Wired vs. Wireless...which way to go when it's time to refresh?

Can wireless implementations save time, effort, and money in the concrete fortresses of most schools?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

One of the schools I work with is looking at a major infrastructure refresh. The hundred odd switches that were state of the art when the school was built 13 years ago are rapidly failing and, combined with thousands of meters of Cat 5 cabling, are too slow to handle drastically increased utilization over that time frame. So the question is, should the school replace all of the hardware and cabling or go wireless?

It's easy and not terribly expensive to achieve at least gigabit speeds with wired connections and off the shelf components. This school even has fiber connecting a head end room to each floor. Each room in the school is wired with at least 4 drops, if not 6 or 8, though, all of which run off of the Cat 5 cable which would prevent actual gigabit throughput. While replacing the switches isn't a big deal since every floor has a wiring closet and all of the switches are centralized, one has to wonder if this is really the best choice.

After all, both Ruckus and Xirrus offer high-bandwidth, long-range wireless solutions that even work in the concrete fortresses that most schools tend to be. They will design appropriate solutions based on your site and requirements and provide total wireless coverage for a school. Former ZDNet blogger George Ou even describes ways to make high end wireless routers cheaply from commodity parts.

Wireless means not pulling new cable and far fewer switches being replaced. It also means investing in technology that isn't going to hit those gigabit speeds that allow everything from telephony to multicasting videos. Not that modern wireless (and I'm not talking Apple Airports here) isn't fast. It's very fast, but there's still nothing quite like Cat 6 to the desktop with a solid fiber backbone.

So what's a school to do?

In fact, there isn't an easy answer here. However, the companies that sell both wired and wireless equipment will be more than happy to come out and make recommendations. Obviously, recommendations from Ruckus probably aren't going to sound like this:

"No, wireless really isn't the best choice here. The interference from building materials and equipment is just too great. Give Cisco a call - they have some great managed switches and I bet you can get a deal on some cheap Cat 6."

However, if the solution that a wireless-only company proposes starts sounding mighty expensive and hard questions about performance, range, and numbers of clients aren't answered to your satisfaction, then some red flags should be going up. At the same time, companies like HP and Cisco sell both wired and wireless solutions. Their wireless products may not be in quite the same league as those installed by the big wireless players, but the pre-sales engineers who visit your school are happy to sell you whichever system from their respective companies will perform the best. They may be a much better source of objective opinions on wired vs. wireless than providers who only offer a single solution.

All that being said, schools with aging infrastructure owe it to themselves and their users to take a hard look at wireless. No more pulling cables, no more loops from careless students or techs, centralized management, and better service for an increasingly mobile set of users...It's hard to argue with some of the major benefits of wireless, isn't it?

Ask yourself a few questions before those pre-sales engineers come on out, though:

  • How fast does it need to be?
  • What sorts of files are moving across your network now? In 2 years?
  • How long do you want the system to last?
  • What sort of backbone already exists? Is there a good reason to stick with a vendor if your backbone is staying intact?
  • Just how much cable will you need to pull? Rewiring a building is time-consuming, labor-intensive, potentially hazardous (you know there's asbestos in those ceilings, right?), messy, and probably more expensive than you'd expect.
  • What sorts of resources do you have to help with a major wiring project? How much time do you have? And can you tap local telecoms or cable distributors for donated cable?

One last thought: Know when to get help. Just because you're a tech director, network tech, or even a really savvy building principal doesn't mean that you're going to know everything there is to know about the state of the art in cost-effective enterprise networking. The pre-sales engineers will help you, but so will parents or community members in the industry, your favorite systems integrator, or consultants who specialize in infrastructure projects. This decision is simply too big and too important to not admit when you're out of your depth and need some outside expertise.

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