Campus & Community

Web surfers begin to catch the wireless wave

7 min read

Studying becomes a more moveable feast

Thanks to new technology, Susan DeLellis’ personal digital assistant and her laptop are both connected to a central network – without wires – so she can work at a table outside Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square. Staff photo by Jon Chase 

Learning at Harvard: anywhere, anytime. That might be the slogan for the unveiling of the new wireless computer network that got up and running this summer. Students, faculty, and staff whose laptops and personal digital assistants are equipped with wireless networking cards can now log on to the Internet without having to plug in.

The result, according to officials involved in the project, is greater freedom for people at Harvard looking to check their e-mail or a class assignment while hanging out at, say, the courtyard at the Kennedy School. Or the third floor reading room in Lamont Library. Or the East Reading Room at Widener Library. Or the lounge at the Business School’s Spangler Center. Or at the Courtyard CafÈ at the Medical School.

You get the idea.

Though some schools have already had a wireless network up and running, this summer’s effort – funded by both individual schools and through seed money from Provost Steven Hyman’s office – greatly expands that network across the University

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, for example, already had 100 wireless access points available before beginning the installation of another 650 access points last spring. That installation is expected to continue for several months, according to Director of FAS Computer Services Frank Steen. Though FAS is has decided to stick with its existing wireless security system, this summer’s effort provides other schools with new security and management abilities that will help them monitor and control who has access to the network and when.

Officials say the new network will expand the ease of access to the content becoming available on various Harvard Web pages. Instead of logging on from dormitory rooms or hard-wired computers at labs and various other locations across campus, students working together in the lounge or cafÈ can check out innovative class Web sites, scientific journals in library collections, and their e-mail.

Though that increased convenience and ease of use is the driving force behind the wireless initiative, Assistant Provost and Chief Information Officer Daniel Moriarty said another important feature of the effort was its collaborative nature among Harvard’s various schools.

Guided by the University Technology Architecture Group (UTAG), which has representatives from various schools, the initiative reviewed, tested, and approved specific wireless technology that ensures the wireless network is accessible at the Kennedy School, for example, with the same equipment and software needed to access it at the School of Public Health.

“This project is a great example of schools coming together to work collaboratively to share thinking on appropriate locations and uses of wireless technology, and to determine minimum common standards to allow faculty and students to have access across the University,” Moriarty said..

A partner to wired

The wireless network is seen, Moriarty said, as augmenting the traditional wired network, rather than replacing it. That is because wireless technology cannot yet provide the same bandwidth – the ability to send large amounts of data at one time – as wired networks. That means that use of graphics-heavy sites that require a lot of bandwidth to transmit pictures and video, for example, will be best done through a wired connection to the Internet.

“The performance of wireless has a steep upward trajectory,” Moriarty said. “Today the question is the appropriate use of wireless, not whether it will replace traditional fiber connections.”

University Information Systems Senior Project Manager Susan DeLellis said the project began in May 2001 when UTAG met to review wireless core principles. After agreeing on a set of criteria for deploying and testing wireless networks, the group piloted several different wireless systems and recommended going with an 802.11b Wireless LAN (which stands for local area network) and an authentication and policy management system called Bluesocket. Bluesocket was chosen, DeLellis said, because it gives the schools the flexibility to design a network that meets the needs of their own communities. Its common authentication features will help provide seamless and consistent access across campus.

FAS decided to retain its own system, rather than adopt Bluesocket, but is adhering to UTAG’s agreed-upon common authentication, helping preserve the goal of seamless access.

It also allows local control of security, which allows sites to be protected by a robust authentication system – either Harvard’s HUID/PIN system or the local school’s – something DeLellis said is an important feature.

“We needed to look at systems that had security because with wireless, security is always a concern,” DeLellis said.

The system is also Web browser-based, which means it can be accessed with software that is used by people every day. Someone who tries to log onto the Harvard site from a wireless laptop or personal digital assistant will be directed to the authentication page and then to their chosen site.

DeLellis said usage so far is growing, but as the semester gets going and people find out about the system she expects it to increase dramatically.

“In their personal and home life they have all these devices. Students are going to require it – this is the mobile workforce, the mobile student,” DeLellis said.

Not only do students increasingly use mobile devices in their home life, but they’re using them with greater frequency on campus as well. FAS’s Steen said this year 80 percent of incoming freshmen are expected to have a laptop, up from 65 percent just last year. And most of the new laptops are being sold with wireless cards already installed, he said.

Though the network is up and running, DeLellis said it is not available everywhere. Signal strength varies from campus to campus and building to building. Access to a wireless signal should increase in the coming months, but the emphasis has been to get the network available in locations where they are most likely to be used: common areas, lounges, classrooms, and study areas.

“It brings more mobility to the workplace and academic life of students, faculty, and administrators,” DeLellis said.

Problem solving with wireless

At the School of Public Health, wireless made a lot more sense than the labor-intensive process of trying to install wires and sockets in many locations across the campus, according to Taso Markatos, HSPH’s assistant dean for information technology.

“We’re going for the ubiquitous computing everywhere for everyone – whenever they need it,” Markatos said. “Wireless fits the bill perfectly.”

Michael Garofano, the Kennedy School’s director of information technology, said that implementation is about two-thirds complete at the Kennedy School, so students, faculty, and staff should see the number of sites where one can get onto the wireless Web gradually increasing over the year. The network is available now from public areas throughout the Kennedy School. In the coming months, corridors and classrooms could be added.

The next step, Garofano said, involves a focus group of students, faculty, and staff that is experimenting with uses of personal digital assistants in the classroom.

At Harvard Business School, which has had a wireless network for more than a year, the existing wireless network was wide open to users. The new Bluesocket technology is a means to manage the network, according to Dave Goodrich, technology adviser for IT client services at the Business School.

Some Business School faculty, for example, had complained that students were using the wireless network during class instead of paying attention. That led IT personnel to shut down the wireless network near classrooms when they were in session, Goodrich said. With the security provisions of the new network, access can be managed student-by-student, with authentication denied for students who are supposed to be in class.

Similarly, if a faculty member wants to run an exercise using wireless technology during class, Goodrich said, it is relatively simple to search class lists and switch on access for class members during that time.

“Putting in this system was a confidence-builder for faculty,” Goodrich said.