Wireless overhaul yields improved reliability, simplicity

Harrisonburg City Public Schools, located in Virginia's scenic Shenandoah valley, serves 4400 students kindergarten through 12th grade. The school system has ten facilities including a high school, two middle schools, five elementary schools, a special education center, and an administrative office, and considers wireless Internet access an integral part of its education technology.

Supported by an assortment of Netgear and Apple wireless access points, the school system provided laptop-equipped teaching staff with mobile access to the Internet and educational and student management applications. Each school also had one or two mobile labs (carts equipped with 15 to 25 laptops and a wireless access point) for student use in the classroom. In this demanding environment, however, the consumer-grade wireless access points -- unreliable and difficult to manage -- were simply not up to the task.

The Challenge
Maintaining adequate wireless coverage was a continual battle. Placed on a shelf, a table, or the floor in a classroom, access points were easily moved, unplugged, or even stolen. Without central management, there was no way to know a problem existed until a user complained.

The mobile labs also proved challenging. Teachers had to plug the cart-mounted access point into both power and the network. Forgetting the network connection caused laptops to come up without network access. Rebooting resulted in valuable classroom time being lost. And even when properly connected, a full complement of clients on a single access point created performance issues. The school system began placing two access points on each cart, but overlapping channels led to even more problems.

The wave of issues with the wireless network came to a head in mid 2008 when almost 40 of the system's Netgear access points failed within a brief period of time, reverting to their factory configurations with security features disabled. "There was no encryption. Anybody could connect to our network," says Dwayne Hottinger, network administrator for the Harrisonburg school system. "I had to remove those access points."

Hottinger formed a task force to consider a replacement for the legacy wireless system. The new WLAN had to be resilient, centrally administered, easy to manage, secure, and cost-effective. The task force evaluated wireless solutions from Aerohive, Aruba, Cisco, Trapeze, and Xirrus and ultimately selected Aerohive based on its resiliency, ease of management, security features, and cost.

"Aerohive has given us a highly resilient wireless network that's both easy to deploy and manage, with the capabilities to meet our needs far into the future," said Hottinger. "Considering all the features we sought, Aerohive was the most cost-effective solution. Choosing Aerohive was a unanimous decision."

Hottinger's top priority for the new wireless LAN was resiliency, as network failures consumed valuable instruction time and caused other disruptions. Aerohive's cooperative control wireless LAN architecture increases resiliency by eliminating network controllers that create single points of failure. Resiliency is further increased by the wireless mesh networking capabilities that are included in all Aerohive access points (HiveAPs), enabling them to automatically route around network failures.

Deployment and Management
After resiliency, the top selection criteria were ease of deployment and management. With a limited amount of assistance from Aerohive, the customer's network administrator deployed the new wireless LAN himself. HiveManager, Aerohive's network management system, automatically discovers HiveAPs as they are added to the network and then pushes configuration information to them.

The network administrator has also been pleased with the simplicity of managing the network. "If someone reports an issue, I can look at the HiveManager, see where they are connected, review the log files, view the topology, and determine whether I need to add or move a HiveAP for better coverage," said Hottinger.

The new Aerohive wireless LAN was divided into separate networks. One provides secure faculty access to the student management system; another is for a library cataloging system that enables wireless scanning to check books in and out; and a third is for guest access.