and visitors to get connected

The City of London School is embracing bring your own device (BYOD) and has put the network in to get staff, pupils and visitors connected.

The independent boys school in the heart of the square mile has around 900 children between the ages of 10 and 18 and 200 staff, both teachers and administrators. However, it also opens its doors for private events so wanted to offer the facility of a secure wireless network to guests at its venues.

Joe Matthews, assistant IT manager of City of London School, joined the team back in 2004 when the technology on offer was very limited.

“We now have a PC per classroom, but when I started we just had a laptop trolley for the whole school,” he told Computer Weekly. “Now we have high demand for laptops during exam periods, which are twice a year, so we have about 60, and we are also looking into music technology as well with a suite of iMacs for the department.”

In the days of the laptop trolley, there was a wireless network but performance was poor.

“We had limited access points from day one when I first came in but they didn’t perform well,” he said. “They were just not up to scratch for 20 or so boys to log on simultaneously back in 2003.”

Matthews and his colleagues wanted to modernise the wireless network but decided to focus on the sixth form pupils first to test out what they could do.

“For our sixth formers it was very specific,” he added. “They had their own common room and wanted to be able to use their own devices to browse the web, check emails etc. There were issues straight away though.”

They installed some Ruckus wireless access points but Matthews was unimpressed, both with the new wireless installation and his department’s own lacking network.

“Our internal network was not build for BYOD,” he said. “There was not the right security, authentication or web filtering available so we only had the very basic degree.”

“We could only offer one secure SSID to log on with but it wasn’t secure enough to offer out school resources and we couldn’t identify users. The need to prevent unauthorised users was great as we had no access rights and couldn’t audit it. We were yearning for something more.”

The next stage was to try and bring connectivity to staff, but with better performance. Most are based on the fifth level of the school alongside science labs, giving the opportunity to see not just how it could help teachers but also compliment children’s learning.

The need to prevent unauthorised users was great as we had no access rights and couldn’t audit. We were yearning for something more

Joe Matthews, assistant IT manager, City of London School

This time Matthews went to Xirrus for the wireless technology needed and installed seven access points across the level. Soon he found performance was much improved.

“We looked at Xirrus and it took away the bottlenecks, as well as being a lot more resilient,” he said. “If one access point was down, it wasn’t the end of the world, unlike before.”

However, having a well performing network raised other issues the IT department had yet to consider on its clunky predecessor.

“We integrated it with existing hotspots but came up against another problem of having to manually type in the pre-defined security key to every physical device for it to log on,” said Matthews. “This meant one of our small team – three altogether at the time, although we now have an apprentice - had to be present every time and we still couldn’t audit.”

“We wanted to put something in and forget about it. Yes, if people had a problem with the network they could contact us but to just access it? That should be zero touch on our part.”

This led the team to look at network access control or NAC, bringing technology into the network to offer more than just the ability to connect.

“We had heard about Bradford Networks but also heard it was very expensive so didn’t think we could justify such an elaborate solution,” said Matthews. “But, when we got the go ahead from management and we realised there was very little out there in comparison, we went ahead.”

The NAC capabilities gave Matthews a lot more control of the network, how users logged on and what they did when they got there.

“You can really customise the roles,” he said. “We chose to have different roles based on pupil, staff and visitor but with the system you can define as many as you like. The solution fundamentally changes the access points into a network switch. It can switch individual devices onto the right [policy] with just one SSID applying that role.”

“These types of things are normally designed for a wired network but Bradford has made this work for our wireless.”

The school now has 67 Xirrus access points covering 99.9% of the buildings and providing access to all of its staff and sixth formers.

“I think there is something in the pipeline for the younger pupils, or I would imagine so, but it is up to the management,” concluded Matthews. “We are a very traditional school so it must be looked at and how it would affect pupil learning.”


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