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Two Different Worlds, Two Different Wireless Networks

Just back from a whirlwind two weeks working in both Great Britain and Haiti, and I feel compelled to reflect on the specifics and profound differences of creating WLAN environments in each location as I document the efforts. Certainly the cultures are dramatically different, but so were the solutions used, and neither is what I typically deal with in my day-to-day network administration duties. It’s been interesting, to say the least.

Let's start with London. My university (Syracuse) has a remote site in London, and for years it has limped along mostly as an island when it comes to IT. It turns out the site has a respectable wiring infrastructure, but its switching, wireless and overall networking approach was disjointed, undersized and underperforming, to the point where users would often leave the building and go elsewhere to actually get work done over the network. After a site visit from one of our managers, the right words were said and my group was on the hook to make things right for our faraway colleagues by creating a solution that allowed for us to monitor the environment from across the pond while giving the London folks some much-appreciated local administrative capabilities.

Though we are generally content with our Cisco 3,000-access-point, lightweight wireless environment on the main campus, our London center needed a complete network solution with a minimal number of boxes (and burden) required. We opted for Meraki's cloud-managed wireless and wired networking after doing an eval and comparing cost and complexity versus features and ease of use for different options. Though it's too early to say that Meraki was a slam-dunk for us in this case, all indications and feedback so far have me feeling quite good about how we proceeded.

On the ground, with only four days to complete what might typically be a couple weeks of work, I was able to meet the folks on the other end for the first time, verify and adjust the operational philosophy that would shape the technical aspects of what we were about to do, and wipe out a bunch of networking. I didn’t have to pull cable per se, but I did have to do a fair amount of rerouting of existing cabling as 35 MR16 access points, four Cisco network switches and two Meraki MX-70 boxes were brought to life and connected via site-to-site VPN back to the main campus. Training our man in London to do things like wireless guest management, static IPs for select devices, quarantining problem clients and traffic shaping was a snap through Meraki’s dashboard. Though I left London exhausted, I was quite pleased with the results.

Roughly 30 hours after catching a cab to Heathrow, I touched down in Port-au-Prince with three other full-timers from Syracuse University and seven students. This was my second trip to the impoverished nation, and we arrived with the goal of lighting up wireless networking on at least two of the University of Haiti’s campuses. The challenges would prove to be many.

We shipped three pallets full of network equipment, tools, snacks to munch during long days, and things like fasteners and tie wraps for the inevitable MacGyver-style work that would be needed. Our network solution would include Cisco a/g access points and switches removed from our campus during upgrades to 11n, and two brand-new BlueSecure controllers generously donated by Bluesocket that would provide the magic in the middle for simple local user authentication, rate limiting to preserve miniscule ISP links and a control point for UEH staff.

To jump to the end of the story, we were quite successful despite one obstacle after another. A couple of days were lost mostly to customs frustrations, a tropical storm threat slowed us down, and routine issues like flaky power and lack of a real business IT frame of reference by our hosts needed to be worked through. Our students had a ball taking part in mapping each campus, assisting with component configuration and doing installation work. Though the Port-au-Prince networks ended up being quite simple compared with the London initiative (basic WEP on the access points and local user authentication in the Bluesockets), the functionality we delivered at three UEH campuses was easy to train people on and light years ahead of what little was in place. As the UEH folks gain networking savvy, we’ll also be able to evolve the networks on existing hardware toward a more secure and robust framework. Baby steps.

Back home, it feels like I’ve been gone for a year. I’ve met some great people in both countries, had to really think fast in different ways in both places, and have thoroughly enjoyed bringing up WLANs we can be proud of in different parts of the world. Every now and then it’s nice to be able wander off the reservation.