Law school makes the case for wlans

Graduates of Nova Southeastern University`s Shepard Broad Law Center (Fort Lauderdale, FL) will be much more cyber-savvy than students of years past. When they graduate, the budding lawyers will have become accustomed to the mobility and flexibility of wireless computer access to their notes as well as to sending e-mail, printing, filing, and connecting to the Internet or the university`s intranet. This kind of mobile electronic study is possible in various locations in the three-story law cente

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A wireless local area network gives students mobility as well as a competitive edge.

Duncan Mills

Graduates of Nova Southeastern University`s Shepard Broad Law Center (Fort Lauderdale, FL) will be much more cyber-savvy than students of years past. When they graduate, the budding lawyers will have become accustomed to the mobility and flexibility of wireless computer access to their notes as well as to sending e-mail, printing, filing, and connecting to the Internet or the university`s intranet. This kind of mobile electronic study is possible in various locations in the three-story law center--the law library, the lecture hall, and the atrium--via a wireless local area network (wlan).

When the law center building was erected five years ago, cabling to all areas was not a requirement. Retrofitting cable would have been a huge expense, especially in such areas as the lecture theater, which has a tiered concrete floor. Even if the funds had been available for such a retrofit, the university uses its facilities year-round, and the downtime would have been unacceptable.

The school`s network-services staff researched various solutions and decided that a wireless network was the best one for the law center. Space was also an issue in the building, and because wireless lans reach areas that cabled networks cannot, they allow maximum use of the available space.

In the spring of 1996, the Wireless lan product line of amp Inc. (Harrisburg, PA) was installed to give initial coverage to the publications area as a beta site. The installation was completed in the summer of 1997. Frank Novak, director of network services for the law center, directed the implementation of the university`s mobile computing capabilities. "The wireless lan is so unobtrusive, the students probably don`t even think about it until they`re asked," says Novak. "Then they will talk about the mobility benefits and features as if they were marketing it."

Students` laptop computers access the network via access points (APs)--transceivers connected to a single Ethernet segment that also runs to some desktop locations in the library building. The university will soon replace this shared segment with switched Ethernet. The building is connected to a Fiber Distributed Data Interface backbone that services the whole campus.

The network currently runs Internet protocol (IP) and internetwork packet exchange (ipx) to support some NetWare servers that are required until the applications currently running on them are transferred to the Windows NT system. Once the NetWare servers are phased out and ipx is no longer required on the wireless network, the APs` filtering capabilities will remove any unwanted ipx traffic from the wlan.

The installation

The lecture theater and atrium are covered by seven APs. The first floor has six classrooms and numerous offices that are covered by eighteen more APs. The library has seven APs. All APs are installed in the space above the ceiling to hide them from sight, maintaining building aesthetics and ensuring that they are not tampered with. Two to three times more APs are installed than are currently required for the physical area, to allow for an increase in the number of students who may require access to the wlan.

The installation of the wlan was completed by Jade Communications (Boca Raton, FL), an amp-certified installer, during the summer to ensure minimum disruption to classes. The on-site support staff was involved in the process. Completing the installation during the school`s quietest period ensured that the staff would not be called away. Determining where to install the access points involved simply walking around the intended coverage areas with a laptop and using the site-survey utility to mark coverage areas on a floor plan. Due to the ease of installation of the wireless products, Jade Communications staff required minimal product training from the vendor to enable them to use the products and the site-survey tool.

"The Nova Southeastern University installation is the largest wireless project we`ve undertaken," notes Serge Leblanc, vice president for Jade Communications. "With 33 access points and more than 500 personal computers, we involved an entire team to ensure a smooth installation. We followed a set time schedule, which helped to eliminate unnecessary disruption to the Nova campus. By working closely with the on-site personnel at Nova, our project manager and four technicians completed the installation in only one week. As wireless speeds increase and the technology becomes even more powerful, we expect to see more corporations and educational institutions consider wireless implementations."

Standards compliance

Because all new law center graduates will own and be familiar with a laptop equipped with a wlan network interface card that is OpenAir-compliant, they will be able to use the technology to communicate with any other device that is OpenAir-compliant. OpenAir is the wireless interface standard developed and supported by the 22 members of the Wireless lan Interoperability Forum (wlif), an organization working to deliver multivendor wireless lan interoperability for customers and value-added resellers. The wlif specification is based on Proxim`s Rangelan2, a 2.4-gigahertz frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum radio-frequency technology.

The OpenAir technology that amp`s Wireless lan uses employs frequency-hopping modulation. This allows up to 15 separate wlans to operate in the same physical area with no interference between them. Each of these lans offers 1.6 megabits per second of shared media. Aggregation of these lans allows 24 Mbits/sec within a geographic area. Most areas in the building are covered by at least two of these lans. Load balancing across these lans is automatic, as is the handing-off process between each cell of coverage as the user moves around the building.

Having now used wireless networking, students are not likely to prefer a wired network--they enjoy the freedom to roam and the flexibility that wirelessness provides. So giving them access from their living quarters is the probable next step in the implementation process. This access can be accomplished using the same technology and point-to-point wireless bridges linking back to the main building. Use of the same OpenAir technology would also ensure that no further training would be necessary for support personnel.

About 350 students currently have access to the law center`s wlan. With next year`s enrollments, this will increase by 300, and by an additional 300 the following year. Although it is doubtful that all these students would need to access the wlan at the same time, the infrastructure would support such use. The theoretical design rules are the same as those for Ethernet. However, as with Ethernet, as network usage increases so do collisions, resulting in degraded performance. The current network has the capacity to cope with the maximum number of students that could be using the building at any given time, which could reach 500.

The obvious benefit of the wlan is that the university is turning out graduates who are more marketable, so the success rate for job placements increases. Using leading-edge technology enhances the perception of the university as a leader in both the legal and computing fields.

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The access points of the amp Wireless lan integrate with existing Ethernet systems and operate to distances of 500 feet in typical offices and to 1000 feet in open-space environments.

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amp`s DC-powered access point (left) and a PC card adapter (foreground) are used in Nova University`s wireless network. For hard-to-cable desktop locations, a wireless isa adapter connects to existing wired lans.

Students get more than the basics

With 16,500 students, Nova Southeastern University, in Davie, FL, is the state`s largest independent university. All students enrolled at the university`s Shepard Broad Law Center in Fort Lauderdale are required to have a laptop computer with a wireless local area network (wlan) adapter. The students use the school`s intranet NT servers extensively, and they have constant access to tools that help them with their studies. In fact, some courses are completely Web-based and students are required to access information from these Web sites during lectures. All applications run locally on the students` laptops.

Perhaps just as important as the accessible learning tools, the students have the necessary skills when they graduate to adjust easily to computerized offices, which makes them more likely to be hired. When asked about the wireless network, the students rated it very high due to its flexibility, with reliability and performance also receiving top marks.

"We believe in giving our students more than an education," says Billie Jo Kaufman, director of the Law Library and Technology Center, and assistant professor of law. "We equip them with a competitive edge over others going after the same positions at law firms."

If all goes according to Kaufman`s plan, law students will be able to point a prospective employer to their own Web sites, which will include their curricula vitae and maybe even a video clip from a mock trial. The future will bring various new applications, such as voice-recognition and videoconferencing software. Audio streaming will allow the students to record lectures, and those who have missed a lecture will be able to play back the digitized voice.

Duncan Mills is networking products manager at amp Inc. (London).

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