The network is evolving into the backbone and, in many instances, the central nervous system of campus life. No longer just a clunky, wire-based delivery system for various passive computer applications, the network has evolved into an active, often proactive, campuswide information and communication system that touches and interacts with almost every person and department on campus--and beyond.
And as demand for faster and more robust networks continues to grow, coupled with bandwidth-hungry, internet-based applications, IT departments are constantly playing catch-up to deliver the 24/7 services from an ever-demanding clientele. Moreover, there are the constant back-end technologies to manage: security, wireless, spam, viruses, storage, remote access, software upgrades and patches, service, support, maintenance, and hardware upgrading. Then toss in digital content and copyright management issues, preventing illegal music downloading, dealing with hackers, and the occasional network crash, and you get a sense of what it takes to keep today's networks humming and delivering cutting-edge services and applications.
One of the major projects that IHE network administrators face is migrating to wireless networks. In 2003-2004, for the second straight year, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of colleges and universities that have access to wireless networks, according to The College Technology Review. The report notes that some 70 percent of IHEs are using wireless, up from 45 percent two years ago.
The Campus Computing Project (CCP), in its 2003 survey of IHE information technology, found "dramatic gains over the past year regarding campus planning for and the deployment of wireless networks." The report cites, for example, the portion of campuses reporting strategic plans for wireless networks rose to 45.5 percent in fall of 2003, up from 34.7 percent in 2002, and 24.3 percent in 2001.
"Wireless is clearly exploding across college campuses, much as it has in the corporate and consumer sectors," says Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the CCP, and a visiting scholar at Claremont Graduate University (Calif.). "Rising expectations about wireless services are fostered in part by the recent, dramatic growth of inexpensive wi-fi (wireless fidelity) in the consumer sector. Students and faculty come to campus wondering why there is no wireless service in dorms, offices, classrooms, and the campus quad if they already have wi-fi at home," he explains.
And according to the fifth annual Educause survey of IT trends, some of the top 10 issues that IT managers named as priorities include infrastructure management and security and identity management.
Regarding network internet initiatives, the Technology Review report found that virtually all IHEs provide student access to the internet through computer labs, libraries, and other campuswide locations. Additionally, more than two-thirds have internet capability in classrooms, and the numbers are growing consistently for access in dorms and student centers, according to the report.
"Campuses are continuing to evolve their networks for two main purposes: to add or upgrade technologies that help educational excellence (responding to their core mission), and to improve technologies that help administrative efficiencies (related to cost and revenues)," says Charles Fadel, Global Education Marketing Lead at Cisco Systems.
Fadel adds that he sees a renewed interest in IP-based video for distance learning applications and for video streaming of supplemental materials into a lecture hall.
Although there are concerns among CIOs and IT administrators about the security of wireless networks, many IHEs are adding wireless components to solve long-standing problems.
At Cornell University's (N.Y.) School of Hotel Administration, wireless technology was used to solve a lack of computer time for students. Though there were three classrooms filled with PCs, they were usually booked for classes, restricting use by individual students. Hardwiring other classrooms for PCs would have been too expensive, including an additional $9 monthly maintenance fee per jack. The school solved the problem by constructing a mobile wireless "classroom" that consisted of a rolling cart holding 30 laptops. The laptops were fixed with a wireless PC card that communicates to a transmitter/receiver access point on the cart. The cart is equipped with a connection to the Ethernet jack in the classroom, allowing students access to the network. Enterasys installed the wireless system, which included security software.
The Mississippi State Board for Community and Junior Colleges realized that its wide area network was being taxed because of a growing enrollment and increasing recreational use by students, using such peer-to-peer applications as .mpg file sharing. The increasing desktop power and growing user numbers put strains on the network, causing applications to suffer performance degradation.
"Recreational use of the network that generates nonessential traffic can be a real problem," says Chuck Adams, network director at Northwest Mississippi Community College. "To deal with it, we required a complete solution to throttle the traffic and one that enables us to maximize the performance of our network."
