If your campus is beginning to look and feel less like a collection of classrooms and libraries and more like a giant Starbucks, there's a reason.
That's because wireless access to campus networks has become the latest thing on college campuses as well as at overpriced coffee shops. The extent of wireless connectivity may differ from campus to campus, but across the country institutions of higher education are making their networks available to students, faculty, and staff on the move. Laptop computers have begun to outsell desktop computers for the first time; according to the Associated Press and research firm Current Analysis (www.currentanalysis.com), sales of notebook computers this spring reached 53 percent of the personal computer market, up from 46 percent a year earlier. That means more people are sitting in student unions, classrooms and libraries downloading course catalogs, reports, data results, and more.
The traditional network is literally disappearing and is being replaced by high-speed, heavy-duty systems often with wireless access and connections to an amazing depth of data. It is also affecting the amount of training that users need to make use of a system that has become part of their daily work routines.
Dartmouth College (N.H.) has merged its phone, cable television, and wireless systems into a single system. The four-year-old project, expected to save almost $1 million a year in costs, involved the addition of 1,400 wireless access points and 24,000 wired ports on the campus, according to the New York Times.
Dartmouth, like many other schools mentioned here, has made use of popular wireless protocols (variants known as 802.11a, 802.11b, or 802.11g, for completists), which are the wireless standards of choice for most wireless-access products.
For three years, San Juan College (N.M.) has been pursuing a wireless strategy that lets users access its systems from any building or common outdoor area, according to Shah Ardalan, San Juan's vice president of technology. "One biology professor has taken her class to natural areas of the campus to find and study plant life and has incorporated wireless and [global positioning satellites] as part of the curriculum. This proved to be an inexpensive yet productive way to put technology to work for teaching and learning," he says.
San Juan's wireless initiative was brought in for about $250,000, says Ardalan.
Old wired phone systems aren't likely to be replaced anytime soon by wireless systems or other next-generation technologies, however. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), for example, wireless access points have been installed in every telecommunications room, so there's nearly ubiquitous coverage on the large campus. But students may not be willing to make the switch in their "home" turf, the residence halls. Every year, the institution's information technology (IT) staff talks to the residence hall leaders about whether they're ready to abandon their wired lines for a totally wireless system, but they get a negative response. Students may have daily use of their own mobile phones, but they also come from across the state and around the nation, which means they have calling plans that differ dramatically from one another. They might be able to call home cheaply, but they don't want to risk a roaming charge to call a boyfriend on the sixth floor of their own residence hall.
But all of that wireless talk doesn't obscure the fact that campus networks are also undergoing some good old-fashioned hardware and software upgrades as well. Though such upgrading seems to be the traditional bread-and-butter activity of IT systems, the IT staffs of today are upgrading their campus networks to systems that help extend their systems to more users and to offer those users much more in the way of services and available information.
And that's where the hard core technology of gigabits and cables and servers meets the need for the human touch in terms of training and guidance. More capabilities means more hand-holding and the continuing transformation of IT departments from remote Geek Centrals into customer-oriented service organizations.
Purdue University (Ind.), for example, recently selected SAP software to support its multi-million dollar modernization project. The initiative will involve making many services and different types of information web-accessible for faculty, staff, and students on four different campuses in Indiana--West Lafayette, Calumet, Fort Wayne, and North Central. The university's human resources, financials, procurement, payroll, and even student recruitment efforts will use the integrated software "to create seamless transactions across departments and increase efficiencies for all our campuses," according to Morgan Olsen, Purdue's executive vice president and treasurer.
The intention of the Purdue initiative, known as OnePurdue, is to support the entire academic life cycle. Information will be shared more widely across the campuses, efforts (such as recruitment campaigns) will be measured and analyzed for effectiveness, and various stakeholders (such as parents) will be kept in closer contact with the institutions so important to their children--and to which they are so important in terms of continued support.
On the hardware side, UW is in its third year of an extensive upgrade of its network, including a 10-gigabit backbone "that's really just to support researchers on campus who have to move big amounts of data around," says Perry Brunelli, the UW's director of network services.
The UW has a fairly decentralized IT system, in which Brunelli's staff supports each department or building at varying levels. "We used to treat the campus departments or buildings like an [internet service provider] would," says Brunelli. "We would drop off the equipment and the departments were on their own to work out the issues." He now offers three levels of service. First, there's the old-fashioned drop-off model. Or, the IT department will "support them to the faceplate if that's what they choose," says Brunelli, meaning his staff will take care of everything. The third option is a collaborative model, which means Brunelli's staff will train the department's employees to manage certain aspects of the gear. "Eighty percent of the campus has opted for that offering," he says.
