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09:05 AM
Brian Helman
Brian Helman
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Bring Everything: BYOD's Evolution In Higher Education

Support for all stripes of mobile devices -- a new Bring Your Own Everything credo -- is now a must on college campuses, in the name of productivity and safety.

When I installed our first wireless network 10 years ago, there were all of 93 devices on it -- not at any one time mind you, but cumulatively, over a semester. We in networking services were happy to see those devices to justify our investment, but at that time the wireless network was regarded as a luxury. Today, we don't just expect wireless connectivity, we depend on it.

The term BYOD is a natural evolution of wireless connectivity. Ten years ago, BYOD would have referred to laptops and the occasional PDA. Today, those PDAs have been replaced by smartphones and tablets. But higher education has gone so far beyond BYOD that we use a new acronym -- BYOE: Bring Your Own Everything.

When I look at my network access controller (NAC), I see students and employees using PCs, Macs, smartphones, and tablets, all running different operating systems. These devices -- averaging 2.7 per person -- place heavy demands on our networks. We steer students toward the wired network where possible to mitigate many of the problems with connecting and general support, but this isn't a complete solution. Mobile devices don't want to be tethered to an Ethernet jack.

[Read how education IT pros handle change: 5 Higher Education CIOs: InformationWeek's Chiefs Of The Year.]

All these devices' dependence on wireless networking causes headaches. The traditional issues one would expect from the wireless medium -- signal strength, density of radios, channel and frequency usage -- become even more complicated in a BYOE environment.

Of course, higher education is not just a 9-to-5 workplace. We have over 2,000 students living on our campuses eight months out of the year, which extends the need for support to classrooms, meeting rooms, cafeterias, living spaces, and even the outdoors.

Looking at the NAC again, I see AppleTV (just the mere mention of Bonjour turns more of what hair I have left grey), GoogleTV, ChromeCast, Roku, wireless printers, game consoles, and smart TVs. Most of these are not formally supported, but they are not prohibited, either. In fact, as long as you aren't connecting a server (e.g DHCP) or router to the network, it's allowed and we'll provide some level of support.

(Source: Wikipedia.)
(Source: Wikipedia.)

But before you think this is simply a student and faculty issue, the Wild West of WiFi extends everywhere: door lock controllers, scoreboards, exercise equipment, energy management systems. Stability is giving way to convenience and cost throughout.

I frequently say that if wireless networking weren't so convenient, none of us would use it. All the complications -- ranging from noise in the air to overused spectrum space to the aesthetics of where to hang an access point -- contribute to the wireless headache.

But BYOE isn't just about convenience or productivity. It's become a life-safety issue. Mobile devices are now our primary mechanism to communicate with students and employees during an emergency. For instance, schools across the country use text messaging to contact students and parents for closures or delayed openings.

Unfortunately, we also rely on mobile devices for situations that have become all too common these days; in September 2013 we found ourselves in lockdown following a stabbing on campus. Although our mobile phones had no reception, the WiFi sent students and employees updates via email and text message (iMessage or Google Hangout).

Embracing mobility and BYOE sometimes means complicating the support structure or the network, but in the end it also means comfort, productivity, and safety. That makes all our efforts worth it.

I'll be speaking in detail about BYOE and higher education at Interop Las Vegas. My session will cover WLAN design tweaks and provisioning challenges and share practical techniques for managing phones, tablets, projects, and just about anything else you can think of.

Register now for Interop Las Vegas. Use the code SMBLOG to get $200 off the current price of Total Access and Conference Passes.

Brian Helman designed and implemented his first production network in 1986. Over his 25+ year career he has contributed, designed, implemented, and managed networks and datacenters for Suffolk County, N.Y., Adelphi University, Northeastern University, Salem State University, ... View Full Bio

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Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Author
3/3/2014 | 8:58:18 AM
Re: Wild Wild West of Campus WiFi
Thanks for such an indepth reply, Brian. I'm quite surprised at the level of support you are providing -- even for game consoles. (I suspect that your Type A personality is also related to serious empathy and fond memories of dormroom gaming in your own college experience!).  It's great to read about support teams that go above and beyond in the era of exploding demand and shrinking resources. 
User Rank: Apprentice
3/2/2014 | 12:38:45 AM
Re: Wild Wild West of Campus WiFi
Thank you.  The level of support depends very much on the device type.  A laptop/PC, iDevice or Android will get a higher priority.  Game consoles or media devices aren't supported on the wireless network, but since we are all so "Type A" we tend to try to figure out a solution.  In general, throwing these tricky devices that can be on Ethernet on to the wired network eliminates most of the issues. 

Wireless networking is a finicky beast.  Just the variety of Windows and Apple devices and the permutations of drivers+antenna strength is enough to make you throw your hands up in the air and walk away.  Add high density of people (who, if things don't work, they tend to avoid fixing and just find other solutions .. which adds to the problem) and the experience is never going to be perfect.  I said it in my blog, if Wireles Networking wasn't so convenient, none of us would use it.  But that convenience is huge (my house is wired for Ethernet.  I quite literally have an Ethernet jack 2' behnd me, yet I'm sitting here typing this using my wireless network).  Oh, and those devices that can be on the wired network (e.g an Xbox) .. care to guess what frequency the controllers use to talk to the console?

The bottom line is, we never truly say "that's not supported".  We try to find solutions.  That puts a burden on the support staff, but it's also what we are getting paid to do.  So the "grey area" you ask about is really about how much time we have to tackle issues that are outside of our Academic Missioni.


Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Author
2/28/2014 | 3:49:02 PM
Wild Wild West of Campus WiFi
Great article Brian! Curious to know what kind of demands this places on the networking team in terms of technical support when students run into problems. I assume it is BYO tech support at the end-point. But is there a grey area? 
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