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Drexel Goes Wireless

Drexel Goes Wireless

Drexel University, a cornerstone of higher education in the northeastern U.S., was once known as the Drexel Institute of Technology. Under the leadership of its current president, Constantine Papadakis, Drexel has launched an energetic strategic agenda with renewed emphasis on its major differentiating characteristic: technology-focused education and research.

Drexel has had a long history of technology firsts. In 1983 Drexel became the first university to mandate that all students have access to a microcomputer. In 1996 Drexel launched the first full master's degree program in information systems delivered entirely online via its Asynchronous Learning Network (ALN). In the spring of 2000 the first Techno-MBA online program was launched by the LeBow College of Business. During the fall semester Drexel had completed implementation of its fully wireless CyberCampus. Drexel has routinely been rated by Yahoo! Internet Life magazine as Philadelphia's number one wired university and most recently sixteenth nationwide.

In another first, Drexel has expanded its reach and scope through a unique outsourcing arrangement to operate MCP Hahnemann University, including its School of Medicine (the largest private medical school in the U.S.). Drexel provides full information technology support and acts as an application service provider for all systems, including finance, human resources, student information, library, institutional advancement, clinical practice support, networking, e-mail, and Web hosting. In this regard Drexel is applying its management and technological expertise to enable this historic Philadelphia institution to be competitive in the increasingly complex healthcare environment. Drexel and MCP Hahnemann are like many institutions around the world - caught up in and reacting to a rapidly accelerating and
changing technology cycle. Recognizing the impact on project planning that the "Internet time" phenomenon (a day is like a week, two months like a year) has had, an aggressive information technology agenda was launched at both institutions to upgrade administrative systems, academic support, and campus networking, and to set the stage for creating a competitive advantage via innovation. Whereas typical project timelines lasted three years before the advent of Internet time, now six months is the upper limit on projects from their innovative stages - environmental scanning and application selection - to implementation and production. The administrative support systems at MCP Hahnemann noted above were brought up within a five-month window, including seven systems that were managed simultaneously.

Predicting that the future distribution of information (education) and communications would be dictated largely by mobile - and thus wireless - technology, Drexel launched its first "CyberZone" pilot in late 1997 in its Hagerty Library. Using Lucent Technologies' WaveLan products (now the Orinoco product line from Avaya Communications, Lucent's spun-off Enterprise Networks Division), Drexel created the first 100% wireless library in the world. For three years students and staff have borrowed laptop computers (at no charge) to access systems on the Drexel network - including e-mail and online course materials - and elsewhere on the Internet. The new environment created a unique opportunity for Drexel students to combine various electronic and database information sources with traditional library resources, independent of location. Laptop checkouts averaged over 3,000 per month. Building on the success of its joint initiative with the library, the Office of Information Resources and Technology created additional CyberZones in several areas: the Creese Student Union, where students could relax and do a little Web surfing while visiting the café; in the Korman Computing Center, to provide professors with the ultimate in classroom flexibility; and in the LeBow College of Business for classrooms, lecture halls, and computer laboratories. The first CyberZones at MCP Hahnemann were created just a few months after Drexel began its operating agreement. Further, the universities were using the same IEEE 802.11b-compliant equipment to provide a link between two of the campuses while its new OC-48 SONET ring Metropolitan Area Network was under construction.

In March 2000 Lucent provided Drexel with a road map of its planned upgrades to its Orinoco wireless products. New access points, software, and PC cards would make it easier to provide robust, secure, and scalable wireless network access in public areas such as airports, convention centers, businesses, schools, and libraries. The new PC cards employed 128-bit encryption like that used by e-commerce Web sites. The new software enables the university to implement a security scheme to keep unauthorized users from accessing the network. The new access points provide the university with two key advantages over the previous generation of equipment: there's no need for electrical outlets near each access point (initial budgets showed that electrical costs would account for over half the project costs; the new equipment cut that to 15%) and the access points have a 100Mbps Ethernet uplink (10 times faster than the previous generation) so they can support much faster PC cards as they're developed.

A new wireless network isn't implemented in a vacuum. Wireless networking depends on a robust, wired infrastructure to carry network traffic from the nearest wireless access point to the servers on your network and the routers that connect you to the Internet. Fortunately, Drexel had recently invested over $5 million in upgrading its wired infrastructure (every piece of network equipment and almost every network jack on campus was replaced). Based on two years of successfully piloting the Lucent wireless technology and its recent network infrastructure upgrade, Drexel was well positioned and able to immediately "leapfrog" forward to provide full wireless access on its 52-building campus. Leveraging the wired network infrastructure, Drexel's plan called for the rapid rollout of additional CyberZones across the Drexel and MCP Hahnemann campuses, including both indoor and outdoor areas, so that ubiquitous networking at both institutions would be a reality. Students, faculty, and staff who have laptop computers or other portable devices will be able to connect to the network from anywhere at any time while on campus. The public first heard about the wireless campuses plan on June 12, 2000, at Drexel's commencement ceremonies. President Papadakis announced that Drexel's entire campus - inside and out - would have wireless network service by the fall semester. The first step, creating the world's first fully wireless School of Medicine, was to be completed in just 49 days. Another 49 days were allotted to build Drexel's own CyberCampus, and a final 49 days to complete the rest of MCP Hahnemann University. The project was to take just 21 weeks. Lucent hadn't yet released the equipment that Drexel planned to use; however, the Office of Information Resources and Technology had extensive experience with such rapid rollouts. Such are projects in the age of Internet time.