One benefit of this decentralized approach is that the entire campus has standardized gear, rather than the old method where each department bought its own gear. With the campus using all-Cisco network gear, for example, "We've developed much more expertise with this particular line of gear, and I think we can provide a higher quality of service that way, as opposed to having to learn the quirks of the HP switch or what-have-you," says Brunelli.
"Technology is simple. It's the cultural issues" that take effort, says Ron Moore, vice president of technology at the University of Louisville (Ky.). His mind is focused on getting his institution's information to as many users as possible on the campus and off.
Moore spoke to University Business from Australia, where he was helping set up a mountaintop observatory. If that sounds removed from concerns about routers, servers, and downloading e-mail, think again. The observatory is being fitted with web cameras, videoconferencing technology, and more features so that students in Kentucky and elsewhere can research and participate in the observatory's astronomical work from around the globe.
That's typical for what is happening on campuses across the country, where campus networks are becoming less about what's installed in the walls and server rooms and more about what capabilities they can deliver to students, faculty, and staff--anywhere and anytime.
Security is nothing new to users or IT professionals creating and implementing today's campus networks. Chief information officers and IT managers report using various levels of intrusion detection, centralized firewalls, and other methods to keep a lid on threats to their systems.
Wireless, however, creates a whole new vulnerability because someone doesn't even have to walk into a building to attempt to access your system. They can walk up or drive into a parking lot, open their laptops, and start searching for access points.
Though everything from 3Com Intrusion Prevention System (formerly known as TippingPoint) to homegrown authentication programs are used, it's the policies and the human element that are most important. Schools obviously are not entirely closed systems, and new temporary users crop up all the time needing to log onto the network.
At UW, departments often need to give short-term access to someone for a day or two, and Brunelli and his team came up with a workable approach: It lets people in the departments create those temporary accounts for their visitors, but the temp accounts are linked to the creator's account, so there's accountability if the visitors should abuse their privileges. The University of Louisville takes a more-centralized approach to creating those guest accounts. Guests can access the system by downloading the same Odyssey client software that the rest of the campus uses, but someone needs to "sponsor" the guests, and the guests are given a short leash regarding where they can go on the network and what data they can access. San Juan College uses Cisco access points and a management system from Vernier Networks to authenticate guests on its systems.
And though some people may get tired of the attention paid to security, it remains a critical factor in every part of a university's information technology life. "Our focus is on making the network a tool for enhancing campus cyber security," says Jack Suess, CIO at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. "We want to make sure we are being as proactive as we can be defending the network, while still allowing faculty the freedom to perform cutting-edge research."
Along with security, Suess' team is working to make the entire network hardier, building "redundancy and fault tolerance into our inter-building network so we have no single point of failure," he adds.
Wireless is only one way communications service is evolving. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is another, but it's farther behind the mobile phone users in the adoption curve. VoIP uses the internet instead of traditional wired phone service to transmit voice communications. The University of Louisville, for example, has a VoIP pilot running, but what looks to be the future is not easy to convert to. Switching over to the (mostly) Cisco-made VoIP phones is an expensive and complicated process. "It's very capital-intensive on the front end," says Moore. It's still alluring because "the payback is within two or three years."
Users need to be trained to use the VoIP phones, and that's the second roadblock, after the capital cost. But it can be much less expensive to use than regular phone service, and it makes possible some neat features such as unified messaging, where e-mail, faxes, and phone messages are available from any connected device. Moore notes that he will also have to address the issue of power interruptions: Because VoIP runs over the internet, when a site's power system gets knocked out in a fire or storm, the phones go out, which is obviously not a good feature in emergencies. So traditional phones may need to be kept around even after VoIP phones take over the world.
UW is participating in a national effort to take advantage of lots of unused, "dark" fiber that was laid across the nation during the dot-com boom but never used. The university built a 10-gigabit connection running between Madison and Chicago.
"We're now working with Minnesota and Iowa to create a ring to connect the universities in those states to Chicago and Kansas City," where there's another big fiber network center, says Brunelli. The goal is to create a nationwide fiber infrastructure that is broad enough and powerful enough that "a researcher here at Madison could get his very own 10-gigabit circuit all the way to, say, a lab in Berkeley, California, to do high-bandwidth computing."
If those dreams come true, then the work of a university will be spread even more beyond its own walls and across campuses--and coffee shops--around the world.
John Burton is the West Coast correspondent for University Business.