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Guest Blog: Migrating High Density University Networks to 802.11ac

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Joe Rogers, Associate Director of Network Engineering for the University of South Florida (USF). Hear Joe speak about his experiences with next-generation wireless in high density environments on next Tuesday’s webinar:  “Migrating Enterprise Networks to 802.11ac” at 10am PST (Dec 17) (Register here)

Joe RogersJoe Rogers is the Associate Director of Network Engineering for the University of South Florida.  He is a graduate of USF’s Computer Science and Engineering program and has worked as a network engineer at USF for the past 20 years.  He is currently responsible for all aspects of USF’s network which provides connectivity to over 100k devices across three campuses.  He’s held a CCIE routing and switching certification since 1999.  When not working, he’s an avid mountain biker (if you can call it “mountain” biking when you live in Florida).

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Universities face some of the most complex design challenges in wireless networking.  Our user population is highly mobile, bandwidth-hungry, and often simultaneously using at least two wireless devices in rooms with hundreds of their classmates.  The wireless network isn’t simply a convenience to them.  It’s critical to their educational success as many of the students are taking tests or working on assignments across the network.

At the University of South Florida, we support over 20,000 concurrent wireless users on our network of over 4,000 access points.  We have more than 90,000 unique devices registered this semester.  Our biggest challenge is designing the wireless network for the device densities in our large classrooms and popular study areas.  In these locations, we often have a thousand devices in a few hundred square feet of space.

We heavily rely on band select to place as many devices as possible on 5Ghz where more channels are available.  Unfortunately many devices such as older tablets and smart phones simply don’t have an 802.11a/n radio.  So we must carefully RF engineer the environment with smaller cells to provide the necessary coverage density.

It’s critical for our designs to move user traffic over the air as quickly as possible so that more devices and more traffic can be accommodated.  For that reason, we stay on the leading edge of 802.11 technologies.  We began deploying 802.11n as soon as it was available and moved to three spatial stream 802.11n as soon as it shipped.  We’re now actively deploying 802.11ac.  By deploying these latest-generation technologies, we continue to utilize our available spectrum as efficiently as possible.

In our initial 802.11ac deployments, we’ve seen as many as 10% of the clients on a given access point connecting at 802.11ac rates.  While still a small percentage, it shows that 802.11ac device support is growing.  With our increasingly connected student population’s desire to have the latest technologies, we expect the 802.11ac device count to grow rapidly.

During next Tuesday’s webinar, we’ll cover the details of University of South Florida’s wireless network, look at some of our more challenging deployments, and discuss the drivers that constantly push us to the latest wireless technologies.

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We hope you’ll join Joe and Enterprise Networking Group product manager Mark Denny next Tuesday for a great discussion on migrating networks to 802.11ac. (REGISTER NOW) Here’s a snippet on how Cisco sees 802.11ac playing out in the Higher Education space:

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