From a planning perspective, the project to provide pervasive wireless networking at the School of Medicine should have been easy. Of the three phases of the project, this was the smallest by a significant factor. However, 10 days before the network was to be completed, Lucent confirmed that the new equipment that should have been deployed at the school wouldn't be ready until after the implementation deadline. As a stopgap, Lucent loaned, and Drexel installed, the previous generation of equipment, knowing it would be uninstalled in just two weeks. The last of the wireless access points was turned on at 7:30 a.m. on August 1, 30 minutes ahead of deadline. Drexel's campus poses the largest set of implementation challenges. The campus is relatively large (60+ acres) and divided by numerous city streets. It contains a mix of buildings with widely different construction materials, and already has an extensive Ethernet network employing many subnetworks. Providing ubiquitous networking in such an environment could be difficult and expensive. To address these issues and save time, the project duties were assigned to separate interior and exterior networking teams. The interior team used the experience it gained from over two years of deploying wireless CyberZones at the two universities to determine the number of access points needed (160) for full building coverage (excluding residence halls) and their location. The exterior team worked with property records and aerial photographs (including satellite images), and walked the campus to do the same for outdoor coverage. Further, they planned to go beyond the stated project goals by providing a wireless networking service in the residence halls and to do so in a novel way: from the outside looking in. Figure 1 shows coverage areas and where the first 34 outdoor access points were placed.

To provide effective wireless roaming capability, a user's IP address can't change as he or she moves from one access point to another because doing so would disrupt ongoing communications, such as a streaming video or a Web-based application. This presented a problem at Drexel since the wired network was designed to make extensive use of subnets to minimize broadcast traffic. The campus  is divided into four regions (see Figure 2), each with its own regional router. Each building in a region is a collection of one or more subnets connected to a regional router. The regional routers are interconnected using Gigabit Ethernet. (For reference, these four regions are North campus for residential and academic use, Central campus for academic and support services, East campus for academic and administrative uses, and the central data center inside the Korman Center in the Central region for centralized servers and network services, including links to the Internet, Internet2, private networks, and the Metropolitan Area Network.)

To solve the roaming problem, virtual local area networks (VLANs) were implemented to allow the 200 access points to be members of a single VLAN that was spread over the campus and created expressly for the wireless project. In addition, the VLAN was extended over the university's Metropolitan Area Network so that wireless roaming among the three campuses would be possible. (Naturally, connectivity is lost while in transit between one campus and another.) "Going wireless will become a major trend in higher education. Other schools will be following our lead in the near future," said Papadakis.

Complementing wireless connectivity is high-speed upstream connectivity. Students, faculty, and staff at Drexel and MCP Hahnemann have access to the commodity Internet at 45Mbps, twice the speed available in June 2000 and half of what will be available by June 2001. In addition, Drexel is one of approximately 170 universities in the U.S. that are active members of Internet2, and is also a recipient of NSF Next Generation Internet (NGI) funding. As a result, researchers at both universities have access to Internet2 at a speed of 155Mbps. These connections to this high performance network provide them with access to other institutions wishing to do collaborative research. Drexel University has recognized that "innovation" facilitation is an important component of keeping ahead of the technology curve. It's become increasingly clear that any information technology support strategy must go through some process of reinvention every few years or go the way of the dinosaur - traditional continuous improvement or incremental change is effectively nonresponsive to today's challenges. In 1998 the Philadelphia mayoral debates were Web-cast live over the Internet from Drexel's Mandell Theater - who would have thought of this application a few years ago? But even that application - a fixed-location wired camera transmitting its video signal - seems dated when wireless networking is available. Drexel has now developed a portable Web-cast backpack that includes a small video camera and a computer with both video capture and wireless networking capabilities. Events anywhere on campus can be Web-cast live with ease.

More Stories By John A. Bielec

John A. Bielec is vice president of information resources and
technology/CIO at both Drexel and MCP Hahnemann University. Dr.
Bielec has over 20 years of extensive involvement in university
programs and administration. He holds a PhD from the School of Public
Affairs at the University of
Maryland in public policy and administration.

More Stories By Kenneth S. Blackney

Kenneth S. Blackney is director of core technology infrastructure at
both Drexel and MCP Hahnemann University. He has been with Drexel for
12 years
in roles including academic support, application
development, and technology assessment.

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