Houston's Yes schools cut costs using Aruba Wi-Fi with Lync

Microsoft server combines with Aruba to provide eight-school system with wireless voice, video and workplace collaboration

Combining inexpensive Wi-Fi gear from Aruba Networks with a discounted Microsoft Lync Server 2010 for voice, video and workplace collaboration has helped the Yes Prep Public Schools in Houston save significant monies, school officials say.

Instead of deploying a traditional voice PBX switch with a wired infrastructure that could cost up to $60,000 at each of the eight Yes schools in the city, the system paid $3,000 per site to install the Aruba-Lync combination, said Troy Neal, senior manager of IT and support services at Yes, a free, open-enrollment public school system now serving 4,200 disadvantaged students in the city.

The installation time for the new system was three weeks or less per school compared to an estimated nine months per school for a traditional system, Neal added.

The school system decided to turn to wireless technology in 2008, after Hurricane Ike wiped out the school's communications infrastructure.

While the costs alone for the Yes network might sound impressive, experienced IT pros would likely wonder whether a Wi-Fi network can deliver high quality video and voice daily. Neal's response to such doubts: "Let's just say no one can tell it's wireless."

Wi-Fi access points are traditionally less expensive to install than wiring a new building, although schools usually rely on hardware discounts offered to schools under so-called e-rates.

Neal said Yes benefited from low software costs and by replacing desk phones with softphones, Neal said. He noted that Microsoft offers software discounts to K-12 schools.

The transition to Microsoft Lync at Yes began in September 2008. Neal said the cost of Microsoft OCS, the name of Lync at the time, prompted the school system to halt an earlier plan to move to Cisco's IP telephony and Wi-Fi products.

"Since we service the most disadvantaged kids of Houston, we have to be very cost-conscious," he said. "This is how we discovered Microsoft OCS and Aruba products. We chose to go with Aruba for the lower cost and ease of management."

The most commonly used features of Lync by teachers and staff are instant messaging and desktop sharing.

Getting staff accustomed to using a computer-based softphone for making calls with a headset was relatively easy, Neal noted. "Since most of our staff are straight out of college, there is little to no learning curve."

Teachers also enjoy having voice-to-text capabilities so that parents and students can leave voice mail messages that teachers read as text, he said. Those capabilities come thanks to using Microsoft Exchange 2010 on top of Lync, Neal said.

Neal said Lync performs well across the Aruba network, and the Yes schools have saturated their campuses with wireless gear to provide high quality video as well as voice calls.

Aruba gives some credit to its recent elevation to Microsoft Network Infrastructure Optimization Partner, which means Aruba's Wi-Fi network can perform like a wired network with Lync collaboration systems.

Aruba officials said Microsoft conducted tests showing a 75% better performance with Lync over the Aruba network than with Cisco gear.

One analyst, Zeus Kerravala, said the Aruba network isn't better or worse than Cisco's when compared directly, although Aruba has worked with Lync to improve network efficiency.

"Cisco hasn't chosen to work with Microsoft because they compete against Lync," Kerravala said. "Supporting Microsoft isn't Cisco's number one goal."

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 e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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