Introducing the zookeeper

A couple of years ago I started work as a network technician at a UK university. It was an interesting time to join the department with quite a few staff changes, more cash being spent on a network that was struggling and increasing centralising of IT from academic departments.

There was a lot to do. As a team we were firefighting problems daily from dozens of wifi complaints to broadcast storms and OSPF flaps that would take out chunks of the network.

Another recent recruit set about tackling the core network reliability issues, upgrading ancient firmware and fixing network design issues. We were able to upgrade congested gigabit OSPF links to 10Gig and over time things settled down nicely, ready for a major network redesign that has subsequently been rolled out.

Wifi was particularly interesting. In many parts of the campus it worked just fine, until it didn’t. Often that was in accommodation on an evening, when demand was high. Students are vocal in their disdain for inadequate wifi provision. It’s clear there was a problem with wifi, it quickly became clear to me that nobody really knew what that problem was.

The Aruba system had been installed over a few years with an incredibly small budget. That’s an important point, because it’s easy to criticise a poor design. In this case the colleagues who installed the system managed to provide coverage of almost all of the campus with a fraction of the necessary funding. For the most part it had worked pretty well.

I’ve used wifi for years, since the first ‘affordable’ 802.11b systems were available in the UK but I’d never taken the opportunity to understand it properly. When we tried to fix wifi problems in one accommodation block by doubling the number of APs installed in the corridors, I saw an opportunity to make things better… because what we did just made it a lot worse.

I spent a lot of time reading, some excellent blogs, some of the wifi standards, the updated manufacturer design briefs and started to build a picture of what it takes to design a campus wifi network.

My excellent employer then sent me and another colleague on a CWNA course.

So now, though everyone on the team gets involved, I’ve become the guy who deals with most of the wifi support tickets. I’ve redesigned and re-installed wifi throughout some of the most troublesome buildings as well as designing and deploying wifi in new showcase buildings.

This blog is about what I’ve learned along the way, documenting what we’ve done and why, explaining the compromises we’ve had to make and how much that really matters… and probably some other stuff too. For those with knowledge and experience designing wifi networks it’s unlikely you’ll learn anything new here. I’m undoubtedly more a student than teacher, so feel free to tell me where I’ve got it wrong.

Get in touch on twitter @wifi_zoo

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