September 24, 2013, 3:17 PM — When Robert Howard first took over as CIO at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., last year, there was little doubt of his mandate.
"Wireless connectivity and general bandwidth issues were a point of concern among students," Howard says. And that concern was warranted -- the university's bring-your-own-device policy had sparked a 250% increase in the number of devices attaching to the network in the previous 12 months.
Wireless access points, core switches, network pipes and Internet connections all had become choke points, according to Howard. The network simply had to be unclogged because the university used mobile access to attract students, faculty and staff, and because it had plans to shift key applications -- including its email, ERP and learning management systems -- to the cloud to save money and foster business continuity.
The Armstrong team couldn't continue with stopgap measures such as adding new access points whenever the switches and pipes behind them were at capacity. "We had to stop trying to do the math to make the old network work and start at architectural ground zero on a new one. Unless we removed the bottlenecks, [the university's mission] was going to suffer," Howard says.
Howard's realization is not uncommon among IT executives who have watched the demands of mobile devices and cloud computing mercilessly hammer their wireless and wired networks.
In Computerworld's Forecast 2014 survey of 221 IT executives, more than half, 54%, of the respondents said that they anticipate allowing employees to use more consumer technologies at work. And perhaps as a direct result, 53% said that they anticipate needing to add bandwidth to keep pace with the burgeoning use of both mobile devices and cloud-based systems.
"Users are increasingly dependent on network infrastructure -- cloud, mobility and social platforms are touching all areas of the enterprise," says Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst and group CEO at Greyhound Research. "If the network becomes the choke point, then it will have an impact on the user experience and IT will be blamed." He adds that IT has to develop metrics around wireless and wired access that must measure any drop in performance and the overall impact on user experience.
In the next 12 months, do you anticipate needing to add bandwidth to your organization's infrastructure to keep pace with the burgeoning use of mobile devices and cloud computing?
Not sure 14%
Source: Computerworld Forecast survey; base: 221 IT executive respondents; June 2013
Among Armstrong's nearly 7,400 undergraduate and graduate students and almost 600 faculty and staff members, Howard says he has seen a rise in individuals using not just single devices, but combinations of smartphones, tablets, laptops and, in the residence halls, gaming stations.
So for six months, starting during the school year late last year, Howard and his team set about ripping and replacing all elements of the wireless and wired LAN, as well as the pipes between buildings and out to the Internet. He says, only half-jokingly, that because school was in session, it was like being a magician who pulls the tablecloth off of a table without upsetting the dinner plates.
One of the team's first initiatives was to increase the coverage and density of the wireless LAN. The 802.11 a/b/g access points had been clustered so much that they were starting to experience diminishing returns, suffering interference and other scaling issues.
The new wireless LAN has to serve students equally well indoors and out. The IT team upgraded to 802.11n access points, which are capable of supporting 30 to 40 clients each, compared with 20 to 30 for the old access points, and installed 60% more access points campuswide -- eliminating the access point bottlenecks in a single stroke.
The move also cut maintenance costs by 30%. "As the national conversation plays out about college affordability, this matters greatly by helping us maintain affordable tuition," Howard says.
Next, the Armstrong team focused on the network switches and pipes between buildings, bumping them from 100Mbps to 1Gbps to handle the increased traffic from the new wireless access points.
Expecting demand to continue its current trajectory, IT built in enough headroom in on-premises gear and with the school's Internet service to support demand for the next three to five years. "We're not at 10Gbps levels yet, but we could get there and we are ready," Howard says.
In addition, IT is evaluating 802.11ac access points, which boast gigabit speeds for wireless connections, as an option for the next three-year refresh.
Opening the floodgates on the pipes is one part of Howard's road map; the other is using caching to reduce back-and-forth traffic. For instance, caching would be a big help with Microsoft's Patch Tuesday, which can strain the network as each device tries to download software patches and updates. Instead of clogging the Internet connection, users could grab what they need from a cache on local servers.
At the same time, the university is committed to moving as many administrative and student services to the cloud as possible, including the main ERP and student management systems.
Mobile and cloud computing often are the first interaction points that prospective students, faculty and staff have with the university. "Access drives enrollment, research funding and graduation rates. Being able to easily access applications from a 4-inch device and/or the cloud gives us a competitive advantage," Howard says.
