Inside Cambridge’s amazing wireless network

How do you create a wireless network for an 800-year-old university? If that doesn’t sound like enough of a challenge, now imagine the “university” is, in fact, about 180 different colleges, research organisations, libraries, museums, and other bodies, some of which already have their existing infrastructure. Now, just for fun, extend that network to public spaces where your customers like to go and work. Oh, and throw in creating a free publicly accessible network too.

Inside Cambridge’s amazing wireless network

If you’ve struggled just getting the Wi-Fi working in your home, you can see the scale of the challenge. And that’s the challenge that Jon Holgate, head of networks at the University of Cambridge, has faced for the past five years. And it’s a challenge that he’s managed to meet, head on.

Speaking to me at Aruba Networks’ Atmosphere 2017 conference in Paris, Holgate told me about the challenges involved. Unlike most universities, Cambridge – as with its biggest rival, Oxford – is a federation of colleges rather than a single organisation. Each college pays in towards the networking service, which means – once you add in all the associated research institutions and everything else associated with the university – that Holgate and his team have to manage the demands of the equivalent of over a hundred small to medium businesses. “In total,” he said, “that’s about 180 different relationships.”

Part of the aim of the rollout of the Cambridge wireless network has been single-sign-on roaming. The aim is to allow someone from one organisation to log on once, and roam everywhere across the network, no matter where they are. The network covers all the organisation who buy into the network, plus public spaces where customers – the students, academics, researchers and so on – roam.

This sounds like it should be relatively simple until you understand the scale. So far, the network consists of more than 5,000 access points, and by the time the rollout is complete, it will be between 7,000 and 8,000 – all of which form a single coherent network.

Some of the challenges involved are architectural: medieval buildings with thick walls, all of which are historical and so can only have so much work done to and in them. Unlike modern buildings, laying cables to support Wi-Fi isn’t simply a matter of drilling through a few walls.

The aim is to create a network that supports what people are doing. “You have very smart people, and we want them to push the boundaries of what they can do,” Holgate said. “You certainly don’t want to stop them doing anything – you want to help them to do things in a way that’s secure and supports what they’re trying to achieve.”

A provision in open spaces has also been an important – and very popular – move. “We think we should cover everywhere that people want to work, not just colleges and librarians,” said Holgate. That’s meant working closely with the local council to place access points on lamp posts, CCTV mountings, and other street furniture. As part of this programme, the university provides public internet access from the same points.

“Academics are used to collaboration,” said Holgate, “and the idea they work in isolation is just a myth. Whether the collaboration is with other academics via this network, or with the local council on providing public Wi-Fi, it’s something we’re used to doing all the time.”

Image credit to Cimexus on Flickr

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