As a rule, I try not to get too proactive on infrastructure. I have found over the years that doing so runs a high risk of investing precious resources to solve a problem you never end up having. In that spirit, a few years ago when WiFi was exploding onto the scene and many consumers started getting wireless routers at home, I knew we needed to start offering WiFi for guests on our central campus. Simultaneously, I wanted to use WiFi for children’s check in.
Rather that designing and implementing a rigorous commercial WiFi infrastructure, I felt it was best to go buy some consumer-grade routers/access points and get started at a very low cost of entry. Those devices cost $100-150 at the time. I bought one Netgear router and after a bit of experimentation, I quickly bought two more. Together they covered the narthex (lobby), most of the main sanctuary, and the portion of the children’s wing where we had check-in stations. Total hardware investment was under $400 and we had something that filled the immediate need.
Over the next couple of years, we continued to buy more access points to cover more and more of our facilities. Each time we have gotten new access points, we have used NetStumbler to measure signal strength and determine optimum placement. We weren’t worried about security because: 1) we don’t have a private WiFi network at all; instead we tell staff to use remote desktop when they’re using wireless, just as if they were working from home; and 2) we have the public, non-secure access points on a separate VLAN. Total investment was still under $1,500 as wireless equipment got better and continued to come down in price.
Two years ago we replaced our Cisco PIX firewall with a SonicWALL Pro 2040, after evaluating a wide range of web content filtering products. Ian, our network administrator, quickly discovered many, many cool tricks he could do with the 2040 and we fell in love with it. Since then we have upgraded to a 3060. One cool trick of these Pro-series appliances is their ability to manage access points. So last year right before the Church IT RoundTable and Leadership Institute 2007, we bought a 4-pack of SonicPoints and deployed them to our most heavily used zones. We immediately benefited from the improved realiability and manageability of these commercial-grade access points.
Earlier this week we got another 4-pack of SonicPoints and installed them in preparation for Leadership Institute 2008. The new ones are the 802.11a/b/g version. I mentioned that today would be the best chance to test them until this event comes around again next year. I’m pleased to report that it worked like a champ. The additional NetStumbler testing we did this week allowed us to determine permanent locations for installation over the next few months.
Through this process we have learned incrementally, invested incrementally, and made incremental improvements. Though we’ve spent less than $4,000 since we bought our first access point, we now have a solid, reliable WiFi infrastructure. $4,000 is less than the consulting fee alone to have a commercial WiFi system designed for our facilities.
Do you have a story of a time you overbuilt something? Or what about a time you invested slowly and incrementally, with a great end result and great stewardship?
I’ve taken much the same approach at First Christian Church in Norman, OK. Our first access point was a Linksys WAP11 (802.11b only) back in 2002 (I think). After deploying that first AP, I deployed the WAP11’s big brother, the WAP54G in another area. After that, we standardized in Netgear hardware and I’ve been deploying their WG302 access points. They support PoE, VLANs, and will tie dfiferent SSIDs to VLANs. That allows me to create a “guest” VLAN/SSID and give guests filtered web access without giving them access to our production network (and the sensitive data it contains).