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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > March 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 3 — March 2003
Taming the Wireless Frontier: PDAs, Tablets, and Laptops at Home on the Range
by Joe Williams education services librarian at Medical Sciences Library

When I came to the Medical Sciences Library at Texas A&M University (TAMU) last June as the new education services librarian, I had to hit the ground running. My new position focused heavily on developing mobile library services and programs. And while I did have some experience supporting wireless PDAs on a fairly large scale, I quickly learned that everything really is bigger in Texas!

By the time I arrived at TAMU, most of the designing, testing, and implementing of the library wireless networks had already been done. So, my first task was to start taking advantage of all that hard work by planning new wireless services. In this article, I'll relate the story of how TAMU Libraries developed a wireless network, including the approaches to the problems that teams encountered along the way. I'll also describe three wireless services currently being delivered here using Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), tablet PCs, and wireless laptop computers. The Wireless Frontier

Maybe I've been on the prairie too long, but I'm starting to think that setting up wireless networks and services feels something like settling a wild, new frontier. After all, wireless is still a fairly new and unexplored territory, and it even shares a few traits with the wild Old West. For example, business moguls, entrepreneurs, and adventurers are rushing to the wireless frontier in droves, trying to stake out their claims. Law and order aren't firmly established in the wireless world, either. Competing wireless standards are still up for grabs, and security solutions still look a little wet behind the ears. Network sheriffs often find themselves outnumbered as "outlaws" routinely shoot holes through their firewalls, appearing and vanishing in a wink. And at night, gangs of network squatters, data rustlers, and other varmints can be found sniffing around these systems. But like many institutions, TAMU Libraries has accepted these risks and challenges in exchange for the freedom and mobility that the wireless frontier offers.

Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, is a land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant institution. In 2001, TAMU had the sixth-largest enrollment in the U.S. with over 44,000 students studying for degrees in 10 academic colleges. More than 37,000 of those students were undergraduates. Sterling C. Evans Library is the general academic library on campus, and it combines with five others to make up the TAMU Libraries. Evans was the first and largest library facility to receive a wireless network. Since the Evans installation was largest and most problematic, I'll focus on it in this article. The wired network environment in Evans is typical of a major research library. That is, there are numerous supported public terminals scattered throughout the building at key locations and connected to the library network with 10/100 Ethernet cable. However, expanding user services models are forcing libraries to rethink that traditional network design. Why Try Wild Wireless?

A shift in technology requires some sort of justification. So the question for TAMU Libraries back in the summer of 2001 was this: Why implement wireless in a traditionally wired environment? There were two basic answers: convenience and cost. Wireless provides convenience in terms of mobility: Researchers can stay connected to the physical library collections throughout the building (even while browsing the stacks), while remaining connected to the network. This allows them to take instant advantage of popular services like catalog and full-text database searching, submitting interlibrary loan requests, and asking reference questions as they work. Other conveniences include the ability of instructors to arrange connected classes near source materials, and the possibility of library staff performing inventory and collection maintenance while in the stacks.

There are also cost-related reasons for adopting wireless. Wireless is certainly not cheap, but it can often be a better value. This is especially true if the library is frequently moving terminals, relocating services, or renovating parts of the facility. At TAMU, more students are bringing their own laptops each semester. This has allowed the libraries to divest a number of those public terminals we support, cutting back on equipment and personnel costs. It is important to note that our wireless network supplements, rather than replaces, the existing wired network.

About 2 years ago, members of the TAMU Libraries administration entered into conversations with Cisco Systems, Inc. We had already identified the benefits of wireless to our library users and organization. Cisco was interested in furthering science and technology research, as well as in enjoying the public relations benefits of showcasing its products in high-use or "spotlight" areas of a large university campus. Our administration eventually struck a deal where Cisco would provide the necessary equipment, and our administrators would provide for the design, testing, implementation, and maintenance of wireless networks in several high-use campus buildings. Evans Library and the adjoining Annex were designated as "spotlight" areas. Two engineering buildings, Fermier and Thompson halls, were also selected for this wireless showcase, thanks to an additional proposal from Joseph Morgan and the engineering honor society, Tau Alpha Phi. These network installations began in early August 2001 and were completed at the end of September 2001. The Lay of the Land

There were a number of challenges in the network installation. Evans Library has two, six-story buildings encompassing over 500,000 square feet. Most floors are a combination of public open spaces, office areas, and stacks. TAMU learned early on that book-filled stacks pose areas of high attenuation. In other words, a wireless signal has a very hard time passing through stacks of books. This posed a real challenge, because the goal was complete signal coverage throughout all 12 floors, including the areas between the stacks.

