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Laying the network foundation for the future of education

by jcp

Kyle Davies, Head of Solutions at CDW UK

The opportunity to build a network from the ground up, tailor made to accommodate a state-of-the-art campus fitted with modern technology, does not come along very often. That was the case, however, when CDW were awarded preferred supplier status from the University of Birmingham to conceptualise the modern-day campus network for their brand new tech-led campus in Dubai. The contract presented a unique opportunity to assess the need, map out a tailor-made solution, configure and test it in our state-of-the-art Distribution Centre in Rugby, UK, ship it and from there allow our team in Dubai to seamlessly plug and play.

A consultative approach to client needs

As a first step we sat down with people across the organisation to understand both the functional and non-functional requirements of the network, as well as wider programme of work. We were rigorous in mapping stakeholders – from the research team, estates, facilities team, IT team and even the students themselves to understand exactly what they wanted and how they intended to consume services on the network. This formed the basis of our recommendations to deliver a robust and modular platform for innovation and growth in the years to come.

Once we had the insights and requirements, we mapped them to an actual network level design and then configured the entire network in our warehouse in Rugby, UK. At the time, the University campus was still being built and by configuring it in advance were able to meet the tight project timeline as well as saving the customer time and money through managing procurement cycles. Working closely with other partners we knew exactly what the network had to deliver to connect a smart building to a network securely and that’s where technologies like Wifi-6 become an absolute game changer.

Enter the new era of Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi 6 is presenting an opportunity for organisations across the board to fundamentally change the way they provide access to services. This is largely because of increased demand on media rich content, as well as the increasing number of high-end devices present. If you consider a campus, or even an office, 10 years ago any given person may have had a standard issue laptop and a phone. Part of the exploration phase of our project included looking at how many unique devices were being used per student at the University’s UK campus today – that number was circa 3.5.

If you match this up with people’s attitudes – Wi-Fi today is considered a basic right, no longer a nice to have but something that frustrates people if it is not there, or worse, does not work. Wi-Fi 6 not only allows us to provide high density, high performance, and high throughput connectivity; compared to Wi-Fi 5 it also increased the amount of capability on wireless access points and networks.

Wi-Fi 6 uses orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) to support high density deployments, allowing multiple users to access networks at the same time with no lapse or down time. Simply put, it means we’re getting more out of every transmission so that every time we go out to the network we are capable of sending more data. This matters for any organisation that is getting bigger, or in this case a learning environment that is considering expanding into eSports, gaming, high end research or distance learning. All of this relies on the switches that enable the Wi-Fi network to function.

Securing a wireless first environment

Our first consideration for security is that we ultimately have to enable choice. Unlike many traditional enterprise scenarios where approved laptops and devices are distributed to employees, we needed to consider the wide variety of devices that may be brought onto campus. Our job is to secure these devices to allow the students to do what they need to do without compromising the network.

Having a centralised management platform that dynamically updates based on the user, the type of device and what they are trying to do makes it infinitely easier to manage security. This is where the beauty of intent-based networking comes to play! With intent-based networking across your campus and datacentre networks you can enable micro segmentation to put barriers between locations on the network that people are allowed access to that is based on their intent and posture.

It all comes down to software-defined networking, an overlay onto Wi-Fi 6, to keep user device and application traffic separate and provide end to end segmentation while delivering a consistent experience because the same policy is applied across the wired and wireless network. Software-defined networking also enables insights into all the traffic on the network so you can see what information is going through and make actionable insights to allow or prevent that traffic based on its intent.

So, what comes after Wi-Fi 6…

The beauty of Wi-Fi 6 is that it has been developed to allow us to provide multiple more streams and functionalities and because of its architecture it will likely be the standard for a long time. The future will include deeper integration with cellular and 5G, looking at how we use the wireless networks we’ve implemented as a backbone access to 5G services. For organisations with a strong foundational network in place, this will be a game-changer as they draw insights from rich data to better their businesses.

In addition, organisations that are looking at sustainability and becoming more efficient, Wi-Fi 6 utilises less client device power to connect due to Target Wake Time (TWT) and not using an always on approach to connectivity. By effectively communicating with the device’s Wi-Fi radio and only activating it when it needs to be awake, a client’s device will spend less time and energy searching for a wireless signal which can enhance battery life.

To conclude, between the faster speeds, better traffic prioritisation, and added security, Wi-Fi 6 is a significant step forward in wireless network technology. It will be extraordinary to watch the impact that transforming connectivity standards will have across industries, and even the rest of society, with the University of Birmingham Dubai being just one example of how it will better the experience for its students and staff.

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