The problem was solved by using Ethernet switching solutions from Extreme Networks combined with Packeteer's application traffic management software. The technologies prevent recreational traffic from interfering with essential academic applications, without having to invest money for additional bandwidth. Each campus is assured of consistent application performance regardless of traffic patterns or network load.
Chuck Adams, CIO at the 7,000-student Northwest Mississippi Community College, talks about maintaining a secure network in a peer-to-peer world.
Adams: Security. Our big concern is students misusing our networks, especially in dorms. Last year they inadvertently brought in the Blaster virus. We had protected ourselves very well from the outside, but did not have the tools in place to really protect ourselves from the inside, especially from the dorm network, and they hurt us. That is always a concern--what students can do to us from the inside. And their curiosity in trying to get into places on our network that they shouldn't be is something we can control now, but it is always a concern.
We require that students use specific operating systems, and we're joining those systems through our domain for some control. That gives us the ability to push Microsoft updates and virus scans to them though the network.
Peer to peer is a real problem, especially with music downloads. There were times when file-sharing consumed as much as 70 percent of our bandwidth, with both inbound and outbound traffic. We are addressing that with a Packeteer appliance that's really good at limiting bandwidth to that type of traffic. We're not completely shutting it down, but we are toning it way back.
It looks at packets of data as they come across the network and identifies what they are. It gives us the option of leaving them alone, discarding them, or throttling back the bandwidth. We've chosen to throttle it back to about 56K total bandwidth. We also can open it up again "after hours," but we look at our network as an educational tool, not a recreational tool, so we just don't open it up.
We're both, but wireless is a fairly small part of it. We don't have a commons area where someone can come in with a laptop and get on the network. We have wireless access points that are restricted to machines that have been approved. It's not open to the world.
We'll expand our wireless service on our three campuses. One of our campuses is going through an expansion now, and it will have wireless capabilities. Our big concern with wireless is the security, but I think that will get better as time goes on.
Carl Fussell, director of Technology and Communications Services at Santa Clara University, Calif., says the network is an inescapable part of campus life.
Fussell: I'd say it is the robustness of the network--bandwidth demand in particular--as we get more into video. In general I think the subject is rich media, and the ability to deliver that cleanly.
Part of the robustness of the network is its continuous availability, its reliability, dependability, and performance. The network is no longer an adjunct that you can use occasionally and that you may need to bring up. Everyone now has to have access to get their jobs done. If the network goes down, many groups on our campus are not able to work to their normal abilities, so we need to have a resource or infrastructure that we can depend on. There are all sorts of buzzwords that we use to describe it, like "data tone"--comparable to "dial tone"--but the point is, it has to be there.
Security is, of course, important to us. Part of it is an education problem. Anyone can go to the local computer store, buy a couple of access points, and set up a wireless network on campus. They don't stop to think about whether they are going to broadcast SSID (Service Set Identifier) or even web-level encryption. Suddenly you have a glaring hole in your network.
The ability to effectively handle mobile users. It's a challenge to be effective with that--I mean the ability to have the access you need anytime, anywhere, with sufficient bandwidth behind that to make yourself effective when using these wireless tools. High-speed wireless for handheld devices will be very important.
I think handheld products--when they come into their own--will be huge. I envision everyone on campus with one of these things. It would be great for a new student to be able to pull up a map of where her next class is, or to walk through the library stacks browsing for the materials she needs, and not have to be tied to a wired terminal somewhere.
With the economy as it is, more and more students, even undergrads, have to work part-time jobs to make ends meet, to afford the education. So you wind up with students who are away from the campus proper. If they could have access to materials more readily--the remote user idea--I think we could do a lot to help those students.
Security will continue to be a big issue, particularly with how my staff spends its time. I've seen an increase from 10 percent to 50 or 60 percent of their time spent managing security issues. We need smarter networks that can heuristically detect and deal with problems, so staff is free to do the things they need to do. We found that over the course of the year, security issues went from something they dealt with maybe once a week to something that occupies more than half their time. One staffer wound up spending all of her time helping develop an in-house application to help us deal with security and abusive situations, and network management in general.