Education-Gardner-Webb University Adopts Meru Wireless LAN 


North Carolina's Gardner-Webb University has deployed a Meru Networks wireless LAN to serve as the school's platform for unified data, voice and video communications for the next 7-10 years.

The campus-wide Meru IEEE 802.11n draft 2.0 WLAN, installed in 2008, gives more than 4,000 students, faculty and staff wireless access from every building and almost every outdoor space on Gardner-Webb's 200-acre campus.   A residence hall now under construction will rely completely on the WLAN for all non-emergency communication, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in telecommunication costs for the new building.

Despite having built a state-of-the-art wired network – with a gigabit Ethernet port in every student's dormitory room – Gardner-Webb had been seeing a steady student migration to wireless connectivity over the past several years.

"We had invested in one of the best fixed networks at any university, yet that network couldn't meet the demands of an increasingly mobile student population," said Joseph Bridges, associate vice president of technology services at Gardner-Webb.   Students wanted access to increasing amounts of online educational content without being tied to a physical port, while faculty members sought the freedom to work in the classroom, the office or at home – anywhere they could carry a laptop.

So the university, which had previously deployed wireless only on a sporadic basis using a mix of different vendors' products, decided it needed an enterprise-level wireless solution.   Wayne Johnson, who manages purchasing for capital projects, undertook an extensive vendor evaluation in cooperation with the university CIO and network engineer.   They knew from the outset they would go with a WLAN based on 802.11n, the highest-performance technology available ("we didn't want to have to upgrade again for 7-10 years").   Equally important was finding a system they could easily manage and grow.

Gardner-Webb selected Meru Networks on the basis of its virtual cell technology, which allows a single radio channel to be used by all wireless access points; if more capacity is needed, additional channels can be layered on top.   In the micro cell approach used by other WLAN vendors, no two adjacent access points can be on the same channel, and three radio channels must be expended to provide a single layer of wireless coverage.

Meru APs Broadcast at 100 Percent Power; School Gains Extended Coverage Area

"With Meru you get full value for the APs," Johnson said.   "With other vendors you have to mitigate an AP's signal strength because of potential interference from a neighboring AP on another channel.   But a Meru AP can always be broadcasting at 100 percent power."

The single-channel approach also makes it easy to expand the system, he added.   "We just put new APs where we need more coverage and the system automatically handles the new load without our having to do any channel planning.   If we eventually fill up the channel we're using, we can add one or more channel layers on top of it.   This basically guarantees us triple the bandwidth for our future needs – something no other vendor could offer."

Johnson said the ability to use APs at full signal strength without interference concerns led to an unanticipated benefit:   outdoor wireless coverage without having to mount access points outdoors.

"We had planned two APs for our Springs Athletic Facility.   By positioning them indoors and at opposite ends of the building and using directional antennas outside, we're not only getting full coverage inside the facility but all the way across three athletic fields to our Softball Complex – nearly 1,000 feet away.   That's major green-area coverage at a very low cost.   I can have a crystal-clear conversation on my Avaya phone that whole distance. Once we get our full grid of antennas up, you'll be able to start a phone conversation at one end of campus and not lose coverage all the way to the other end.   Laptop users will be able to do the same thing with SIP phones or softphones."

New Building Cuts Telecom Costs by 90 Percent by Relying on Wireless

A residence hall now under construction will be the first to be built without telephone lines or Ethernet ports installed in students' rooms – the only cabling will be for emergency phones.   "Using wireless exclusively will cut our telecom costs by 90 percent for that dorm," Johnson said.   "Students can rely on their cell phones, and will also have the option of using wireless SIP or H323 phones."

Gardner-Webb uses Bradford Networks' Campus Manager for network access control, and its ability to interoperate with Meru's WLAN controllers allows the university to implement identical security policies across its wired and wireless networks.   "Bradford's integration with Meru provides our front-line security for faculty, staff, students and visitors who come onto Gardner-Webb's campus," said Eric Brewton, network engineer.   Bradford's policy enforcement prevents casual users from disrupting a mission-critical activities on the WLAN by verifying wireless client "clean access" policies and also provides emergency messaging to the university's wireless population.

In addition to the technology, Gardner-Webb considered the kind of wireless partner it wanted to work with.   "We were looking for a company where wireless is the core business, not a division or a resold brand," Johnson said.   "They had to understand the concept of 'partnership', and be willing to put their people on campus to get a deployment off the ground.   And the company had to be financially stable – what good would it do me to buy a 10-year solution if I didn't think the company would be around for the future?   Meru met all these criteria."

Gardner-Webb's wireless deployment uses about 170 Meru AP320 dual-radio access points, which support the newest 802.11n standard but are also backward-compatible with earlier 802.11a/b/g standards.   A Meru MC4100 controller provides centralized configuration and management for all APs on the network.