Colorado State University Expedites Student Research With Library-Wide Wireless Network
Few universities offer the academic excellence and majesticcampus environment of Colorado State University (CSU). CSU has approximately1,400 faculty in eight colleges and 55 academic departments and is one of thefirst 60 charter university members of the new Internet2 organization.
Although the school is committed to using leading-edgetechnology to support its teaching, research and community outreach programs,funds are not always available for every IT initiative. Such was the case whenCSU decided to deploy a wireless network at its main library to give studentsand library staff high-speed access to university computing resources and theInternet. To rectify this situation, the university turned to 3Com, whoseSuperStack switches already served in the core of the library’s Ethernet localarea network (LAN). 3Com responded by donating $23,000 of its innovativeAirConnect wireless LAN access points and PC cards, enabling CSU to equip therecently renovated Morgan Library with an Ethernet LAN. 3Com also provided asite survey and installation at no charge.
Launched this March, the wireless LAN allows laptop users toconduct research and access the Internet at speeds of up to 11 Mbps from almostany location in the five-story building. In addition, the library will lenduniversity-owned laptops equipped with 3Com AirConnect wireless LAN PC Cards tostudents who need them for research projects.
“Using 3Com’s wireless networking solution, we’re able toprovide students with fast, library-wide access that allows them to workindividually or in groups, whether they’re in study carrels, at tables or inthe stacks,” says Julie Wessling, assistant dean for public services in the CSUlibraries. “What’s more, by lending students laptops equipped with 3Comwireless network cards, we’re giving them connectivity to the Internet andother educational resources that significantly enrich their learning experience.”
ConvenientAccess for All Students
Driven by the new wireless network, students using their ownor library-provided laptops now enjoy the most flexible access possible to allelectronic resources available on CSU’s campus network. Foremost among theseare a collection of services that connect students to library resources,university services, each other and the Internet. Via the Web, students canconnect to CSU’s own site to access such resources as RAMweb, an online studentservices utility that lets students view and update their contact informationand financial aid data, as well as academic records and transcripts.
The new 3Com wireless network also offers fast, easy accessto the library’s 400-plus browser-accessible databases. These databases containabstracts and full-text journal articles on academic subjects ranging fromagriculture to veterinary science, as well as detailed information contained insuch resources as Books In Print, Consumer Reports and the Associated Pressnewswire. Users are offered immediate full-text display, download, and e-maildelivery options for thousands of journal articles.
“Making this information available through electronicsubscriptions makes research much simpler for students, and it also eliminatesthe need for the library to subscribe to thousands of print journals,” saysWessling.
Students are also using the wireless network to connect toSAGE, CSU’s public access online catalog, from any spot in the library. Byaccessing SAGE on their laptops, students can now rapidly reserve books, extendborrowing time, arrange interlibrary loans and browse new acquisitions atvirtually any location within the Morgan library.
“3Com’s wireless access points allowour students to quickly find a book in the stacks, aggregate all their researchmaterial and input their notes using a single laptop system,” explainsWessling. “Instead of walking around thebuilding searching for a computer terminal to find what they need, thewireless LAN-connected laptops can locate almost anything.”
Because the university-owned laptops contain MicrosoftOffice, students can also use them to write papers, storing their work on afloppy disk to be printed at a local copy shop or on a friend’s computer.
In the future, CSU plans to install anAirConnect access point in the library’s storage facility elsewhere on campus,enabling staff to use laptops to add items to the library catalog, update olderrecords and facilitate other behind-the-scenesprojects to improve access to CSU’s books,journals, historical documents, etc. With the library still recovering from adevastating flood in 1997 that damaged more than 462,000 volumes, thisincreased access will also help staff members process and shelve replacementbooks and those still in the recovery process.
