Wireless Network at FIT Brings IT Back Into Style

By Michael Vizard

Deploying enterprise-class networking technologies is a challenge even in the most forgiving of environments. But when that network needs to support thousands of students using any number of wireless devices in one of the most urban settings in the U.S., there is little margin for error.

That’s the challenge faced by Gregg Chottiner, vice president of information technology and CIO for The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. Faced with not only trying to deploy a wireless network in a campus environment that consists of multiple buildings, Chottiner also had to cope with the intense competition for bandwidth space in one of the most densely populated areas of Manhattan.

Needing to serve a population numbering more than 10,000 full- and part-time students that need to regularly access large multimedia files for schoolwork, FIT turned to next-generation wireless networks from Aruba Networks to rise to the challenge after holding a bake-off that included offerings from rivals Cisco and Aerohive.

Once the deployment is complete, the FIT wireless network will consist of 1,000 Aruba AP-135 access points connected to Aruba 7240 mobility controllers that will be managed by the Aruba AirWave Wireless Network Management System and the Aruba ClearPass Access Management System.

As significant as the increased bandwidth is, Chottiner says that, by providing management capabilities via an Aruba controller, the IT department can apply usage and security policies at a more granular level, thereby eliminating the need for a cumbersome network access control platform that FIT previously relied on for security.

“We found that with Aruba there was a lot less troubleshooting and overhead, while also giving us more granular filtering and blocking capabilities,” says Chottiner. “The controller-based approach provided more flexibility and a richer set of features.”

The new Aruba network replaces a wireless network that FIT originally deployed using networking products from Meru Networks, which Chottiner says was a challenge to manage and also didn’t provide enough bandwidth to support the multimedia files that students and faculty at a college dedicated to high fashion routinely require.

FIT, however, didn’t originally embrace wireless networking in the name of couture. Rather, wireless networking was a more cost-effective alternative to having to drill holes in building walls that contain a lot of asbestos.

“Every time we needed to pull cable it meant hiring a HAZMAT team,” says Chottiner. “In in New York City that’s super expensive.”

The trouble with the initial wireless network was that there are a lot of nooks and crannies in the FIT campus, which spans multiple city blocks that consist of buildings that, on average, are 10 stories high. More challenging yet, those buildings are located in a section of midtown Manhattan where there is a lot of competition for wireless spectrum between FIT and local businesses. “The signal strength we get from Aruba is really good given the density of the area,” says Chottiner.

The strong signal strength is critical because FIT, which is a member of the State University of New York system, is making the shift to GoogleApps for Education and being able to access those applications anywhere on campus is a prerequisite. The improved signal strength, adds Chottiner, also delivers the added benefit of allowing FIT to reduce its television bill because students in dorm rooms are more inclined to access Netflix over a wireless connection.

“Even in the summer we still have 4,000 to 5,000 devices on the network,” says Chottiner, “and the students expect flawless access to the network.”

No matter how challenging the environment, FIT’s IT organization has to content with end users who judge the competency of the IT department based on their wireless experience. In fact, the more end users rely on mobile devices, the more important the wireless network becomes. Instead of being seen as a secondary network, the wireless network, for all intents and purposes, becomes the primary corporate network being used in many organizations.

And once that occurs, the difference between generating high rates of user satisfaction scores versus scathing online commentary will more often than not come down to the quality of the organization’s wireless network.

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