Outcome of the $1.6M Wireless Grant

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This last year St. Mary’s College of Maryland was the lucky recipient of a $1.6 million grant from Governor Hogan and the State of Maryland. The money was to go toward improving and refurbishing the school’s wireless internet infrastructure, and as of the start of the fall 2016 term, the project was completed on-time and on-budget (with a few notable kinks along the way…). The Point News sat down with Assistant Vice President of Information Technology and Head of the Office of Information Technology Chris Burch to discuss the project. 

According to Burch, the one-time grant was a much-needed windfall for the Office of Information and Technology — Vice President of Business and Finance Chip Jackson was the one to discover the opportunity for funding. The project, which was largely implemented over the summer, upgraded the severely out-of-date routers and network switches that made up St. Mary’s network. The system now operates on the latest 802.11ac wireless networking standard, and increased from approximately 100 access points around campus to 438 access points —meaning less “No Network Detected” spots in locations like Montgomery Hall, the Michael P. O’Brien Athletics & Recreation Center and even far out on the docks by the Waterfront.

This has been put to the test since classes have started this semester, said Burch, referencing the W. Kamau Bell lecture on Sept. 15, when more than 400 users were stably connected to the ARC network. Burch joked that they are even thinking of having someone kayak out into the middle of the river to see how far the signal stretches.

“We now have a better foundation overall,” said Burch, citing the increased bandwidth and capacity for users, as well as the increased security on the public wireless networks.

As for those complications along the way? Students may have noticed a campus-wide email from OIT on Sept. 21 which read: “As we near completion of the wireless upgrade project, we must now replace each of the new Aruba access points installed during the upgrade. Unfortunately, every access point that was delivered came from a production run that had a hardware defect.” You read that right: every one of the new 438 routers installed were discovered to have a manufacturing default that could not be simply patched, and had to be physically replaced.

Burch says that it is very unlikely that the default was effecting students at all, but that the vendor, a Hewlett Packard company called Aruba Networks, easily accepted fault and replaced the routers at no cost. There was a slight disruption during the replacement process, which might have been the cause of one of those early-morning early-semester outages that had everyone (if they had enough data…) posting online in outrage.

Since the wireless networks are probably the facet of OIT that St. Mary’s students interact with the most, some common questions, confusions, and misbeliefs tend to arise about our ever-important Wi-Fi. We asked Burch about some of those things.

What are the most common causes of outages on campus?

The answer to this question is not all that exciting — outages happen for a number of reasons, but the most common is likely storms. Even if there is no sign of bad weather outside your window, strong winds may have knocked out an access point.

Do people’s wireless printers really affect the network that much?

Yes! Unplug yours!

Burch tried to explain in basic terms that having unnecessary wireless devices on the shared networks inject noise into the environment and degrade the signal strength for everyone. He even said that with the new Aruba routers, which provide more data to OIT about wireless happenings on campus, they are able to locate down to just a few feet where an unauthorized device might be. (Don’t worry, there won’t be any printer witch hunts in the residence halls just yet — the upgraded routers weren’t made available in the dorms or on North Campus.) In the meantime, do your peers a favor and use a USB connection to print from home.

What is the difference between all these networks?

Returning students to St. Mary’s might have noticed a change in networks available to them — the ones you will see checking for wireless spots around campus include SMCM Guest, SMCM Public, MobileNet, ResNet and most recently, Eduroam.

Burch explained that MobileNet and Guest will soon be on their way out, to be supplanted by the new and improved SMCM Public. All networks on campus now have upgraded security. Eduroam was the one Burch was the most excited about — the network is actually part of a worldwide access service that is spreading throughout U.S. colleges, including many of the schools in the Maryland system. Students and faculty visiting from other universities (or St. Mary’s students visiting connected campuses) will have automatic access to our and those universities’ networks. The program has a lot of future applications down the line that improve connectivity between the academic community, though Burch admitted that they pursued it mostly “just because it was cool.”

Chris Burch, who is settling into his position as Assistant Vice President after having been promoted just about a year ago, is excited about all of the changes that have been implemented on campus, and the changes that are yet to come. “There’s so much I want to do for students,” he said.

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