University scores with Wi-Fi analytics: 'We can't shut down, ever'

Wi-Fi analytics software gives IT departments visibility into network performance. Sports stadiums, schools, hospitals and more organizations are taking advantage of this technology.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Wi-Fi network at Oral Roberts University felt the most strain when students arrived at the beginning of semesters. Michael Mathews, the school's CIO, wanted to improve campus connectivity and gain visibility into the network's performance.

"All the kids come back to school at the same time, and they bring six devices," Mathews said at this week's Mobility Summit. "The president has every right to walk across the campus and ask us, 'What's wrong with the networks?'"

So two years ago, the Tulsa, Okla. university -- which supports 3,800 students -- implemented Extreme Networks Wi-Fi technology and analytics software. The vendor provides wireless connectivity throughout the school with local area network beacons, which create encrypted access points that allow nearby users to connect quickly and securely. Students must register their devices with IT to access the Wi-Fi using their university account information, and the software creates user profiles as part of that process. Extreme's Wi-Fi analytics then provides visibility into network performance on those devices.

IT staff automatically receive emails with reports showing how much bandwidth the network consumes at every hour of the day and how much it uses in each area of campus. That information lets IT identify the locations and causes of problems more easily when they occur.

"When you run a campus that's 24/7, students study at 2:00 a.m.," Mathews said. "We can't shut down, ever."

For security, Extreme Networks' software allows IT to set policies based on the user's profile, device and location. A teacher and a student in the same classroom and using the same access point will still have different security protocols, for instance, because they have different profiles. IT can block a student from using social media apps in that room, but allow the teacher to access any app they want.  

When you run a campus that's 24/7, students study at 2:00 a.m. We can't shut down, ever.
Michael MathewsCIO, Oral Roberts University

Given that IT admins have significant visibility into device connectivity, there are privacy measures that come into play. Admins can see what app someone uses, but they can't see what exactly users are doing in the app. For example, admins could see that the Wi-Fi connection is strong when a student is watching Netflix in his or her dorm room, but they won't be able to tell what the student is watching.

Wi-Fi analytics and the NFL

Extreme Networks also provides Wi-Fi analytics and/or connectivity to 18 National Football League stadiums, including the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium and NRG Stadium in Houston, the site of Super Bowl LI.

"We picked Extreme for... performance," Mathews said. "If they can do football stadiums, they can do our campus. Working at Gillette Stadium with 72,000 fans? No problems. That's validation."

Sports venues aren't as difficult to manage as other locations Extreme Networks supports, such as hospitals and manufacturing companies, said Mike Leibovitz, director of product strategy at the company.

At sporting events, easy access to the network is the main purpose, so it's less about security, Leibovitz said. IT wouldn't blacklist apps or set user policies at a football game, but in a hospital or school, security is much more important. Plus, network usage in the latter environments is more unpredictable, Leibovitz said.

"The flood of devices and the flood of apps has created a lot of complexity for those managing the network," said Ed Meyercord, CEO at Extreme Networks.

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