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Stanford team tries for zippier Wi-Fi in crowded buildings

Stephen Lawson | March 6, 2014
Having lots of Wi-Fi networks packed into a condominium or apartment building can hurt everyone's wireless performance, but Stanford University researchers say they've found a way to turn crowding into an advantage.

Having lots of Wi-Fi networks packed into a condominium or apartment building can hurt everyone's wireless performance, but Stanford University researchers say they've found a way to turn crowding into an advantage.

In a dorm on the Stanford campus, they're building a single, dense Wi-Fi infrastructure that each resident can use and manage like their own private network. That means the shared system, called BeHop, can be centrally managed for maximum performance and efficiency while users still assign their own SSIDs (service set identifiers), passwords and other settings, according to Yiannis Yiakoumis, a Stanford doctoral student who presented a paper at the Open Networking Summit this week.

There are Wi-Fi networks today, such as systems from Ruckus Wireless, that can be deployed across multi-unit buildings with some private control by individual residents. But the Stanford project is making this happen with inexpensive, consumer-grade access points and SDN (software-defined networking), on the foundation of open-source software.

In multi-unit housing, each household typically installs its own Wi-Fi network with a wired broadband link out to the Internet. Each of those networks may be powerful enough to give good performance under optimal circumstances within the owner's unit, but it may suffer from interference with all the other privately run networks next door.

Borrowing techniques from enterprise Wi-Fi, Yiakoumis and his colleagues built a shared network of APs (access points), in this case home units provided by NetGear. They modified the firmware of those APs, and using SDN, they virtualized the private aspects of the network experience.

In the Stanford researcher's model, residents can name and secure their own virtual networks as if they had bought and plugged in a router in their own rooms. They can also assign policies such as parental controls and prioritize their favorite applications for access to bandwidth. Then, wherever they go in the building, they can log into that same virtual network, Yiakoumis said.

Meanwhile, the underlying tasks of assigning client devices to particular channels and access points are centrally controlled to make the best use of the infrastructure. Where separately owned and managed APs may make poor use of the unlicensed frequencies available in the building, the centrally controlled network can use its universal view to arrange the resources most efficiently.

SDN places control of networks in overarching software rather than in the specialized network components that forward packets. BeHop uses software components including the OpenWRT Linux distribution for Wi-Fi routers and the Open VSwitch virtual switch, which is included in the Linux kernel. While most of the software used in the project is open source, the team has developed some code it hasn't had time to release as open source, Yiakoumis said. It plans to do so later.

 

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