Those planning the installation encountered several other access challenges as well, mostly related to security issues. First, they wanted to provide users with network security against "data snooping" (people intercepting and viewing someone's transmitted data in midstream), while still allowing complete access to our resources. They also wanted to provide this security with the least amount of special assistance possible. The wireless network needed to accommodate students who brought their personal laptops and wireless cards, as well as several laptops that librarians would loan for hours at a time.

So the planners faced the question of where to physically position our wireless access points (WAPs), the boxes that transmit and receive the wireless signal. The WAPs needed to be easily accessible in order to provide good signal coverage, and to make maintenance easier for our systems staff. At the same time, they wanted to keep the WAPs fairly inaccessible in order to discourage tampering. Finally, they wanted to minimize our wireless signal leakage. Containing our signal within the library's walls, as opposed to letting the signal leak outside and beyond the facility, would leave data rustlers with fewer ways to sneak in.

A wireless network's signal coverage depends on the location of the WAPs, the types of antennas used, and the attenuation factors of the area being covered. To figure out how to provide signal coverage in the expansive Evans and adjoining Annex facilities, staff decided to conduct a site survey. The survey would allow them to generate comprehensive maps of coverage areas and attenuation factors for the proposed project space. Joseph Morgan's group of undergraduate engineering students formed a "WIP (Wireless Infrastructure Project) Action Team." The groupcreated and implemented an elaborate site-survey cart for generating comprehensivecoverage maps. This group also provided all local network design and installation testing for Fermier, Thompson, and the Evans and Annex buildings. (You can visit the WIP student project home page at for more details.)

To address the data security challenges, staff from the library's systems department and the TAMU campus Computing and Information Services (CIS) department began reviewing the available security options.

Like many other institutions, TAMU chose to adopt the wireless communications standard 802.11b developed byIEEE. The security element within the 802.11b standard is an algorithm known as the Wired Equivalent Privacy or WEP. But TAMU felt that the security provided by WEPwas insufficient, and began considering alternatives. Several possible security options were reviewed and planners eventually selected Virtual Private Network (VPN) authentication. The TAMU campus network already authenticated remote users through a Cisco VPN 5000 server, so extending that same service to the wireless network on campus seemed like a reasonable solution that many users would already understand. Circling the Wagons for Strength and Safety

The TAMU CIS department was responsible for the actual network installation, configuration, and network operations and maintenance. Because all of the library's networks are within the TAMU firewall, CIS also provided all of the authentication and access procedures and policies.

Once the signal coverage and security issues were addressed, the project staff turned its attention to the placement and installation of Cisco equipment. The WAPs couldn't be placed in false ceilings because of reduced signal strength and, insome areas, fire code regulations. While there were communications closets on each floor of Evans and the Annex, placing WAPs in the closets resulted in loss of coverage area. In the end, it was cheapest to run Category 5 network cable from communications closets up into the false ceilings, then down to the WAPs on each floor. From the WAP, directional detachable antennas would then transmit and receive the signal. To discourage tampering, they placed the WAPs as close as possible to the ceiling, inside locked plexiglass boxes that were simply thermostat guard boxes, modified for our purposes by Morgan and his student Action Team.

VPN authentication requires three things: a network connection, a VPN server, and a VPN client installed on the user's computer. When the user's computer first connects to the network, his or her VPN client talks to the VPN server and together they authenticate that user. Once authenticated, a secure tunnel is then created between the client and the server. As long as the client remains connected to the network, all data sent back and forth is encrypted and passed through that data tunnel or "virtual private network."

To set up our wireless network, staff first created a Virtual LAN (VLAN). As a result, any wireless device that associates with our network WAPs will connect first to the VLAN. All VLAN network requests are routed to a "firebox," wherethe VPN server tries to establish a connection with the wireless device. If no VPN client is detected on the user's device, that user is routed immediately to a download area for obtaining and installing the VPN client. With the VPN client in place, an encrypted wireless connection can be made, and the user is ready to roam!

Later in 2001, CIS established wireless networks in the four remaining TAMU campus libraries, funded through internal sources. Once these installations were completed, the libraries had successfully established five outposts on the wireless frontier! All that was missing now were the wireless projects. Free-Range Computing: Three Wireless Projects

This is where I came in. Here are the three projects underway at Texas A&M:

1. Tablets and Instruction: This past fall at the West Campus Library (WCL), business librarians Michael Smith and Barb Pietraszewski proposed a wireless tablet project that would serve two purposes: First, the project would expand their library's user services model and, second, it would enable the staff to evaluate tablet technology as a teaching tool, a reference tool, and a data entry tool "in the field."