Look Before You Leap Into Cloud Computing
Eric Hanselman, an analyst at 451 Research, says bandwidth should be a primary consideration for any organization considering a wholesale move to the cloud. "It can be tempting to take all core applications and key databases and run them in a cloud environment," he says, but if you don't have high-powered wireless access, high-capacity connectivity and secondary circuits, you'll likely face problems that can critically affect your operations.
Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst and group CEO at Greyhound Research, offers similar warnings about throwing everything on the wireless network. "Wireless is not always the solution," he says. Companies should study usage and then develop an intelligent strategy. For instance, they can segment their networks by categories of users and by type of traffic, which might alleviate bandwidth strain to not only their wireless access points but also their core switches.
The Weber County, Utah, government did just that. Information security officer Matt Mortensen worried that allowing employees to freely use the county's network would eat up bandwidth and jeopardize security. But he had to meet the demands of the county's 1,200 users, half of whom increasingly wanted wireless access for their personal devices.
Mortensen uses firewalls to split the network into separate segments for private and public use. The firewalls are also capable of blocking or throttling bandwidth for productivity-draining applications such as streaming video. While that approach is working today, Mortensen says he fully expects to revisit his strategies as video platforms become integrated into county workflow and more users come onto the public network wanting to do more with their devices.
Gogia says applying intelligence to bandwidth use could buy an organization enough headroom to ward off the need for a major increase. One example of intelligent bandwidth management, he says, is scanning each packet of network traffic to help determine which applications and users require more resources. That approach helps IT maintain more granular control.
While Armstrong focused on providing as much wireless access as possible, Chicago's Advocate Health Care is trying to improve wireless access for specific needs, says Gary Horn, CTO and vice president of technical services.
Advocate Health Care, which provides medical care at 250 sites, including 10 acute-care hospitals and two integrated children's hospitals, initially deployed 802.11 a/g/n access points throughout its facilities and untethered a host of traditionally wired devices such as floor workstations. Over time, though, the IT team observed interference among the growing access point clusters and wireless access bottlenecks became a concern.
"There has been an exponential growth in the use of wireless in healthcare overall -- everything is wireless whether it needs to be or not," Horn says. "Yet we haven't cracked the wireless bandwidth nut -- rarely do you attain the speed and performance users need, even if they are close to the access point."
Eric Hanselman, an analyst at 451 Research, agrees. Users expect the same computing experience they get at home, he says. Yet as data goes mobile and heads out to the cloud, that response time may slow down.
In addition, organizations assume that a swap to the cloud is simple but don't always consider the bandwidth needed for the back-and-forth data movement. "Every CIO's nightmare is the complaint that bandwidth access to a particular application is faster from my home network versus the enterprise," Hanselman says.
Such expectations are not lost on Horn. With departments such as radiology primed to go mobile, the Advocate Health Care IT team has to tread lightly. "We know that radiology, which needs high-quality resolution and performance, will be a tremendous consumer of wireless bandwidth -- maybe even its No. 1 consumer," Horn says. A wired workstation with a 1Gbps interface lets users access an image such as an MRI in two to three seconds. "That same image could take a minute or two over the wireless network," he explains.
Also, he worries about the quality of images transmitted wirelessly. With today's technology, "it would be hard to get the image in and buffered quickly," Horn says. Before moving forward, he would put wireless networks to the test to ensure that the performance is good and the images are high quality.
"Wireless has so many practical limitations that we're very careful to [make sure] we don't bring about expectations that aren't attainable," he says.
In the next 12 months, do you anticipate allowing employees to bring more, fewer or the same number of consumer devices/technologies into your organization?
The same 29%
We do not plan to allow consumer devices 12%
Source: Computerworld Forecast survey; base: 221 IT executive respondents; June 2013
To maintain access point density and coverage, and keep bandwidth capacity at a workable level wherever possible, Horn has opted to keep some devices on the wired network. "We still look at the wired opportunity -- even with new construction," he says. "If an employee is typically going to be standing in the same area to do their task, then we put them on the wired network."
He has been studying the potential of 802.11ac but doesn't see it as a panacea for what ails most wireless networks today. He claims the dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) could present engineering challenges and keep it from reaching its 1Gbps theoretical data rate. "If we install it into a real network with competing interference, that will de-rate the speed and not make it worth implementation costs," he says. That said, as Advocate constructs new buildings, Horn is planning cabling to support 802.11ac for potential future adoption.
