9 Myths about MizzouWireless

Oct 16, 2014

If you’re a student at Mizzou, you were probably hooked to this story just by mentioning MizzouWireless. But if you’re not, then what you may need a little filling in.

Note: We received several requests for a more technical explanation of what may be causing the issues users experience. Please see the bottom of this story for an update.

Credit cogdogblog / Flickr

Mizzou is the flagship school of the University of Missouri System. It’s got over 30,000 students, 7,000 of them who live on campus. And the campus itself is 1,262 acres. So the wifi system for a place like this needs to be pretty extensive, and connect to a lot of laptops, phones, and wireless devices.

For the past few years, students at Mizzou have become a little frustrated with the wireless service.

We spoke with students at Mizzou who had all sorts of frustrations. Some couldn’t get their laptops to automatically connect to MizzouWireless. Others got kicked off the network. For some, connection was slow, and students who lived and worked on campus said there were some buildings with notoriously bad connection.

 

But overall, the students said they just felt frustrated that no one was offering an explanation.

 

So here’s our best try. For a more detailed explanation, make sure to listen to the full audio piece.

 

9 MYTHS ABOUT MU WIRELESS

 

1. MizzouWireless works just like my internet at home

MizzouWireless is an incredibly complex system. Comparing it to your home internet is sort of like comparing the federal budget to your personal checking account. Each part of your home internet, from the wire that brings signal into your home, to the router and antennas, is its own complex, distributed system on campus.

 

 

This chart shows internet usage at Mizzou over time. The dips are breaks, when students and staff are less likely to be on campus. The large spike towards the end is August of 2014, when more students than ever arrived on campus. Mizzou's wifi network has plenty of bandwidth to handle this usage.
Credit Department of IT

2. When more students come to Mizzou, there are more problems. Mizzou needs to buy more bandwidth

More bandwidth won’t solve the problems students encounter. Mizzou doesn’t really have an ‘internet connection’ in the normal sense.  Apart from multiple connections with multiple internet service providers (which run both east and west), Mizzou’s partners cache - or store locally - many website resources to increase speeds and reduce the time it takes to get information back to you. Additionally, Mizzou supports a large institutional research network known as ‘Internet2’. It may be surprising to learn MU has never come close to ‘maxing out’ its available bandwidth. Often times slowness is a distribution problem, getting enough internet to the right places at the right time. This is an issue innate to MizzouWireless, and would not be solved by adding more bandwidth.

 

3. MizzouWireless has no wires

We think of MizzouWireless as just that, wireless. Yet only the ‘last mile’ is wireless. There’s a network of copper wires and fiber optics that run across campus, carrying data between the wireless access points and the IT data center. This system runs mostly separate from the ethernet ports in offices and buildings across campus.

 

4. All the tech at Mizzou is MizzouWireless

MizzouWireless is just that, wireless internet and networking. When it goes down all that’s affected is MizzouWireless. If you plug a wire into your laptop or jump on one of the computers across campus nine times out of ten you’ll be able to accomplish what you need to without worrying about the wireless connection. Also, there are multiple organizations in this system that make technology here work. The Department of Internet Technology (DoIT), contains the wireless as well as many other functions. When you’re having a technology issue at Mizzou, it may not be all MizzouWireless’ fault.

5. People die because of MizzouWireless failures

It might feel that way sometimes, but no. Any critical safety systems, such as the yellow Alertus Beacons across campus, are on a wired network (and have other backups). MU Hospital systems mostly run on wired networks, and additionally the hospital uses a different setup and has not experienced the same failures as Mizzou Wireless. Remember that on due days-- the ER has a more stable wifi connection!

This chart shows the internet usage on campus when iOS8 dropped. This was the highest usage in Mizzou's history. Even this huge generation of usage did not exceed MizzouWireless' capacity.

6. Me and my devices have nothing to do with MizzouWireless failures

The failures of MizzouWireless are the fault of the system, however in nearly every case the problem is caused by the behavior of you and your devices. As your devices move across campus they communicate with an Access Controller, which determines where and how they get WiFi. Poorly written ‘drivers’, the software that runs the wifi on your tablet, phone, or computer, increase the workload of the Access Controllers, and they can have difficulty adapting to many users changing locations at the same time. MizzouWireless is most problematic between classes, when nearly every wireless user is moving from one location to another. This is called ‘roaming’ and DoIT has observed busses full of students taking down wifi in small areas as they pass from one access point to another. Sometimes just because MizzouWireless is down in one building doesn’t mean the rest of campus is down. If you can, try moving to a different building.

 

7. When email doesn’t work, it’s MizzouWireless’ fault

Probably not. They are independent services and webmail is hosted through a separate company. A widespread failure of the MU Network would knock out access to webmail, but that’s a rare occurrence.

8. MizzouWireless isn’t fast enough

As we touched on before, it’s not a ‘speed’ issue in the traditional sense, it’s an availability issue. Too many users trying to connect to the same access point (glowing space ships you see in hallways and classrooms) can cause localized failures of MizzouWireless.

 

9. Staff can and should get access to a special, more reliable wireless connection

In this case, simply adding a 4th Mizzou Wireless network for staff only wouldn’t solve the issue. As we talked about before, these are low-level issues that occur system wide. When MizzouWireless has trouble, so does the guest network. It would be technically possible to add a second network for faculty and staff, however it makes significantly more financial sense to invest in increased capacity, and to solve the issues currently present with Mizzou Wireless. Nearly all faculty and staff offices have ethernet connections available as well.

 

Update: Several listeners have requested more technical information regarding what exactly might be causing these issues. The following is our best understanding, and as such may not be 100% accurate. As we cover in the piece, inability to connect is often symptomatic of an availability issue, where the access points and controllers cannot process requests from the DHCP server. As a user your device is authenticated and you are 'connected' but due to an apparent failure (and this is the part where DoIT is working to diagnose the source of the problem) the message from the DHCP server isn't getting properly delivered to your laptop. It appears the problem focuses down to the interplay between the DHCP server and access controllers. While DoIT can't confirm this, from our perspective it seems likely to be a problem with the access controllers interfacing with the rest of the components in MizzouWireless. As we note, the Columbia campus is the only campus that uses this specific brand of access controller.