Tech Talk Live Blog

iPad Lessons Learned

Ryan Bennett

In the fall of 2012, Mercersburg Academy began requiring all students to bring an iPad with them to campus and to carry that iPad during the academic day. As an independent boarding school, we thought we knew all of the ramifications of such a program. We had great wireless coverage around campus in all of the academic buildings as well as the dormitories. We also had the most common outdoor gathering areas covered. Or so we thought.

The reality with a one-to-one program, whether it is BYOD or hardware specific, is that the moment you mandate the carrying of a device, you also give tacit permission for other devices to be carried and, in the case of their wireless antenna, powered. This was the first part of the program we had failed to anticipate.

Before the iPad program, we had many laptops on campus, and we had classroom sets of iPads available for use. What we did not anticipate was what would happen when every student and teacher also began to carry their cell phone, iPad, and (in some cases) a laptop. Instead of having 15 devices in a classroom drawing a wireless signal (our class size is 12), we were seeing loads of 25-30 devices per room. This meant that our “covered” campus was suddenly very uncovered.

To further complicate the matter, we did not anticipate the odd way in which the iPad likes to connect and reconnect to wireless access points. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the intelligence of the iPad connection protocols is a desire for the device to reconnect to exactly the same access point to which it has most recently communicated. Not just the same SSID, but the same physical access point. This obviously creates a problem when there are other APs closer to the iPad.

As if that were not enough, we also seriously underestimated the number of connections a single iPad will make during a session. The reality is that every app on the iPad as well as the OS itself wants to check the Internet for updates, new ads, online syncing, etc. These constant checks and transmissions put quite a strain on the APs that were already overloaded due to the increase in devices on campus.

The solution was straightforward for us. First, add more access points in those areas where we saw the greatest occurrence of disconnected users. While this can get expensive, the Aruba Wireless Controller we use makes deployment very quick and painless. Additionally, we utilized many of the features of Aruba’s centralized controller to lower the timeout values of reconnections so that an AP would not allow connections from an iPads with which it had stopped communicating. This helped with the “stickiness” of connections after an iPad woke up. However, the biggest change came when we enabled Aruba’s Adaptive Radio Management. This feature of Aruba allows APs to watch each other and automatically handle load balancing, signal strength, and channel conflicts. Turning this feature on allowed Aruba to decide which APs should serve which iPads on which channel.

As I said during my presentation at Tech Talk Live, this was by far our single biggest lesson learned. While you may think you have great wireless coverage, a mandated one-to-one program is a sure fire way to find yourself uncovered very quickly.

Good luck and I look forward to comments and questions!

Watch Ryan’s complete Tech Talk Live presentation, Universal iPad Programs:  Lessons Learned, here.

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