In addition to access point frustrations, Horn has experienced Internet connectivity strains and network security requirements that forced him to separate public and clinical Wi-Fi traffic, and to bump up capacity.
For instance, Horn assigns public traffic -- which can be generated by patients or family members streaming video and other bandwidth-intensive applications -- a lower class of service than he does the mission-critical hospital traffic. At the same time, he asked his Internet service provider to expand the Internet pipe from 100Mbps to 500Mbps with headroom to hit 1Gbps, which he expects to need within the year. He credits lower prices from ISPs for making this option possible.
BYOT = Bandwidth Vampire
Horn may currently have the luxury of restricting wireless installations, but Bailey Mitchell, chief information and technology officer at Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Ga., doesn't.
The school district, which has 36 schools, has publicly announced that it is committed to a "bring your own technology" (BYOT) program. One of the top strategic goals for the next three years is to leverage student-owned technology to redefine the district's technology platform.
Computer labs for middle and high schools are coming back into play with increased online testing requirements, and all the schools need more wireless capacity. "We try to keep up, but readily admit it has been difficult with more limited budget resources and the lack of regular upgrades needed because of the overall situation many school systems continue to grapple with," Mitchell says.
The initial demand for Internet access actually caused an alarming connectivity dearth. "Four years ago, we ran low on much-needed bandwidth for Internet-based resources -- it really snuck up on us. We realized we had no quick fix and ended up throttling some services and vowed to never have that happen again," Mitchell says.
The situation resulted in an end-to-end revamp of the district's network. To start, Mitchell and his team studied the uptick in usage. Last year, Forsyth's BYOT program grew 80%. Where once IT had expected to need bandwidth for 6,000 to 7,000 devices, suddenly an average of 24,000 devices were knocking at the network door. "We only have 41,000 students, so almost half were bringing their devices," he says.
Do you have a formal mobile device management policy?
Don't know 5%
Source: Computerworld Forecast survey; base: 221 IT executive respondents; June 2013
More importantly, participation stretched across all schools, meaning the access points, network switches, pipes between buildings and Internet connectivity had to be at the ready.
Teachers, students and administrators depend on access to internal and cloud-based resources, including email, a learning management system and supplementary educational programs that can include bandwidth-intense video.
Usage is so prevalent now that the district changed its policy from acceptable use to responsible use because typical "banned" applications such as YouTube are now considered necessary learning platforms. "With resources like YouTube blocked, we were taking away a lot of desirable instructional options. However, allowing them does bump up bandwidth usage," Mitchell says.
Once IT had a firm grasp on usage, it upgraded access points to 802.11n. In re-evaluating coverage, the team determined they needed 15% more access points throughout the district. The district plans to double the capacity of wireless networks in all schools by the spring of 2015.
Coverage and density remain constant bugaboos. For instance, IT initially determined the front office, which is populated by desk workers, didn't need an access point. However, principals and other staffers did need to use mobile devices, so IT had to install a small access point array. Also, users regularly call the help desk to report dead zones, and delivering service to those areas requires the relocation, reconfiguration or addition of access points.
Mitchell's next project is to replace districtwide LANs to support eventual gigabit connectivity. "You have to make sure you're not building out a wireless infrastructure that passes traffic to a network core that wasn't designed to handle the load," he says.
He is less concerned about the pipes between buildings -- there are two 1Gbps connections from multiple providers -- and Internet connectivity, which he boosted to three circuits, again from multiple providers, after the outage. "We have created a fully meshed network that can support disaster recovery," he says. Everyone is excited about being wireless pioneers, but they have no tolerance of downtime. "It gets ugly if we have outages," Mitchell says.
Though there is talk of building an all-wireless infrastructure, Mitchell is skeptical. "We build these schools with so much concrete and steel, you'd have issues where the signal won't bounce around and penetrate like you'd need it to. Also, in any K-12 educational environment, you still need a wired network that is safe and secure and ensures that sensitive student information is kept in-house, he says.
He has also learned that boosting bandwidth and swapping out hardware and software requires a review of the applications that use the network. For one, developers have to be cognizant of the responsive design they use for mobile or cloud applications, taking into consideration, among other factors, bandwidth constraints.
Mitchell advises his peers to focus on the mission and not the minutiae, which can become overwhelming. "Our goal is to accelerate our transition to a completely digital learning environment for students," he says. "And for that, IT has to be ready with a scalable wireless and wired solution."