Few things in IT can be as frustrating as managing a modern network — think about it. Today, most networks are predominantly wireless, which brings in a whole host of new complexities in security, coverage, bandwidth management, and access control. And, in any distributed enterprise and large campus, there’s the issue of having to provide strong connectivity across a large area, while being able to manage hundreds of access points.

These challenges are present in every organization, but they can be especially critical in the areas of higher education. To a large degree, these institutions, especially the smaller ones, face some of the highest stresses and complexities when it comes to networking. With that in mind, in this series of articles, I’ll look at some of the biggest challenges in modern Wi-Fi networking and the strategies used to overcome them. This overview will be done from the perspective of higher education organizations, not only to come up with best practices for these institutions, but for any business looking to improve their network capabilities.

When I say that smaller colleges and universities can represent one of the toughest use cases for campus networks, I’m not kidding. Let’s break down some of the challenges these institutions face:

  • Large campuses with many separate buildings. Even small colleges often have campuses much bigger than some very large businesses. These buildings are often old and separated by wide ranging lawns and fields. Providing strong wireless coverage in these types of environments can be a very tough and resource-intensive task.
  • High technology innovation and demanding environments. The demands for cutting-edge technology can dwarf those of any but the most innovative technology firms. On their network at any point in time, colleges can have super-fast Internet 2 connections, very large big data analytics in place, video production and editing, and pretty much every cutting-edge technology in the market. In these types of environments, the network cannot be a bottleneck.
  • Technologically savvy and high-service demanding end-users. So take the above challenges and add them to a work environment that is also the living space for end-users — users who are heavy streaming and live video users, gamers, and social networkers. In this environment, with use of bandwidth-intensive applications such as Netflix, YouTube, Xbox, etc., the network needs to accept connections from the widest amount of devices (phones, laptops, smartwatches, gaming consoles, you name it!), all while maintaining security and control.
  • Limited IT staff and resources. While major universities have the option to throw massive amounts of IT resources at the above problem, smaller colleges face the same challenges, but with IT staff often in the single digits.
  • In a traditional, or old-school, Wi-Fi network infrastructure, these kinds of challenges can be very daunting. In these situations, IT faces too much complexity and work in having to support a large number of wireless access points, as well as many wireless devices (including BYOD). Along with this, they must work to keep the network secure, updated, and running at its best.

    However, Aberdeen Group research has shown that by leveraging newer wireless networking technologies that embrace the latest standards and offer centralized and often cloud-based management capabilities, leading organizations (and higher education institutions), can gain a number of benefits. These include a network infrastructure that can be easily managed and secured, kept up-to-date with the latest fixes and technologies, and that can leave end-users with the ability to use the network at the highest demand levels, without impacting performance and network uptime.

    In part 2 of this series, we’ll look at how one small college in New England was able to update its network infrastructure through the use of Best-in-Class strategies, to build a cutting-edge network that met all of their needs today and in the future.

    For over 20 years, Jim Rapoza, Senior Research Analyst and Editorial Director at the Aberdeen Group, has been using, testing, and writing about the newest technologies in software, enterprise hardware, and the Internet. He previously served as the director of an award-winning technology testing lab based in Massachusetts and California. Rapoza is also the winner of five awards of excellence in technology journalism, and co-chaired a summit on technology industry security practices. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and expositions, and has been regularly interviewed as a technology expert by national and local media outlets including CNN, ABC, NPR, and the Associated Press.