The Dark Horses of Campus Computing

The Dark Horses of Campus Computing

New technologies and services will keep IT administrators on their toes.

Campus computing has become an annual contest among an ever-growing number of technologies competing for the IT purse. As the new academic year bursts from the starting gate, some of the leading horses this year are not the usual contenders. Wireless networking, after a lot of talk and pilot projects, is now a must-have service. Legally obtained music appears ready to figure importantly in the muddy battle over file sharing. Spam has nosed ahead of viruses this fall as the enemy of campus network performance. Handheld devices are gaining credibility as important players in the "new" campus infrastructure. None of these horses is new to the IT scene; they have all matured to challenge the traditional contestants: computers, software, and support services.

Where IHEs have not deployed wireless access points, campus community members are now quick to fill the gap on their own dime. Anyone with $100 to spend can get a wireless router and open an access zone for a whole department or a good part of a dorm. Apple's AirPort Express, listing at $129, offers a combination of wireless internet access, music streaming, and printer sharing. Meanwhile, the campus IT organizations are preferring to supply the wireless access points of their own choosing. Many that use Cisco Systems, for example, are replacing access devices from other manufacturers with Cisco's Aironet series, which varies in cost from $500 to $1,300 but has the advantage of being well integrated with Cisco routers and switches, and so making management of wireless access zones easier to accomplish at the central network control points.

Anyone with $100 to spend can get a wireless router and open an access zone for a whole department or part of a dorm.

Wireless networking is a prime example of the technologies that are transforming campus computing from the "outside." Manufacturers are marketing directly to the public, keeping the technology inexpensive and easy to install. The downside for campus IT support units is that wireless signal strength fluctuates and behaves in ways that only a radio engineer can sort out. Many help-desk calls this fall are appeals to fill gaps in wireless coverage and to fix (or at least explain) variances in signal quality.

The recording industry's race to overtake music file sharing and copyright infringement has been joined by the emergence of commercial download sources. Apple's iTunes music store and runaway hit iPod player have set the pace for legal music, with songs selling for 99 cents and audio books and music videos now included in the iTunes inventory. The iPod players cost $300 to $400, depending on the model.

Apple's success has spurred Napster to offer a music "rental" service at $14.95 per month, supplementing its 99 cents per song offering, which was the breakthrough business model for legal distribution of music via download. Napster 3.0 uses a technology termed "Janus" that keeps track of the subscription period and then disables the music files when the rental expires.

In the late summer, RealNetworks started its challenge to the front-runners, offering songs at 49 cents. Its Rhapsody service offers subscription access to music at $9.95 per month. STARZ! supplies video downloads for $12.95 per month for customers with Internet connections running at 600 kbps or higher.

Whether the proliferation of these outlets will finally rein in illegal downloading and file sharing remains to be seen. Colleges and universities face continuing pressure from the media industries to block file sharing and to persuade their campus communities to respect copyright for music, video, games, and software. The legal, low-cost sources hope to win over many of those network users who still take their chances with illegal sharing.

Unwanted e-mail shows no sign of weakening as a burden to campus mail systems and the in-boxes of its users. Not surprisingly, the number of anti-spam software programs, hardware appliances, and filtering services is growing steadily, too. Stopping, or at least identifying, spam at the mail server has u

become critical for campus computing because once it has been distributed to users, the cleanup chore is widespread.

Barracuda Networks' Spam Firewall is an appliance (hardware, software, and update services requiring little management by the IT staff) that detects and quarantines spam with a low percentage of "false positive" mistakes. It is priced on a scale ranging from 90 cents per user up to 1,000 users, to 27 cents for populations over 10,000.

For campuses running Unix- or Linux-based mail services with sendmail, PureMessage from Sophos is a leading choice for anti-spam filtering. Unlike its appliance-based competitors, it is highly customizable at the mail server, which has advantages in flexibility but requires staff time and expertise.

Brightmail's anti-spam filtering software for individual computers is used in several commercial products, and in June of 2004 was acquired by Symantec and is now featured in its Norton AntiSpam 2004 product. The Norton package sells in the $15 to 50 range in the highly competitive online software sales market.

Greenview Data's SpamStopsHere is a hosted, off-site service that uses several layers of filtering to accomplish spam blocking. Its advantage is that it requires no hardware or software on campus. Its principal drawback is that the company manages the filtering criteria centrally, and does not provide customers and users a means to adjust filter settings.

One of the major IT policy issues raised by anti-spam technologies is the matter of false positives--those messages identified as spam but actually are legitimate. A researcher on the reproductive activities of fruit flies could find e-mail blocked because the spam filter cannot differentiate it from the flood of sex-related information figuring in message scans. The technological ideal is, of course, 100 percent blocking of unwanted messages and no stoppage of those that are wanted. Once freedom of expression concerns are added to the discussion, spam blocking can easily become a contentious topic in computing advisory committees.

Cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDA), small-format computers and cameras, game players, and hybrids of several of these are forcing their way to the head of the pack of new hardware devices on campus. Most colleges and universities have tried to limit their responsibility to support users of these new micromachines, and have been particularly concerned about the looming demand to accommodate them on the campus network. The difficulty of support was not great when it was a matter of synchronizing a networked calendar in an environment like Microsoft's Exchange/Outlook or Novell's Groupwise with a Palm Pilot or equivalent. But as PDAs become more complex, the task of integrating them into campus networked services grows more daunting.

The Blackberry handheld has been adopted by senior administrators on some campuses as a way to stay in touch while traveling or during a campus emergency. Now some faculty are asking to be provided with them. While the individual units can be obtained for as little as $300, subscription to a related communications network can cost $70 per month. Palm, HP, and Dell are the leading purveyors of PDAs, ranging in cost from $100 to $500 or more. The high-end devices are essentially pocket-sized microcomputers complete with wireless network capability. The lower end of this suite of products are still primarily personal electronic calendars and address books. Dell's family of Axim devices and Palm's Tungsten series are top sellers, along with HP's iPAQ.

PDAs have not succeeded in replacing desktop or notebook computers on campus. Instead they are typically bought by faculty and administrators for personal convenience and ruled outside the set of devices supported by central IT. So far, there has not been a "killer" application for widespread use on campus. Medical schools have generally embraced them as an excellent way to carry information and stay in communication as personnel move through hospital rounds.

In the past, campus IT leaders chose technologies, products, and services for adoption by their clientele. Now the IT jockeys are hanging on to their saddles as the new generation of consumer-oriented technologies race onto campus. The first few requests for support can be turned aside, but the onrush of sheer numbers of devices (let alone MP3 songs) will eventually mandate support for new products and adjustments to campus network infrastructure and usage policies. Some new students have shown up this fall toting notebook computers with built-in wireless networking and did not want to hear that if their dorm rooms were not covered for wireless they could always buy an RJ-45 cable and attach to the 100 MHz wired Ethernet.

Races rarely run as predicted. Like horses, those technologies with irresistible power and stamina cross the finish line. IT shops, this year more than ever, are watching as the pack of contending new technologies sorts itself out.

Tom Warger is a consulting principal for Edutech International (www.edutech-int.com).


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