Update on Our BRSU Managed Wireless Pilot – November 2012

This summer we started looking into setting up a managed wireless system in our schools.  As more mobile computing devices are deployed  in schools, it becomes necessary to get a better handle on managing wireless access to the Internet and other network resources.  I think making the investment in managed wireless is inevitable for all school districts, and selecting a platform comes down to: 1) how much functionality you need, and 2) how much functionality can you afford.

This summer I looked at two major vendors of cloud-based managed wireless solutions, Meraki and Aerohive.  Cloud-based managed wireless solutions allow you to monitor your wireless network from the Internet (e.g. a browser, tablet or phone, any time any where).  Each wireless access point pumps out data to a web site where an admin can view, monitor, and control the network.  This approach eliminates the need to buy a controller appliance to sit on your network.  Although cloud-based systems can be more convenient, they can also be more expensive since you must purchase an annual controller license for each access point.

Based on a tip from Amanda Bickford, a tech at Manchester Elementary-Middle School, I also added Open-Mesh to our evaluation.  Open-Mesh hardware is relatively inexpensive and uses open source firmware.  They also provide a free web-based controller platform called Cloudtrax.

For the evaluation phase, I installed each vendor’s access point in the BRSU office and then went through a technical briefing with each company except for Open Mesh.  Open Mesh does not have this kind of support since the firmware is open source.  I also did a basic cost/functionality comparison of the devices:

 

Cost

Meraki Aerohive Open Mesh
AP

$580

$580

$95

PoE Injector

$50

$60

$30 w/kit

Adapter

$29

$99

Included

Controller License

$150 per AP per year

$100 per AP per year

Included

 

Functionality

Meraki

Aerohive

Open Mesh

WPA2-Enterprise
& 802.1X

Directory service integration

Stateful policy firewall

√?

User Fingerprinting

Layer 7 application traffic
shaping

 

Pilot

After completing my evaluation and analysis, I decided to move to a pilot of Open Mesh.  The cost of Open Mesh was more in line with what we could afford, and I thought much of the extra functionality found with the Meraki and Aerohive and not found with Open Mesh (e.g. traffic shaping and content filtering) could be done on other network appliances.

The pilot includes Sunderland Elementary (70 students), Currier Memorial (100 students), and the Dorset School (170 students).  All of the schools have “1:1” computing deployments or something close to that ratio.  Open Mesh seems to be holding up well.  Dorset is having some trouble with their network using Chromebooks, but it is too early to tell if that is do to Open Mesh or other network issues.  Below are some screenshots from the Cloudtrax controller from the Sunderland network.

 

 

 

Because the system is cloud-based, we are able to check on the status of the network using any web enabled device including smart phones and tablets.  Free Android and IOS apps are provided.  The controller allows us to see the status of each access point as well as the status of the mesh.  These devices “mesh up” forming a seamless, self-healing wireless network so when students and staff move through the building, one access point hands off access to another one.  This also improves network stability since wireless devices now have multiple paths on the network.

 

Conclusions

So far so good.  We are using the MR500 devices (includes a 5-port switch).  I would like to try their OM2P in my next deployment because its radios are more powerful.  I think Open Mesh provides a good solution relative to price that would attractive for many of Vermont’s smaller schools or schools that do not need the extra functionality of the higher priced devices.

 

 

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