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Getting Real with Wireless - OIT Update Spring 2004

July 5, 2004

After three years of operating the Georgia Tech LAWN (Local Area Wireless/Walkup Network), OIT would like to encourage campus constituents to become more comfortable with this often misunderstood service. That includes learning how to take advantage of the strengths of wireless technology, respecting its limitations, and realizing that changes are frequent. To lead the campus in this direction, OIT is looking at new methods for supporting wireless.

“The LAWN augments the wired network, but it is fundamentally different,” said Matt Sanders, wireless team leader, Academic and Research Technologies. “The wireless network’s characteristics change depending on how many users are logged in, what they are doing, and sources of interference.” Wireless networks are also prone to equipment compatibility issues and require extra security precautions.

None of this will stop the LAWN’s evolution into a more robust service. In the coming months, OIT will begin plans to enable more efficient growth and improved support of the service. Data gathered from users will characterize the strengths and weaknesses of the service. “Because of the mobile nature of wireless use, users do not always report problems,” said Sanders. “If they have a problem, they often fix it themselves or else go without wireless access at that time and location. That’s why we’re taking a pro-active stance.” OIT will add instruments to the network to collect data, in order to isolate problems down to individual buildings, access points, or users. This will also help with the determination of future upgrades based on usage trends.

Compatibility between wireless devices will continue to be an issue. There are many possible combinations of wireless network interface cards (on users’ devices) and wireless network access points. New vendors, new wireless interface cards, operating system changes, and the constant evolution of wireless standards all contribute to increasing compatibility challenges.

The wireless team is leading an effort to create a list of wireless network interface cards and drivers compatible with the LAWN, as well as a list of cards with known issues. This involves setting up a test environment, performing compatibility testing, and defining which features will be supported. Students and staff will be able to refer to the list when they plan wireless device purchases.

Most other LAWN problems can be mitigated by clearly defining the service. “Wireless is based on sharing a radio frequency,” said Sanders. “Interference can’t always be controlled.

” The LAWN is ideal for tasks such as looking up maps, getting directions, viewing online calendars, checking email, and web surfing for information. It is also useful for web-based resources that encrypt personal data. For security’s sake, the LAWN requires network services that encrypt passwords, email, and data so that they are not broadcast in plain text, which would render them readable by others on the wireless network. Students should have no problem accessing Banner or WebCT courses; however, they should make contingency plans for gaining network access to perform time-sensitive activities, for example, registering for a class before a deadline or submitting a homework assignment.

The LAWN is not well-suited for downloading streaming media or other large files, which may put too much load on the network. Performance is also affected by large numbers of concurrent users. Experienced LAWN users have learned to be aware of current conditions and to anticipate transient interferences.

OIT’s Academic and Research Technologies group coordinates the wireless network strategy and policy for Georgia Tech. More information can be found in these documents: Georgia Institute of Technology Wireless Network Usage Policy and Wireless Networking Best Practices. They are both published on the OIT website (http://www.oit.gatech.edu/) under “Policies & Plans.” Questions and comments can be directed to Matt Sanders ( ).


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