High-Bandwidth,Building-Wide Wireless Connectivity
CSU’s decision to launch the new wireless LAN emanated fromthe school’s desire to increase students’ and library staff’s access toinformation. With only 50 percent of CSU’s student body owning their owncomputers, the school found it difficult to meet the demand for existingmachines in the university’s libraries and computer laboratories. Long waitingtimes meant students often were unable to complete writing or research projectseasily. Moreover, groups working on computersin a library or lab often distractedneighboring users. Because Morgan Library stays open later than theschool’s computer laboratories and smaller, departmental libraries,administrators determined that the best way to expand available computing resources would be to install as many accesspoints in the library as possible, and make laptops available to studentson-site.
Although CSU initially considered DSL and other hardwirednetworking options, library officials felt strongly that the mobility ofwireless access best fit their goal of making information resources as easy andconvenient to use as possible for both individuals and groups. The universityevaluated Lucent’s wireless solution, but discovered that Lucent would haverequired 50 access points, each covering a radius of only 100 feet. Bycomparison, 3Com’s AirConnect wireless LAN access points each cover a radius ofup to 300 feet, allowing CSU to blanket the library with just 15 access points.To go along with the wireless access points, the university purchased 20 Compaqlaptops to which it added 3Com’s wireless PC cards. Students can check out alaptop for up to four hours of in-library use.
In January, 3Com representatives walked through the libraryto determine whether the building was suited to wireless networking. Theyreturned a month later to hook up a single AirConnect wireless LAN accesspoint, test its coverage and determine the location and number of access pointsneeded for maximum performance. In March while students were away for theirspring break, 3Com installed 11 of the necessary 15 access points in thebasement, first and second floors. The remaining four nodes will be installedto cover the third floor and a corner of the fourth.
“AirConnect delivers outstanding performance. Even when thesignal is traveling through shelves of books, it broadcasts up to 200 feet,”notes Brian Gilbert, network manager for the CSU libraries. “There’s literallynot a corner in the building where students will have problems withconnectivity.”
Now deployed, the AirConnect access points act as a bridgebetween the library’s wired Ethernet backbone and wireless client systems.Typically affixed to a ceiling or wall, the access points send and receive datafrom up to 63 simultaneous users within a radius of 300 feet. They featurebuilt-in diagnostics and power-up self-check, upgradable firmware, antennadiversity and support for simple networkmanagement protocols (SNMP). Each includes a PowerBASE-T module whichsupplies the access point with both the data connectivity and the DC power itrequires, saving users the cost and time of running both Ethernet andelectrical power to a wireless access point.
Presently, the wireless networkconsists of 15 AirConnect access pointsstrategically positioned throughout the building. Via 3Com AirConnect PCcards, laptop users connect to these systems at up to 11 Mbps speed. Three ofthe AirConnect access points have 100-Mbps links to five SuperStack II Switch3300s in the library LAN.
The remaining 12 access point systemshave switched 10 Mbps connections to 32 3Com SuperStack II NetBuilder SIrouters. All SuperStack routers and switches deliver 100-Mbps links to anenterprise switch on CSU’s network backbone. The campus backbone networkprovides high-speed access to the Internet and to the library’s onlineresources.
To keep users connected at maximum speeds even when they’reon the move, the AirConnect wireless LAN employs dynamic rate shifting. If auser roams outside the range for 11 Mbps connectivity, AirConnect solutionsseamlessly move between rates of 11, 5.5, 2, and 1 Mbps, instead of completelydropping the connection. In Morgan Library, access points are spaced to providethe maximum speed in all but the most remote corners, where they still provideat least 2 Mbps.
“We loved how easy it was to install the wireless networkcards,” says Gilbert. “Because it’s a simple Type II card that pops into aslot, there’s no need to open the laptop, which saves our IT staff hours oftime and effort.”
Because the AirConnect node can handle up to 63 users, thelibrary has ample bandwidth to accommodate dozens more students who bring theirown laptops into the building. One additional AirConnect access point will soonbe installed in the library’s storage facility several blocks away, enablinglibrary staff members to access the wireless LAN.
Santa Clara, CA
This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.