“Providing our students with more wireless services is our number one priority here,” says Donald Beck, Director of Information Technology Systems at Davidson County Community College. With over 4,000 curriculum students and 10,000 continuing education students spread across campuses throughout Davidson and Davie Counties in North Carolina, providing reliable and continuous wireless coverage seemed daunting.
“Giving students the ability to bring their devices to campus is something that other universities have already dealt with and may take for granted, but this is new for community colleges and is very immediate,” Beck explained.
Davidson’s legacy three-controller network provided some options for network control, but failed to offer visibility into the network or to provide other critical features with such simplified management, such as RADIUS authentication and bandwidth shaping. The nine members of the Davidson IT team — two dedicated to network management — couldn’t keep up with the complexity of the prior architecture, particularly with having to apply configuration and firmware updates and then hire consultants to test the changes. With an initiative to move to a laptop or BYOD campus imminent in the coming months, Beck knew it was time for a change.
The goal at Davidson was to simplify management so that they could provide more services for the students and expand the network to meet the growing wireless demand on campus. Beck and network administrator Rick Schwendiman researched a variety of traditional solutions, but after visiting a 4 year college that had deployed Meraki’s cloud-managed solution and viewing the setup first-hand, he felt most confident about Meraki.
“We could see how little management it took to run the network, and the students were walking around the campus with mobile devices seamlessly and without any network drops,” he said.
Meraki’s cloud architecture eliminates the expense of a traditional hardware controller, simultaneously enabling a single network administrator to control access points at all locations via a web-based dashboard. “Cost and management-wise, nothing else that we looked at compared with Meraki,” Beck said. Meanwhile, he was particularly excited about Meraki’s capacity for meshing, automatic optimization, and seamless roaming from one part of campus to another.
Beck and his team installed over 75 access points (APs) on the Davidson main campus and three offsite campuses. The entire deployment was completed in a matter of hours. “It took more time to climb the ladder than to make the network work,” Beck laughed.
Coverage immediately increased by 50%, resulting in a need for fewer APs compared to Davidson’s previous solution. Davidson was also able to provide wireless to remote buildings that had been unreachable with the previous network.
The new Meraki network permits students and faculty to be increasingly mobile both in the classroom as well as throughout the campus. Beck maintains security on the network by utilizing multiple SSIDs and providing access to students and staff using 802.1X RADIUS authentication and to guests through a click-through splash page. With the deep visibility and real time tools that Meraki provides, Davidson County Community College’s IT staff are able to see current statistics of users and applications on the network and quickly make changes to allow or deny certain traffic or groups of users. “This is huge,” he said. “We can manage the entire system from anywhere, without being limited by boundaries.”
In terms of management and cost, nothing else that we looked at compared to Meraki.
Director of ITS
The elasticity of the network also enables the quick creation of learning spaces. “We had a lab that we needed to put in place quickly and get laptops connected fast,” Beck said. “Instead of running network drops, we just plugged in APs and were able to provide immediate access,” explained Beck. Because Meraki utilizes plug-and-play access points and mesh technology, it’s simple to create these pop-up learning environments and add more coverage if needed.
In a recent campus poll, 90% of Davidson’s students reported bringing at least one mobile device on campus with them. Meraki’s client fingerprinting enables Beck to see all of these devices and create device-based bandwidth policies; meanwhile, layer-7 application traffic shaping rules make it easy to limit applications on the devices if they are undesirable or use too much bandwidth. Beck also limits the bandwidth on the guest network. “We weren’t able to do that before,” he said.
Not only is Davidson able to provide more extensive wireless coverage for students, but the simplified management allows the IT team to take a step back and work on other important projects. Beck jests, “If we ever went back to another network system, our network admin would probably refuse to manage it!”
Davidson County Community College expands network to support BYOD initiative and pop-up learning spaces