T.H.E. Journal Focus

February 10, 2011

Faith-based Wireless

A Texas district faced a common dilemma. On one hand, Coppell Independent School District outside of Dallas wanted to encourage the use of wireless devices in classrooms. After all, a stream of funding -- fed by bond dollars, stimulus money, and a district-wide matching funds initiative -- encouraged teachers to try out new forms of curriculum to help students meet 21st century learning needs.

On the other hand, the growth came at severe cost: The wireless networks in place couldn't support the load that was increasing with every new instructional program. Even as teachers continued reserving mobile laptop carts for their classes, they began losing faith in the wireless infrastructure. They couldn't count on it working when they needed it.

"We had a lot of frustrated users," recalls Chad Branum, Coppell's executive director of technology. "We'd have pockets of areas with four or five classrooms all trying to hit the wireless network at the same time. It couldn't handle the load, making it impossible for our teachers to do the wonderful instruction they had planned for the day."

Like many districts Coppell had grown its wireless network piecemeal, starting with 802.11b access points roughly eight years ago. "The first products we used were primarily for coverage," he explains. "We were still growing and building our technology usage at our campuses." But that coverage model began sagging under the weight of growth in users.

So the district began thinking about how to map out a network that could accommodate future needs. Branum knew that future state would require 802.11n gear. He just didn't know what company to buy it from.

The IT team checked in with the vendors that were the likely suspects, including Cisco, which had sold the gear already in use; the team also called on colleagues at other districts. That's when Xirrus came on the radar. "We knew a few other districts were hot and heavy on Xirrus, which piqued our interest a little, even though our needs are a little bit different," he says.

Branum learned that Xirrus did wireless surveys that came with a guarantee for buyers. If Xirrus performed a site survey that turned out to be inaccurate, the company would come back and replace the hardware to fill any wireless gaps for free. So he brought the company in to see what its products could do for the district. Xirrus surveyed two high schools, two middle schools, two of its nine elementary schools (seven others had exactly the same footprint), and one alternative campus.

Xirrus won the work. "For school districts it always comes down to cost," he notes. The company offered "a good, cost-effective way to meet our need for density and to help our plan of the future."

About two years ago, the district implemented its new wireless network at one of its high schools, elementary schools, and one of its middle schools. "That was what we were able to fund and do at that point in time," Branum concedes, adding, "We have every intention of migrating the remaining schools as budget becomes available."

Xirrus' hardware uses a design that integrates multiple access points on one array device and requires no physical controller. Management functions typically handled by a centralized controller are actually built into each array, and administrators make changes to the wireless network through a web-based application. "That's been a nice feature for sure," says Branum. "It's been quite simple to deploy configuration changes and software updates through central management at all of our campuses."

In intervening months that company guarantee has come into play. "There's always tweaking you're going to have to do," Branum points out. "As your demands grow in certain ways, you're going to have to make some modifications. [Xirrus has] been great. Every time we've called, they've responded quickly and helped us re-engineer certain areas if it's not doing what it's supposed to do. That's been wonderful."

The current infrastructure includes an internal wireless network as well as a guest network. The guest network grants users -- including students -- access to the Internet and allows them to bring in whatever devices they'd prefer working on. At least at the middle and high schools, that will enable the district to reduce the reliance on -- and expense of -- pricey laptop carts. "We've been big on allowing students to bring their own laptops and mobile devices into campus and use those," Branum states. "We're hoping that approach will help us cut down on our long-term expenses and allow students and others to use their own customized devices."

As district users have gained confidence in the wireless network, faith has been restored, "They can do their thing," says Branum. "Nothing is more frustrating than for teachers to spend hours planning an integrated lesson to engage their students and then not be able to utilize a service. The biggest compliment we can get is that things are just always up. That's a good thing. They trust the services to work and to work effectively."

If you are interested in deploying a high performance Wi-Fi solution, please contact Xirrus at: info@xirrus.com

2101 Corporate Center Drive
Thousand Oaks, CA 91320