The WCL is a spacious facility with three floors and one service desk at ground level. During peak hours each semester, it routinely accommodates 400 or more students at a time. Through the tablet project, Smith and Pietraszewski are now working to connect with more of those users. They go roving with wireless-enabled tablets in hand, actively seeking out reference interactions. They rove for a total of 6 hours per week—two shifts of 3 hours each, at a fixed time. They use the tablet for answering questions on the fly and for entering internal reference question statistics via a Web-based form. The tablet is a touch-sensitive Fujitsu Stylistic 3500, which runs Windows 2000 and provides full PC capabilities.

There were initial technical difficulties installing and configuring the VPN client successfully onto the tablet. However, these setbacks have been resolved and roving reference services are currently underway as a pilot project through May 2003. We've already ordered a second tablet, and if the two roving testers deem the idea successful, more librarians will start to rotate in.

2. Laptop Lending and Access: The Sterling C. Evans Library staff has implemented a wireless laptop lending program to provide patrons with increased mobility and direct access to physical materials while remaining connected to the library's catalogs or databases. Through this program, 18 wireless-enabled Dell laptops (4000 and 4100 models) are now available to borrowers for 4-hour checkout. Each laptop comes equipped with a CD drive, a 3.5-inch floppy drive, an AC adaptor, a wireless NIC, and a carrying case. Each machine is loaded only with a VPN client and Web browser. Each laptop uses a VPN guest account, rather than requiring users to configure the VPN client themselves. The machines do not leave the building, and currently only TAMU faculty, staff, and students may borrow them. (We've also provided wired public ports for individuals who bring their own laptops but lack wireless connectivity.)

Laptop circulation since November 2002 has been, to quote Evans desk staff, "vigorous!" Each of the 18 laptops circulates once a day on average. While there was some initial difficulty keeping the VPN clients connected to the network, staff sees no apparent drawbacks to the service so far. There has been no significant increase in questions posed to reference or circulation desks as a result of the service. However, the checkout procedures and staff training processes do take significant amounts of time. The Medical Sciences Library (MSL) also began loaning wireless laptops in January 2003, partially in response to the popularity of and the demand for the Evans project. MSL will also be loaning individual NICs for users who want to wirelessly connect their personal laptops.

3. PDA Initiative: MSL launched a second wireless project in January 2003, offering two PDAs for checkout. The purpose of this project was to expose MSL users to PDA technologies and to provide them with a means of evaluating their applicability. The PDA lending project is part of a broader Library PDA Initiative consisting of three main elements: instruction, collection, and the experiential. The instruction component includes providing users with PDA informational sessions each month and by appointment. The collection aspect includes providing PDA-related print materials as well as PDA versions of popular textbooks and reference materials, and maintaining collections of relevant online resources. The PDA lending program provides much of the initiative's experiential component.

Librarians are now circulating two Handspring Visor Pro PDAs, which run on the Palm operating system. The PDAs come with a recharging cradle, 16 MB of memory, and have a black-and-white display. Library users can borrow PDAs for 4 days with the option of one renewal. User response to the circulation project could not be gauged at the time of this writing. Based on current interest in PDAs among library users, the initial response is expected to be slow but steady. Some faculty in the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine are beginning to experiment with PDA use, which has started generating greater interest in the library's PDA initiative and vice versa. The wireless component of the PDA Initiative is temporarily stalled, waiting for the development of a VPN client for PDAs. At Home on the Range

With a lot of teamwork, vision, and determination, the TAMU Libraries have ventured out into the wireless frontier and begun to settle the territory. We have started providing services for our users, delivering the promise of increased freedom and mobility. Our brushes with outlaw networks and data rustlers have been minor so far, though we stay on the lookout for trouble. Based on the popularity of current services and the positive feedback we have received to date, the benefits of providing wireless seem well worth the risks. In the months to come, our staff will be looking for ways to take our services to an even higher level—paving our roads, so to speak, and building towns and cities where only outposts currently stand.

One wireless solution that all TAMU Libraries staff is looking forward to is the installation of a new VPN server for the TAMU campus. The current VPN server model has been discontinued by Cisco, and support for this product will cease in a few years. CIS will be moving to a new VPN server early this year. For the PDA Initiative, this will mean gaining a VPN client for PDAs. For our tablet and laptop programs, this change will mean even more stable network connectivity.

In another important move, our administration recently formed a libraries-wide Wireless Implementation Team. This team will help increase communication and collaboration among wireless project leaders, and will drive future wireless programs and services. And where will the next year take us on the wireless frontier? That's still hard to say, but the options from out here look wide open!



Grewal, D., Heath, F., & Chollett, B. (2001). "Design and Economies of a Wireless Network in a Large Public Library." Unpublished manuscript.


Joe Williams is education services librarian at Medical Sciences Library at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. He has an M.S.L.S. from the University of North Carolina­Chapel Hill. His e-mail address is
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