Pupils at Bishop's Stortford College, Hertfordshire, have wireless access to the Internet across the campus and in their dormitory buildings, thanks to a system from Extricom.

We visited the school to have a look, largely because we have been following Extricom for a while, intrigued by its novel approach to Wi-Fi switching. This was our first chance to see the product in action.

A learning experience

The college is an independent school for pupils aged four to eighteen years, some 220 of whom board in the college while others come in as day pupils. The College’s many buildings, set in 130 acres, lie on either side of a residential road.

The college has a fibre network in its central buildings, using Extreme switches to cover the teaching and learning areas. A wireless network covered most teaching areas but when laptop users started to want greater coverage of the wireless connectivity, the IT department saw the opportunity to take the network to other buildings on the site - to give laptop users access in their residential areas.

"There was demand from the pupils and parents for pupils to have Internet access in the houses where they live," says IT head Steve Bacon. The children wanted to use it for study out of hours and for keeping in touch with their families. "It seemed appropriate, and they have handled it very maturely."

Rather than link the buildings with wire or fibre (which would be difficult across the residential road), the college decided to use a wireless link between the buildings, and then distribute it wirelessly within the buildings.

The school put an Alvarion BreezeMax (pre-WiMax) network, running on 5.8GHz, between the buildings, using a transmitter in the school's clock tower. The school operates two separate VLANs, one for students and a secure encrypted network for staff. Both of these were extended to the school's houses over the Alvarion link.

Bacon spoke to BT Inet, who suggested Extricom switches would be a manageable way to distribute signals by Wi-Fi within the houses, since they use a "blanket" architecture where all access points are on the same RF channel. This eliminated the manual RF management which Bacon had found in the Proxim access points he had been using to unwire the colleges central buildings.

Inside each house, there is a wireless channel for the students, and a secure encrypted wireless LAN for staff, as well as a single fixed staff PC.

The buildings were a test of wireless penetration: "It's straight out of Hogwarts," says Bacon. "We have every kind of wall and floor." Despite this, the network was put in within two weeks. The only cabling in the houses was between the Alvarion receiver and the Extricom switch, and then to the access points - which are powered over Ethernet to make installation simpler.

These switches could be managed over a separate VLAN, but in the six months or so they have been running, Bacon hasn't needed to set one up: "They run unattended," he says.

In future, Bacon is considering an option to add voice to the network on a second "blanket" channel. The school currently uses a hosted Centrex solution instead of a PBX, but could replace this with an in-house IP PBX. Another option is to add wireless CCTV cameras to the college's existing hard-wired ones.

We visited the College and saw inside Robert Pearce House, where around thirty students live. The building is covered by eight access points. Although the building had no integral cable conduits, it did have suspended ceilings which made wiring the APs in easier.

A voice demo

Although voice isn't yet in widespread use, we had a demonstration of the voice-roaming ability of the Extricom switch. We carried out a conversation over Wi-Fi phones, while walking within the house. There was no noticeable lag or gap when moving from one access point to another - a management utility showed our signal moving from AP to AP.

Whether or not voice is implemented on the network, Bacon is happy with what he has: "It's scalable - it just works."