Bowdoin students' love of Ocarina music app hasn't crashed the Wi-Fi

Cisco upgrade supports videconferencing, even in the bathrooms

Wi-Fi use has exploded on college campuses, and none more than Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

The latest fad on the Bowdoin campus with its 1,800 students is playing the Ocarina, a mobile app that turns the iPhone into a musical instrument. The user "blows" into the instrument by using the microphone as the mouthpiece and fingering "keys" on the touchscreen.

The original Ocarina app is more than three years old. At Bowdoin, the app is becoming a potential Wi-Fi network hog as students share their tunes wirelessly and listen to tunes in real time from players around the world.

What might be slightly unusual about Bowdoin is that the college's CIO admires the Ocarina app and the interaction between students that it fosters. He stands in contrast to the many CIOs in colleges and businesses who are pulling their hair out daily over network crowding from video and music streaming and are struggling to cope with it.

"The dramatic part is when you see all those people using that [Ocarina] app around the world at the same time, and then you [wirelessly] listen in to them playing and practicing," said Bowdoin CIO Mitch Davis. "It binds one to a community of people you don't even know, but you share a similar desire and experience in a very unique way. This one idea will spawn thousands of ideas and many more apps."

Davis sees the big picture, where the campus Wi-Fi supports the teaching mission. "When I started here eight years ago, they were seeking ubiquitous wireless to change the college, so we created a new initiative of a technology culture to match the academic goals," he said.

The Ocarina app "is just a small device, but you can tap into 100,000 people practicing with it all over, and it is sort of changing the way we use the network," Davis said. "Why shouldn't we see what the world is doing?"

But Davis is far from a dreamer. He has guided the installation over the Christmas break of a Wi-Fi upgrade using Cisco gear that cost the school more than $1 million. About 425 of Cisco's latest 3602 access points were installed in about two weeks, he said.

A set of management tools that Cisco announced Tuesday will give Davis and his team better insight to the Wi-Fi network. "We can manage the network with much more fluidity than in the past," he said. "Before, we were more reactive and now we're going to be more active about who is online and adding apps and seeing an area of the network needing more [bandwidth]."

One new tool from Cisco will allow IT staff to view an entire wireless network alongside a wired network. "Anything that can concentrate our network into a single pane is a good thing," he said.

The college's 1GB wired backbone has 15,000 ports and connects the Maine campus to a point on the Atlantic Ocean and to New York City. But Davis sees the Wi-Fi's ubiquity as making the biggest social impact.

The 3602 AP is modular, allowing support for future upgrades to the upcoming 802.11ac wireless standard, Davis said. Today, the new 802.11n service is superior to a previous-generation Cisco Wi-Fi network, and even makes it possible, through triangulation of signals, to bring a signal into an older campus building with four-feet-thick stone walls where signals didn't reach before.

Davis evaluated Cisco's product along with other major Wi-Fi vendors and found it could perform better, including the ability to reconfigure a signal. "A group of students all converged on the chapel [where there wasn't that much traffic and only one AP] to make connections and when they all flipped on their devices, they were able to use them," he explained. "The ability of the network to reconfigure itself on the fly was pretty cool."

As with many campuses, videoconferencing is becoming a big bandwidth drain, vying with the Ocarina app in popularity. "Videoconferencing is a big deal here, and students use it as if it's nothing, walking around and talking into a laptop even when they go into the restroom," he said with a chuckle. The only restriction on videoconferencing might have to be what's mannerly, not the technology.

Analysts have described Cisco as a leader in Wi-Fi deployments, not just in numbers of installations, but in terms of the ability to manage Wi-Fi networks.

Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research, said the latest tools will offer identity-based network access control, so that IT managers will know who the network's users are and what devices are being used.

The management controls will also allow an IT administrator to know what apps are allowed on the devices and what data in the network can be accessed by a user.

In other words, they're controls that a college would care about.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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