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A Bake Off to Boost Wi-Fi

UBIT Network Engineer Adam Zangerle running cables for the UB Wi-Fi Boost project.

Article and photo by Blake Cooper

Published August 7, 2015

There are no cakes and pies at an IT bake off. That’s because in IT, a ‘bake off’ is a head-to-head competition pitting one company’s products against another. A recent UBIT bake off tested wireless network technology from Aruba and Cisco to determine who will fill the massive hardware order needed for UB’s unprecedented Wi-Fi Boost project.

Blake Cooper (UB Student, Class of 2016) is originally from Canandaigua, NY. He is studying Spanish, Linguistics and Comparative Literature, and beginning work on translating an Argentinian novel into English.

After weeks of testing, Aruba Networks was selected. “Aruba is an industry leader,” said Kathleen Murphy, Manager of Network Operations for Network and Classroom Services, part of UB Information Technology. She noted the company’s stellar reputation in both wireless networking and higher education, a reputation their products lived up to during the bake off.


Getting it right

The three-year Wi-Fi Boost project, which is bringing better Wi-Fi to more places across all three UB campuses, went into action starting Summer 2015. The entire network will be upgraded to the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, and thousands of new access points will be added. Naturally, choosing the hardware for a project of such enormous scope is no casual matter.

“Nobody could say we’re making decisions lightly here,” said Adam Zangerle, UBIT Network Engineer, as he ran cables up into the ceiling in a back room in UB’s Computing Center. As the person responsible for supervising installation of thousands of new access points, Adam personally installed the hardware used in the bake off to get a sense of what is required and how quickly it can be done, just some of the insights gleaned from UBIT’s rigorous testing design.

The rules of the bake off were simple: each vendor’s products were installed and used exclusively on one of the floors of the Computing Center. The products were then tested vigorously for several weeks; in all, the UBIT team devised a system of evaluation with roughly 50 different categories.

To perform these tests, Adam used his typical setup for wireless testing: two laptops on a small cart, each loaded with software designed for mobile network analysis. This, says Adam, is where things get tedious.

“You go around, you push the cart, you click a button, you wait a minute…and then you do it again,” Adam said. “Push, click, push, click.”

This method of testing is time consuming, monotonous…and, when it comes to Wi-Fi networks, absolutely crucial. “Wireless networks are easily disrupted by thick walls, microwaves, and a lot of other things,” Adam said. “Networks need to be tested in real, three-dimensional space.”

This level of testing is also necessary because wireless technology is itself relatively untested.  Jerry Bucklaew, UBIT Manager of Communication Systems Engineering, noted, “Wireless is still a very immature technology. In fact, that’s one of the reasons for the Wi-Fi Boost project: it’s time to boost the maturity level of UB’s wireless network a little.”

And the winner is...

Aruba’s devices edged out the competition in several ways. The first, and one of the most important, factors was cost.

Aruba was able to offer a discount that will make the entire project more cost efficient overall, and could ultimately result in a greater scope than expected.

Aruba’s devices also had the advantage of easier installation. As opposed to tearing out or adding new cabling to residential buildings, Aruba’s access points can be easily installed over existing Ethernet ports, while providing additional ports for those who use UB’s wired network, ResNet, in residence halls. While the competitor, Cisco, currently offers products with similar ease of installation, they do not yet support the latest Wi-Fi standard, which is a necessity for this project.

Aruba’s devices were also more flexible with regard to validating devices trying to connect to the network, which means UB students will have a better experience connecting (and staying connected) to UB’s Wi-Fi.

Despite Aruba’s success, Kathleen stressed that Cisco’s products are well respected and widely used, including at UB. The results of the bake off ultimately reflect the vendor who could best meet UB’s financial and technological needs at this time, and do not necessarily reflect a shortcoming on the part of Cisco’s products.

Moving forward

UBIT is still finalizing the three year Wi-Fi Boost installation schedule, which was created using feedback from the UB community. To learn more about the Wi-Fi Boost project and see regular updates, keep an eye on the project page.