Multi-campus city college deploys cost-efficient WiFi to support 90,000+ students
Cloud management provides heightened visibility and control, saves IT staff's time
Thousands of clients transfer over 100 GB daily
Since its founding in 1935, the City College of San Francisco has flourished into one of the largest community colleges in the United States. With over 90,000 students across nine large campuses, the urban, multicultural academic institute embodies the diversity of the bay area. And as the enrollment numbers continue to increase at the multi-campus junior college, so do its networking needs.
Tim Ryan, who has been Manager of Technical Operations at CCSF for over 10 years, has witnessed a dramatic shift in students’ demand for Internet access. “All of our campuses are connected by a fiber network that we share with the city, so teachers have had access for years,” he said. “But now WiFi can extend that access to students. Students want access in the libraries, they want to do research on their own devices. We want students to be able to take advantage of our high-speed network infrastructure.”
CCSF previously utilized a mix of wireless equipment from other vendors, but as students began bringing their own devices to campus and wireless demand increased, Ryan recognized that a solution refresh was necessary to handle peak traffic. “We’ve seen a 50% growth in traffic over the past three years,” he explained. Meanwhile, with only five IT staff focused on networking, Ryan needed a wireless solution that was easy to manage. “Everyone here is doing multiple jobs. Support is a big challenge for us – we have to minimize our staff’s time.”
Ryan and his team chose Meraki cloud-managed wireless access points (APs) in response to CCSF’s request for proposals. “Everyone was impressed by the simplicity and the user interface for the cloud dashboard,” Ryan said. “And we liked that we wouldn’t have to maintain a hardware controller on-site. We saw that Meraki was easy to set up and easy to move around to meet our needs.”
CCSF was also working within a tight budget. “Meraki was the most cost-effective solution,” Ryan said. “The firmware upgrades are included, and there is no separate maintenance contract. This helps us to reduce costs while increasing service, so that we can be more tech-forward.”
Deploying Meraki APs across multiple campuses took only three weeks. Ryan prioritized wireless access in classrooms where teachers requested it and in public areas, such as the library, cafeteria, and lobby, to facilitate independent study. “With so many students bringing their own devices to campus, we want to respond to academic need as well as the independent study and entertainment aspect,” he explained. He also placed APs in centrally-located telephone closets that already housed his Ethernet hardware. Deployment was simplified by pre-populating APs in the web-based Meraki dashboard; when the devices were installed they automatically authenticated and downloaded their configuration from the cloud.
Meraki was the most cost-effective solution. The firmware upgrades are included, and there is no separate maintenance contract. This helps us to reduce costs while increasing service, so that we can be more tech-forward.
Manager of Technical Operations
To make it easy for the students to get online securely and minimize support incidents, Ryan utilized Meraki’s native Active Directory integration, enabling students to authenticate against CCSF’s AD environment via a splash page. Meanwhile, Meraki’s built-in firewall prevents unwanted wireless access to secure network resources. For special events like football games and career fairs, Ryan creates a temporary SSID that does not require authentication. “We really like the flexibility and adaptability of Meraki to meet our needs,” Ryan said.
Now Ryan’s small IT Team supports thousands of clients who often transfer over 100 GB each day. “The cloud management is saving us a lot of time,” Ryan said. “Before, we had to apply patches to the controller, and now we are free from that. The APs are very reliable. We get email alerts if anything goes down or there is a configuration change.”
The Meraki dashboard also provides much-needed visibility into the network. “Our staff is so small, and our users so spread out, we don’t have a help desk,” Ryan explained. “We rely on the dashboard to evaluate user experience – the number of simultaneous users gives us an idea of scale and demand for wireless.”
Naturally, demand is rising. Although City College has more than 70 computer labs with over 2000 computers, it still struggles with a shortage of devices. “Sometimes there are only 30 wired computers in a lab, so if 10 students can bring laptops we can support everyone,” Ryan said. Ryan also utilizes laptops on carts for new-student orientation and is offering these carts for classroom use as well. “It takes a lot of infrastructure to put in a new lab – it’s pretty expensive. If we can provide lab instruction using laptops in a traditional classroom, we can support more users.” Ryan also noted that, because Meraki’s cloud architecture does not have the artificial limits of a traditional controller, new APs can always be added; many departments now buy their own Meraki APs and add them to the network.
Ryan says he is always looking for new ways to incorporate WiFi into learning environments. “We see a lot of streaming content and YouTube, but we’re also shifting to online classes, and we use web applications like Blackboard and Gmail and Moodle for everything,” he said. “I’m interested to see how teachers change their instruction style to incorporate wireless. At CCSF, we’re trying to serve every neighborhood and teach every class, so it’s a very dynamic environment. I expect there will be a variety of best practices.”