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CERN upgrades WiFi infrastructure to support researchers on the move

Matthew Finnegan | May 17, 2017
The nuclear research group plans to roll out 5,000 access points by the end of 2018.

cern building

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) is upgrading its wireless broadband network in order to support thousands of researchers using mobile devices while moving around its campus buildings.

There are more than 12,000 staff, visiting researchers and contract workers onsite at CERN's physics laboratory in Geneva each day, supporting projects such as the Large Hadron Collider. Around 20,000 mobile devices are used, requiring reliable wifi connectivity.

Having experienced problems with its independent wireless access points in the past, CERN decided to upgrade its network in 2015. "[The aim is to] enable seamless roaming in buildings across the campus and to get people in offices to give up their wired connections and be happy with wifi," says Dr. Tony Cass, who leads CERN's Communications Systems Group Information Technology Department.

"We have had wifi infrastructure for a good 15 years," Cass told Computerworld UK at Aruba Atmosphere in Paris last week. "But, because we started early, it is all independent access points; we don't have roaming, we don't have a guest network. So delivering a seamless roaming experience, delivering the guest network, being able to manage the traffic, that is what I wanted to do."

The demands on the CERN wifi systems have grown in recent years. For example, the introduction of the eduroam network access service for visiting researchers has lead to an increase in the number devices being used.

"When we enabled eduroam, the number of wifi devices almost doubled," Cass says. "It was a pain for people before as they had to register their MAC address to use our network. They would register one device, but they would have eduroam enabled on all of them. So when we enabled eduroam, all of these phones and tablets suddenly connected to our network, as well as the main device that people had registered. So we have tens of thousands of mobile devices, tablets, PCs, Macbooks all the time."

Another problem is that, while the existing wifi systems are suitable in certain locations - such as individual office spaces - connections often drop when moving from building to building.

"The challenge for the scientists is that they all walk around with tablets and Macbook Airs and they walk between their office and meetings and -- especially physicists -- they have SSH sessions open all of the time," Cass says. "So as they go from their office to their meeting their connection drops - they have a connection to a terminal server and that connection is broken as they go from their office to the meeting room. That is one of the things that annoys them."


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