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Higher ed network managers talk headaches and rewards

Jon Gold | March 16, 2016
Matthew Almand of Texas A&M shares how his team is addressing the increasing need for Wi-Fi in the campus.

The idea, he says, was simple – they wanted to have the capability to have an IP phone call continue seamlessly from anywhere on campus, switching smoothly across networks. It’s not a simple undertaking, he says.

“Analyzing all the data, what type of walls are where, feeding CAD drawings into the software … that’s tough,” he says. “And then as soon as you do that … you realize that you’ve made some mistakes along the way.”

Two cinderblock dormitories, built about a year apart and functionally almost identical, gave headaches when wireless worked smoothly in one and not in the other – the team eventually realized that metal shavings had made it into the concrete for the problem building. Today, WPI has an Aruba-based wireless network, with a total of about 1,400 access points across 81 buildings.

The rewards from performing this overhaul have been unusually tangible for O’Connor and his team.

“Usually what you get in education – or actually, as any IT professional – you end up thinking ‘OK, how do I know I’m successful?’ Successful is silence, right? Nobody’s complaining,” he says. Now, however, “students actually say, ‘this is really good. This is much better than it was.’ So we’ve been very happy with that rollout.”

Out with old WiFi network at Columbia 

That could be something for Naveed Husain to look forward to. Husain has been the CIO of the teacher’s college at Columbia University – the nation’s oldest graduate education school – for just over a year, and he has a big project ahead of him.

To call the Wi-Fi network in place at the teacher’s college “legacy” would be an understatement, he says.

“There hadn’t been much investment, down to the physical plant, down to cabling,” Husain says.

Even better – the network was entirely unencrypted and open to the public.

“So security was a problem,” he says. “There was a lot of stuff that needed to get done.”

But the school’s “free love” policy, as Husain described it, mandated an open approach, so the solution was to implement a certificate-based system – users log in once, get the certificate, and don’t have to do it again.

Husain has to worry about more than the network, of course – the entire IT department could be described as “legacy.”

“Essentially, it was a money pit – no ITSM, all Google email, so no tools for ediscovery, policies are outdated, [and] the IT department was siloed,” he says.

The priority, however, remains the network, a decision reached early in the process.

“We started looking at Wi-Fi first, thinking ‘OK, we’ll put the front end up first, get the students happy, solve some of those basic problems,” Husain stated.


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