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Oxford and Cambridge University colleges turn to Aerohive to manage WLAN traffic

Colleges and institutions at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are attempting to mitigate the effects of the substantial demand on their wireless networks

Wireless supplier Aerohive is providing wide-ranging wireless local area network (WLAN) management across 28 colleges and a number of institutions at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.

With both universities catering to an increasingly connected student body and maintaining world-beating scientific research facilities, Oxford and Cambridge have long considered it important to their international reputation to remain ahead of the curve in technology.

Most of the universities' bodies have reported high year-on-year growth in traffic. The need to provide a network fast enough to enable extensive international research, and cater for recreational demands in college-owned housing, has become ever more pressing.

Simon Mortimore, computing systems manager at Exeter College Oxford, manages Oxford’s college IT manager committee, which reports to the university’s overall management on college IT. The committee has been among those spearheading the roll-out, and he says that network demand this year alone rose 70%.

“We see around 22,000 unique clients each week as the number of devices per person has risen from less than one to an average of three,” says Mortimore.

Architecture imposes limitations

Exeter College’s historic core is around 700 years old and is spread across two main sites, comprising 45 buildings. It has around 500 students and up to 1,000 staff who need to use the network.

“We are a very traditional, risk-averse organisation, and that follows in our IT policy,” Mortimore tells Computer Weekly. “We tend to choose best-of-breed solutions so, to some extent, we had been behind the curve.”

Read more about university networks

Until now, Exeter College had a centralised Wi-Fi network provided by the university. This could only be accessed in communal areas and not in student bedrooms, which still relied on a wired service.

The explosion of mobile data traffic, and the advent of notebook devices without dedicated network ports – such as the Macbook Air, popular among Oxbridge’s student body – meant that this needed to change.

For Mortimore, Aerohive’s controller-less network architecture was a key deciding factor in his procurement. The distinctively medieval architecture of the college buildings meant constructing a traditional network required many more access points, increasing the difficulty of handing off traffic from one access point to another as users move around.

By using a controller-less architecture, Mortimore mitigated capacity and bottleneck issues to extend coverage much further, using fewer access point devices. Around 140 access points currently operate on the Exeter College network, with plans to extend up to about 220.

Aerohive’s lack of bulk licensing constraints will enable the college to add more access points in the future – depending on demand – without seeing price hikes. This also means Mortimore was able to run a more effective pilot scheme without taxing the available budget too much.

Aerohive’s Hive Manager feature was also a key selling-point, giving Exeter College more visibility and control over multiple networks and devices from a single interface, and enabling it to provide different service levels, depending on the user.

“We don’t broadcast 100 SSIDs, we broadcast three so, depending on your credentials, you will receive a different services set from the access point,” explains Mortimore. “So a residential user may be throttled under some criteria, but academic staff would have a different set of criteria tied into their group membership.”

Across campus

The reaction from other bodies using the Aerohive technology across the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge has so far been positive.

Anjanesh Babu, ICT assistant networks at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum – who is supervising a roll-out across four sites to provide a public access wireless fund – says he needed to ensure the infrastructure was up to the job.

“Aerohive’s multi-site WLAN deployment and site-specific passwords, along with its controller-less architecture, have helped with addressing these challenges of providing staff logins, along with public access on separate skids,” says Babu.

“Deploying an integrated, affordable single pane of glass network is our vision, and Aerohive is the only one that can meet our criteria for expected massive traffic densities in listed buildings, while remaining aesthetically suitable for our deployments."

Ellis Karim, IT manager for the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership, adds: “We have been able to set up multiple Wi-Fi networks, from a corporate network using strong authentication, to guest networks.

“We now have a seamless corporate Wi-Fi network that spans three buildings and supports all our mobile devices – and we don’t need to do much in the way of administration.”

Although Oxford and Cambridge and their various institutions share best practice, each university body using Aerohive’s wireless networks has its own contract managed by independent IT teams, so Aerohive’s training and online support community is also cited as a bonus by a number of the member institutions, enabling them to remain self-sufficient.

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