IT Trends | Feature

2 Tactics for 1-to-1- and BYOD-Ready WiFi

As massive Miami-Dade seeks to serve up a better digital experience to all of its students, getting WiFi right is a crucial part of the work.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools — the fourth-largest district in the country — is working through its ABCDs as it pursues a voluminous infusion of technology into learning. That's how Superintendent Alberto Carvalho described the digital convergence taking place in the district he oversees. That's also roughly the order in which each phase of the plan is unfolding.

As CIO Debbie Karcher explained, the "A" stands for applications and content that can be accessed at any time on any machine. "B" is for broadband that would deliver a good access experience at every school. "C" — for connectivity — called for a massive implementation of wireless in all of the schools.

"Every school, every square foot of our district has wireless in every room," she said.

Now that those components are in place, the district is ready to start talking about devices, the "D" part of the initiative. By October 2014 every school in the district will be what Karcher calls "BYOD-ready." That means students and staff will be able to bring their own devices and hop on the network and use it for whatever reason. As the district is adding a sizable BYOD program, it's also deploying 15,000 tablets to seventh grade civics students and ninth grade history students, as well as computers into elementary schools.

Last year, in the midst of some highly publicized missteps with 1-to-1 deployments at other large school districts, Miami-Dade pulled back on the reins of its program. Karcher said that decision was primarily done to address device security and safety issues. That delay is over, and the program is back on track — in a big way.

Here, the team responsible for laying out a wireless network capable of supporting 345,000 students and 40,000 staff in 392 schools shares its approach for success.

Lay the Infrastructure on Thick
Two years ago, noted Douglas Galbraith, supervisor of infrastructure and system support, the district's Internet capacity was 1 Gbps. Last year that data center core capacity doubled, and then doubled again. The increase to 4 Gbps required an upgrade of routers and switches. At the same time IT increased the pipes in its wide area network to deliver 100 Gbps capacity to each school. Within each school there's 10 Gbps capacity.

On top of that IT has overlaid the district wireless network, consisting of more than 20,000 access points. Two years ago that count was 2,400. Although the district has pondered the advantages of 802.11ac or 11ad, it's "still firmly entrenched in b, g and n," said Galbraith.

In the last year the district has installed 16,000 AP433s from Meru Networks. Those network devices have been deployed, said Karcher, "without adding one single support person." Why Meru? The main reason, she explained, is because Meru's E(z)RF Network Manager allows IT to do wireless network management from end to end, including managing the access points from a central location. "When we get a support ticket, in many cases, it might just be a reset of the device. We can do that remotely. It doesn't require a visit to the access point."

Added Javier "Jerry" Perez, the executive director of infrastructure and system support, wireless grew in a pattern. It started with the addition of "hotspots" at each school in common areas: the auditorium, cafeteria, media center and administrative office. "From there we grew it out. When it's all said and done, there will be one access point per 30 users."

Performance has been quite respectable. For example, 49 middle schools have implemented an online district math program called iPrep Math, in which students use wireless laptops to do their work. In many of those locations, two to three classrooms have been joined and refreshed to accommodate up to 60 students at a time. "We've seen no issues whatsoever," Perez said. When a particular space has a higher density, he noted, "we just add another access point. Being a single-channel deployment, [Meru] makes it very easy to do that."

Share the Wealth but Control the Access
Most schools close after four p.m. in Miami-Dade. However, they see see no reason to be stingy with their wireless. They hope to share bandwidth not just for school purposes but with students' families and the larger community. The idea is to allow people to get online with their own devices simply by being in the vicinity — akin to a public library outfitted with WiFi.

However, that doesn't mean there won't be controls in place. First, the district will monitor for online gaming, the use of NetFlix streaming or other activities the district deems "non-educational" and regulate "abuse." Second, the district has implemented PacketLogic from Procera Networks to manage traffic and monitor network quality. For example, from the data center IT can manage streaming capabilities by grade limits, schools or other district- or school-wide classifications.

The goal: to make the online experience "equal for everybody," said Karcher, or to "leave it wide open when I can. It's based on how my bandwidth looks at the moment." Simultaneously, there's a hierarchy of importance. Traffic will be prioritized based on who the user is and what time of day he or she is getting online. A student taking a test will have the highest priority. A student doing anything else will have a higher priority than a parent, who will have a higher priority than somebody who's taking advantage of some free surfing time.

Sorting that out will be the job of Meru Identity Manager, expected to be in place later this year. "What happens in August will make it seem like it's one big wireless umbrella. No matter where I am in the district, it knows who I am," Karcher explained. "The wireless network will automatically connect me if I'm on school district property and I have the proper ID." She added that the onboarding process only has to be done once for any device. "The idea is that we've chosen to extend that to our parents and community members. We know who they are; they'll have accounts."

But for now, the district is in experimentation mode with its new, capacious WiFi. "We're trying to put as few controls as possible on it right now because we're trying to understand those patterns — [knowing] that we will have to lock it down at some point," said Paul Smith, executive director of data security and technical services.

Of course, the endeavor hasn't been completely problem-free. One surprise surfaced last year on the Friday before school started, when schools posted students' class schedules. "They desperately need to know who's in their class, who's their teacher. It's an end-of-world experience if they don't know that," Karcher attested, tongue in cheek. The district informed students that schedules wouldn't be posted until 7 that night; but by 1 p.m. students had already started checking. The result? A session storm. When students didn't get a response, they'd do what we all do — resend the request, even while the previous sessions were still trying to get access to the data.

"They actually shut us down," Karcher admitted. We knew about that behavior, but we didn't realize how many students would use their mobile devices to access their schedules. We're aware of that happening now and have made changes in our infrastructure to handle this in the future."