Purdue U gives itself a Wi-Fi glow-up


This week on the Fierce Network Research Bulletin, find out how Purdue went from protests to praise for its Wi-Fi connectivity, and then read on for the usual control plane, stat of the week, and dropped packet.

  • Generation Z demands top-tier connectivity and Purdue wasn’t delivering
  • Purdue CIO Ian Hyatt says changing the IT culture was a bigger deal than changing technology
  • Purdue is a microcosm of the kind of connectivity challenges the whole world faces

You didn’t need testing equipment to measure the state of Purdue University’s Wi-Fi network. You just needed to look on Reddit, where complaints were flying. That was the situation Ian Hyatt walked in to when he took a job as CIO of Purdue University three years ago.

“The complaints were just nonstop,” Hyatt said, who took the position after long a long career in industry and the US National Guard. “Our coverage was poor at best.” The university’s Cisco wireless access points were old and end-of-life. Coverage was slow and patchy, with many dead spots.

Some complaints were spicy. “Should I be spending the night at McDonald’s, seeing as that is the only location on campus where I can access functional wifi?” one student complained three years ago. “Nothing like the WiFi going down while you’re trying to turn in your midterm to wake you up in the morning,” wrote another at about the same time. “I’m starting to think smoke signals for communication would be more reliable than online classes,” said a third.

Service for the Wi-Fi network, known as PAL—short for Purdue AirLink—was so hated that students put up a protest banner seven years ago:

Sign in a campus building window reading MAKE PAL GR8 AGAIN. One big letter appears in each pane of the window.

 

Bad Wi-FI is a problem anywhere it happens, but it’s particularly bad for a college campus. “Every student at Purdue has had a smartphone their entire life,” Hyatt said. Students’ entire lives are tied up in their phones and always have been. Spotty wireless access was simply unacceptable to them—and rightly so. 

Purdue, located in Indiana, has 50,000 students and 20,000 staff.  Students come to campus with an average five or six devices, including gaming consoles, TVs and tablets, Hyatt said. 

I talked with Hyatt along with a small group of other analysts and journalists in a meeting arranged by Cisco at the company’s big CiscoLive customer and analyst conference in Las Vegas.

Wi-Fi upgrade required culture change 

Although Purdue’s Cisco networking equipment was out-of-date, Purdue was happy with the vendor and began work with them on a top-of-the-line upgrade. “I didn’t want to just put in more wireless access points to get a little better bandwidth and quality. I wanted to provide the students the type of experience they had at their own home.”

Changing Purdue’s IT and administrative culture proved more challenging than technology. The campus Wi-Fi network was previously overseen by the university’s residence hall and student life offices, not IT. “It’s not their area of expertise,” Hyatt said. Those offices contracted the work to an external provider for Wi-Fi coverage. Under Hyatt, Purdue brought that work in-house under IT.

Previously, infrastructure work could only be done during the summer break—70% of the year was a blackout period. Hyatt narrowed that blackout, so work only stopped for finals and commencement. “We also do our best not to touch anything during home football or basketball games because we don’t want to create a negative fan experience,” Hyatt said.

Under the new rules, work proceeded quickly. “We installed the entire residence hall network across all the units in six months flat.” Hyatt said.

The upgrade increased network throughput fourfold and availability increased more than 20 percentage points, to over 99%. “It’s such a huge difference,” Hyatt said. Purdue upgraded to Wi-Fi 6 and, using Cisco Meraki, students can build their own networks with custom network names.

“The performance is amazing. It’s not that we get good feedback—but the million bad feedback messages disappear,” Hyatt said.

Disappear? Not quite. I checked Reddit, and still saw recent complaints about the Wi-Fi. However, those complaints are a trickle compared with the wall of griping that turns up in a search for posts that are three years old or older. Continuing complaints can be attributable to the Wi-Fi upgrades still being in their final changes, rather than complete. Also, this is Reddit, where people complain about everything.

And at last one student posting recently loves Purdue’s Wi-Fi. “This is the best WiFi connection I’ve ever used in my whole life.🙂”

Sweeping changes at Purdue

The conversation with Hyatt was wide-ranging, including:

The university is implementing Cisco Spaces to track the environment. Cisco Spaces tracks the location of people and monitors CO2 levels, particularly in conference rooms, and temperatures. “Having that type of visibility will allow us to better manage student spaces—how many people are actually in the sites,” Hyatt.

