With pupils and teachers alike now increasingly expecting a fully digital and seamless connected experience in the classroom, Lytchett Minster School – located near Poole, Dorset – faces much the same challenges as any other typical UK secondary school.
However, with an expansive rural campus that is quite literally at the end of a country lane, built around a grade II listed 18th century manor house, the school faced some unique connectivity challenges, which it is now overcoming through a wireless network upgrade provided by China-based wireless network equipment supplier TP-Link.
Over the past five years, the school’s IT team has been slowly but steadily modernising its systems, after the board of governors approved funding for an upgrade. This has included adopting virtualisation, upgrading fibre backhaul links and replacing out-of-date desktop PCs.
“As part of this project we wanted eventually to replace our wireless network,” says the school’s head of technical services, Stephen Coombes.
“We had a very rudimentary system made up of individual home-user access points [APs], which worked after a fashion. However, it meant there was no roaming and people couldn’t move around without disconnecting and reconnecting, which students and staff increasingly needed to do.”
The ageing APs mounted in school corridors, with no centralised management capabilities, also meant Coombes was forced to take a reactive management approach whenever things went wrong. With 80 individual APs spread here and there, this was inefficient and time-consuming.
The old wireless network was also insecure – the system was not voucher-based, so there was always potential for the pre-shared key to be compromised. If this happened, the IT staff had to reset each AP’s password individually, and once this was done, without Radius (remote authentication dial-in user service) authentication, users would then have to reconnect each of their devices to the network.
Licensing fees a deal-breaker
After exploring the market, Coombes’ team found there were plenty of solutions available to meet the most urgent demands on their list – power over Ethernet (PoE), Radius authentication, centralised management, provision of multiple service set identifiers (SSIDs) and voucher authentication, to name but a few – but quotes ranged from £250 to £500 per AP, even before factoring in annual licensing fees. This was a deal-breaker, says Coombes.
“In everything we do as a school, we are always looking for best value,” he says. “There are a significant number of demands on our limited finances these days and we keep hearing more and more about how much school budgets are being cut, and I really see that in our day-to-day operations. It became apparent that we were not close to being able to afford a professional grade solution.”
It was this consideration that led Coombes to TP-Link. Having already used some of the firm’s products to replace some older US Robotics equipment, he says he was “particularly impressed” with a number of aspects of the technology, including ease of configuration and enhanced management features.
“It occurred to us that it was worth contacting TP-Link to see what else was available, and it was then that we started having conversations with them about what they could do,” he says. “Instead of coming back with ridiculous quotes, they blew us away with how inclusive it was, and for a very realistic sum educationally.”
Crucially for Coombes, TP-Link does not charge licensing fees. This is because, unlike its competitors, it builds its hardware itself instead of outsourcing the process to original design manufacturers (ODMs), which enables it to keep prices much lower, something it sees as an important competitive differentiator. In Lytchett Minster’s case, it quoted the installation at £4,500, compared with more than £28,000 from some other suppliers, says Coombes.
Testing and installation
Following a site survey conducted hand-in-hand with TP-Link’s UK pre-sales engineer, Himanshu Kale, Lytchett Minster built a clear radio frequency (RF) map of the site and received two EAP225 APs for evaluation purposes.
Given a clear vision of the sort of configuration that would be needed, these underwent rigorous testing by Coombes and his colleague Darren Bowring, the school’s network manager, to ensure the APs and controller software could deliver what the school needed.
Satisfied with this, they placed an order for 86 EAP225 and EAP225 Outdoor APs through TP-Link reseller partner (and education specialist) Stone Computers.
“Once we had established the parameters for what we needed, ordering and installation was easy,” says Coombes. Working around the school’s busy schedule – it also hires itself out as a venue for weddings and other events at weekends, and opens its sports facilities to the public out of hours – it took Bowring and Coombes just three weeks to install all 74 APs.
Thanks to their PoE capabilities, they were able to relocate many of the APs from corridors into classrooms for optimum performance and coverage.
Until the old units were removed, they performed one-to-one swap-outs with a similar configuration to the old devices, so that users did not notice a difference. Once the new APs were in place, they were able to activate the new SSIDs – three in total – which use a central Radius server for access authentication.
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“We did a policy change over one weekend, updated the configuration changes through central management, then, on Monday morning, the devices all picked up those changes and nobody was any the wiser that we’d made them – except for the fact that they now had a better signal,” says Coombes.
The team is now also able to use access control lists to issue users with vouchers that restrict network access at the subnet according to core user group. For example, the general guest SSID, used by peripatetic teachers, contractors and visitors, is more restricted than the staff one, and is available only during school hours.
Out of hours, a separate public access SSID kicks in for users of the school’s sports facilities, while at weekends it can be activated according to a predefined schedule if an event is booked. And this is already proving a draw, says Coombes: “We have a wedding coming up later this year where the couple specifically requested Wi-Fi to be able to stream the service for people who couldn’t be there.”
For pupil access, Lytchett Minster can now make special provisions for its sixth form students in line with an established bring your own device (BYOD) policy. Because its older pupils take more responsibility for their studies, they are allowed to bring and connect their own devices – although this is tightly controlled and provides differing levels of access according to where on the campus the device is located.
“We now also see larger numbers of staff iPads and phones being used for teaching, which improves what we can offer to students as a school because it improves their access to online materials,” says Coombes.
Ease of management
For Coombes and his team, the EAP network and software controller have been transformational in ease of management. Data from each AP is now displayed to the IT department on large screens to enable them to watch over the network in real time and address any issues proactively – in some cases before anyone needs to log a support ticket.
Centralised management is also eliminating mundane maintenance tasks, such as network reboots, which previously required the manual connection of every AP, but can now be done from a central interface. This now happens automatically at 6am every day to avoid disrupting lessons.
Rolling out new passwords is also a breeze, for similar reasons. As a result, overall network availability, security and stability has improved, and the IT team can focus on other matters.
Coombes has begun work on expanding the network to cover the school’s outdoor spaces as well. A newly-built outdoor classroom space and seating area has already been connected, and plans to cover areas such as the sports pitches are well advanced.
Thanks to the unified nature of the EAP APs, it will be possible to control and manage the outdoor units in the same way as the indoor ones, providing an integrated network across the school campus.
“We have been able to provide our staff, students and visitors with a business-class wireless network, without compromising on management features, for a total of £4,500, and without the financial burden of ongoing licence fees,” says Coombes.
“We are delighted with the implementation. The hardware was easy for the team to install and we are constantly coming up with new ways of refining the network using the software controller to save us time and improve the overall service to our users.”