- School district serves approximately 19,000 students and over 2,500 staff
- Cloud-managed wireless supports 1:1 and BYOD for thousands of devices
- Cloud-based RF optimization eliminates interference in high density classrooms
Alvin Independent School District (ISD) covers 250 square miles in Brazoria County, Texas. Its two high schools, two alternative schools, five junior high schools, and fourteen elementary schools serve approximately 19,000 students and utilize over 2,500 staff members.
The district initially launched a 1:1 project for junior high students, meaning that every sixth, seventh, and eighth grade student had a handheld computing device in the classroom. Replacing the paper and pencil model, students at Alvin ISD read, write, solve problems, and get feedback from teachers through these devices. In the 2011 school year the district upgraded its technology, offering every junior high student an HP Netbook.
That works out to 4,400 HP Netbooks across the district. "We knew our wireless system wasn't going to support the demand this initiative would generate," said John Wilds, Alvin ISD's network manager. "Last year was pretty successful with the 1:1 project, but it was definitely taxing for the wireless."
Alvin ISD was running HP Procurve with approximately 530 HP access points (APs), one per classroom. Because most of the APs were single-radio 802.11b/g HP420s, the HP Netbooks were limited to 802.11g speed, and high client density across campus caused problems with connectivity.
The APs also had to be managed individually—a time consuming project, said Jacob Stewart, Alvin ISD's wireless network technician. Before the 1:1 rollout, the network team spent three months manually reconfiguring all of the APs to ensure identical configurations.
To support the wireless access for the Netbooks across five campuses, Wilds and Stewart wanted centralized management, high speed, no interference between closely placed APs, and a minimum capacity of 30 simultaneous clients per AP. And, as a school district, cost was a "huge consideration," Wilds said.
Wilds and Stewart considered simply upgrading the existing HP system, but testing revealed band steering problems—automatically 'steering' 5 GHz-capable devices to the 5 GHz spectrum—that they were unable to solve. They also evaluated solutions from Motorola, Aruba, and the Cisco Meraki product line. Motorola's complexity and Aruba's expense made the Cisco Meraki plug-and-play solution immediately appealing. However, Wilds initially had concerns about the offsite controller.
"But once I understood that the AP continues to function even if it can't communicate with the cloud, that alleviated my concern," he said. Now he says he appreciates the low-maintenance centralized management that the Meraki browser-based dashboard affords.
The Cisco Meraki APs’ mesh functionality also surprised Wilds—in a good way. "We could tell the Meraki line was a whole different kind of product from the initial setup, when the Meraki product representative stacked ten APs on top of each other and started doing the configuration. I said, 'What are you doing?' because I expected serious channel conflicts, but he told me they're designed to work like that."
To test the throughput of each solution, Wilds and Stewart prepared two rooms with one AP and 90 HP Netbooks in each and then imaged all the Netbooks. "On pure density hitting back to two APs, the Meraki APs were the best performers," Wilds said. "It's nice to know it's possible to run 180 Netbooks off two APs with no problem."
Alvin ISD purchased the cloud management license and 771 Cisco Meraki MR14 APs—enough to replace all the existing APs, improve weak coverage areas, and offer coverage to campuses that never had it before, including two campuses still under construction.
"Originally we planned to only provide wireless to our 1:1 schools," Wilds said. "But with the affordable pricing of Meraki products, we were able to do the entire district."
Deployment took less than three weeks. Once Stewart realized how easy the AP installation was, he hired student helpers with no formal training to do it for him, giving him time to work on other projects. "I showed them what I wanted, explained what wasn't right in the old system that they could fix with this new system, and sent them out to do it," Stewart said. "It was that easy."
I really think Meraki is the optimal solution for an environment with a high density of clients. John Wilds, Network Manager
Wilds said that the Cisco Meraki products’ unique self-healing architecture has given him new insights into his network. For example, the day after bringing one campus online, he noticed in the Cisco Meraki dashboard that some of the APs were working as mesh repeaters rather than running in gateway mode. When he investigated the problem, he found approximately 50 cables that needed to be reterminated.
"The Meraki APs were diagnosing our bad cables for us," Wilds laughed. "How long were our old APs running on bad cables and we never knew it?"
Using the easily accessible, data-rich reporting available in the dashboard, Wilds is able to identify trends in how the network is being used, as well as how devices are being used. He can then make changes to how technology is incorporated into classes to maximize its full potential. “One example of this,” Wilds explained, “came from looking at the reports and discovering that Netbooks were utilized more when they stayed in a classroom, instead of with a student. So we altered our 1:1 plans, created Netbook sets assigned to classrooms, and consequently saw a dramatic increase in usage.”
Following the recent release of new Cisco Meraki access points, Alvin ISD has deployed over 200 MR18s and 60 MR26s in the high schools and junior highs. Unprecedented performance designed for high capacity environments and a third radio dedicated to providing 24x7 wireless security built into the new APs provided a clear solution to the growing technology demands on the Alvin ISD network. “Having the latest 802.11n technology with the MR18s and MR26s allows us to serve our increasing client load in a very challenging high-density environment,” Wilds said.
As technology and education needs evolved, so did the use of devices in the classroom. With the idea of purchasing devices to match particular education purposes, Wilds has created a diverse, device-neutral environment. Kindles are being used for reading programs, Chromebooks for content formation and consumption, Android and iOS devices for mobility and media creation.
The introduction of BYOD into the curriculum is yet another byproduct of being able to blanket the district with easy–to-manage wireless. At first, BYOD was limited to high schools, but Wilds quickly opened it down to 6th grade classrooms. “With the dashboard, I can ensure network security and limit access to appropriate content with custom rules,” he explained. “It’s a firewall, but at the AP level.” The initiative provides increased device diversity in the classrooms and supplemental technology when needed for educational programs.
With airtime fairness and auto RF optimization, Wilds doesn’t worry about high density areas. In fact, he encourages students to use the network more. “The high schools were interested in which areas were strongly using BYOD and how. It became a competition to see which school could utilize the network most,” Wilds laughed. “If network usage somehow hits the roof, that’s great, it means it’s being used! That’s what it’s there for and we can always add more Meraki APs if needed.”
Wilds and Stewart say that the beginning of the school year is normally the most stressful time in managing the wireless network—but not anymore. "We've spent no time at all on wireless issues, and we've had no complaints about laptops not connecting," Wilds said. "The way the APs mesh together and coordinate to get the best signal instead of competing with each other is a huge benefit. I really think Cisco Meraki products are the optimal solution for an environment with a high density number of clients."