Facilities planning is particularly important at Purdue, which has had record enrollment six consecutive semesters, even as higher education elsewhere declines. The university is committed to in-person learning, though it also implements hybrid learning.

Networking is catching up with AI. Purdue has leading research and supercomputing facilities and the network is struggling to keep up with the university’s high-performance computing. Purdue is upgrading to 400 gigabit networks to more effectively communicate with other Big Ten research institutions and high-performance computing partners. Purdue’s campus switches are seven years old.

“A measured approach” to AI

Of course, Purdue is implementing generative AI and analytics. Analytics are used to track metrics such as research papers, publications and institutional rankings, to help attract top talent.

The university is “taking a measured approach” to AI, implementing Microsoft 365 Copilot and ChatGPT for higher education, and making it available to students and faculty, Hyatt said. Purdue is launching the Institute for Physical AI (shortened to IPAI—which rhymes with “Wi-Fi) for further AI research.

For trust and safety, Purdue ties AI in with its overall acceptable use policy. “You can’t use the system, whether it’s AI or not, to do things that are questionable,” Hyatt said. He doesn’t see AI generating a wave of student cheating; students have always cheated.

Purdue has implemented an AI system for IT self-help, and expects to extend to other areas, such as HR.

The IT organization just completed a reorganization. As of May, the organization reduced headcount by 54 management positions, added 38 individual contributors, and opened 25 additional staff positions for AI, automation, security and infrastructure.

All of these changes are implemented in an environment of fiscal restraint. Purdue has kept tuition flat for 13 straight years and plans to continue. IT, meanwhile, is tasked with finding tools to save faculty time, reduce stress, and reduce the burden on students. “I see AI becoming more and more of a solution to help us keep our tuition flat,” Hyatt said.

On the other hand, IT also has the freedom to spend money where it can achieve value. “Purdue wants to create the best possible experience. Money matters, but we are given the ability to do what needs to be done,” Hyatt said.

Why this matters

Purdue is a microcosm of worldwide changes. As Hyatt notes, today’s Generation Z demands ubiquitous, working networking and those demands will become mainstream as that generation matures.

And ubiquitous connectivity is becoming far more than an individual preference. We are entering the era of smart devices—intelligent factories, airplanes, trains, roads, smart cars and trucks. Even crops and livestock are growing sensors, and robots are soaring into space. This intelligence requires connectivity to work. At Fierce Network we call this the “smart cloud”—fully automated, self-driving, self-healing, both enabled by and enabling AI.

The network needs to just work, becoming part of global infrastructure that can be taken for granted, like electricity—or the Wi-Fi at Purdue.


What I’m reading this week

$20B port crane farce points to bigger problems for US [Stephen M Saunders MBE / FIerce Network] — Obsession with ripping Huawei out of networks is leading the U.S. to fall behind economically—in this case, in the area of maritime port remote control and automation.

Alibaba Cloud reveals datacenter design and homebrew network [Simon Sharwood / The Register] — The architecture calls for 15,000 GPUs per data center, in hosts packing eight apiece, plus nine NICs, helped by switches with custom heat sinks.

Google Cloud is making deals to “ground” results from its enterprise AI chatbots in real-world facts—partners include Moody’s, Thomson Reuters and ZoomInfo [Ina Fried / Axios] — This is like when a hot dog company announces it has fewer insect parts.

Verizon rebrands with a mellower red V, launches new home internet package [Dan Jones / Fierce Network] — Nothing says “our customers come first” like making a big deal about a new logo.


Worldwide campus switch revenues plummeted by 23% year-over-year in the first quarter,, according to research from Dell’Oro Group. Only Arista and Ubiquiti grew campus switch revenues , whille Cisco’s campus switch revenues fell more than the worldwide average.


  • FTTH Council Europe.
  • U.S. Independence Day!

Black and white vintage photo of two chimps sitting in lawn chairs watching "Planet of the Apes" on an old-fashioned console TV.


That’s the Fierce Network Research Bulletin for this week. If you want more Fierce Network in your inbox — and you know that you do! — sign up for our daily newsletters here. Our newsletters are better than monkeys on lawn chairs watching TV. 



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