Advancing student wireless experience and security with Cisco Networking solutions
With over 3330 students, liberal arts and sciences university Baldwin Wallace trusted Cisco to create a modern network infrastructure solution to support evolving student and campus wireless needs.
Location: Berea, Ohio
Size: 3330+ students
Located in Berea, around 12 miles southwest of Cleveland, Ohio, Baldwin Wallace University (BW) is a private university with nearly 2800 undergraduate and approximately 500 graduate students. The 278-acre campus is located on a suburban campus site close to local residents, a high school, and a major airport. Around 2000 students live on campus in residence halls during the school year.
BW felt the challenges that go with an aging network struggling to support current demands. An upgrade of the wired and wireless network was needed for the university to provide easily accessible wireless to a growing number of student devices. Its team responded by installing a wireless network. However, the challenge of maintaining secure and available Wi-Fi connectivity soon became a critical issue and started to reflect poorly on the university's reputation. Greg Flanik, chief information officer at BW, explains, "People would ask for advice on what to bring when coming to BW, and a typical response was 'bring an Ethernet cable; the Wi-Fi is terrible!"
Compounding the issue was the fact that students were no longer just looking to connect phones or laptops. The device list was growing to include gaming systems, streaming media devices, smart devices, printers, and other equipment. And while BW's Wi-Fi connectivity would work if users had the patience to follow through the complicated sign-up process, most simply gave up and connected to their phone's "hotspot" function or the university's guest network. "We would look at the guest network and see something like 4000 devices connected," explains Flanik. "There was clearly no way we had 4000 guests!"
“We went from having wireless that was so bad we couldn't do anything, to having such good infrastructure that we can teach classes online when other schools are canceling for storms.”Greg Flanik, Chief Information Officer
The problem extended far beyond students' ability to enjoy themselves. "All our academic and business processes are tied to being connected to the network," says Flanik. "When you're a student or employee here, your ID card is on your smartphone. You use your smartphone to access buildings on campus, to pay for meals, and to register for classes. And you use your computer to look at your degree audit."
BW needed a long-term solution from a trusted, innovative technology provider that would grow and develop with the university. "Cisco gave us a lot of assurance about what they could deliver," says Flanik. "The team here researched and played with the technology, then sold me on it. When your teammates start selling you on an idea, it's a slam dunk."
BW implemented a Cisco User Defined Network (UDN), which is managed through Cisco DNA Center. UDN provides remote onboarding of student devices and gives each student their own private and secure network partition. The student experience is more like they have at home with visibility of only their own devices.
The infrastructure supporting the solution includes Cisco Catalyst 9100 Access Points, Catalyst 9800 Series Wireless Controllers, and products from the Catalyst 9000 switching family. Cisco access points were placed in alternate dorm rooms to help ensure seamless coverage while reducing interference—no easy feat in BW's heavy-brick buildings, some of which date back to its founding in 1845.
Flanik continues: "Even if you're in a room that doesn't have an access point (AP), you're getting heavy bleed from the room next to you on either side, above and below you. Everyone is covered."
The same Service Set Identifier (SSID) is now used throughout the university, from residence halls to classrooms and offices. Students sign in with two-factor authentication, and their MAC addresses are registered with Cisco Identity Services Engine (ISE). "It's now a very sophisticated network access solution," says Stephen Kraus, network administrator at BW.
"If a device is part of the UDN network, it gets access to the internet and all the things students need."
Kraus is also using the Cisco DNA Center Wireless 3D Analyzer tool to optimize the network, identify coverage gaps, and add or upgrade APs in new or refurbished university buildings. "I'm currently using it to gain visibility into the coverage in one of our new dorms," he says. "We can verify that the AP placements will deliver the best coverage that we need. Just having that visibility is amazing."
BW now has an effective, secure Wi-Fi network with strong coverage and easy connectivity. Where the old sign-in process would involve about a dozen steps to complete, students can now sign in quickly and easily with the UDN app, even from home before they make their way to campus. "Once they have the app, it's really just two steps: find your MAC address, add the device, and you're done. Rinse and repeat," says Flanik.
Students who click into the UDN app will have personalized views of only their devices. Students can see their phones, tablets, printers, gaming devices, and more, but they cannot see or access devices belonging to others. They are connecting to a shared network, but with UDN everyone gets a personal slice of the network with privacy and security.
BW currently has 2800 registered users, and the network typically handles 7800 connected devices.
At the end of its first academic year of use, the results are striking. Previous years would see BW's help desk bogged down with students looking for help, particularly at the start of the academic year when up to 10 IT staff would spend around a month helping users gain access to the network. Things have since changed. "All year we have had not one wireless complaint," says Flanik. "None. Absolutely zero."
With BW's campus IT staff no longer overwhelmed with new requests for adding devices, the team can focus on planning, designing, implementing, and optimizing the network. This refocus helps provide an even better experience for students, faculty, and staff. Flanik also adds that when two severe winter storms caused other local universities to cancel classes altogether, BW was able to benefit from its newly robust and reliable network. "We went from having wireless that was so bad we couldn't do anything, to having such good infrastructure that we can teach classes online when other schools are canceling for storms."
Flanik notes that the improved network also enables other opportunities. The more devices a student can connect quickly, the more BW can build an experience that makes them feel comfortable in their transition to college. "These things help retention," he says. "And sharing information and resources, where it makes sense, helps foster student creativity and growth."
BW plans to phase in Cisco Wi-Fi 6E access points across the entire campus. This will provide more spectrum and channels to help reduce wireless interference. The technology also delivers lightning-fast speeds while increasing coverage and security. Wi-Fi 6E is ideal where a high number of users and devices are running voice and video collaboration applications, such as Webex by Cisco, or streaming class content and research essential to the learning experience.
"Since all academic and business processes are connected to the network, a student who isn't connected is struggling," Flanik says. "Connectivity is a requirement."
Now the speed and reach to students are greatly improved, and communication methods can change. BW started sending push notifications with instructions and reminders—"Please finish scheduling your courses," "Note the last day to drop classes," and more. This increased communication can also help improve the student experience.
BW has a culture that continues to innovate. "We put together a solid solution here with Cisco DNA Center and Cisco UDN on campus, and it works," Flanik says. "And now we have something to build from for years to come."