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Growing Pains

As network usage increases, IHEs find ways to manage demand and keep the traffic flowing.
University Business, Jan 2006

When Stephen Landry became chief information officer of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., in 1996, the university had a pokey 56-kilobit telephone modem connection to the internet. One of Landry's first actions as CIO was to upgrade the connection to a T1 line, and he's been trying to stay ahead of technology ever since.

Seton Hall has doubled its internet capacity every two years since Landry made the switch, but he admits it hasn't been easy to manage the growth. "We had significant problems around 2000, when Napster became popular, and since then, we've adopted a number of strategies to both increase and preserve our internet bandwidth," he notes. "For example, we've implemented bandwidth-limiting technologies that give lower priority to file-sharing activity on the campus network."

As the university's capacity continues to grow, Landry has found that management continues to be a major issue, since consumption is booming. "It is a real challenge for campuses to keep up," he says.

Seton Hall is far from unusual in trying to determine the level of care and feeding its network will need for growth. Most, if not all, institutions of higher ed are thinking about how to handle increased network traffic and different device types as downloads of educational material and games increase in size and complexity.

But the challenge isn't only having enough bandwidth for large file handling. Many IHEs are either implementing Voice over IP and Video over IP technologies, or considering putting them into place in the near future.

Also, other parts of the university have begun needing network power for the first time. Security cameras, air conditioning and heating equipment, alarms, and even door locks--they can all be centrally monitored through an IP-based system these days, making for increased bandwidth demands.

Managing the traffic that accommodates requests from researchers, faculty, students, and maintenance departments requires skill in juggling security, support, and storage issues, and sometimes involves a healthy dose of tough love in saying no.

"Universities have unique challenges in growing and managing their networks, because students and staff are much more tech savvy than users in the corporate realm," says Dan Young, vice president of Global Industry Solutions Marketing at Nortel. "Students, in particular, are demanding higher levels of services than they were a few years ago, because they're on the computer all day and night."

Because of the technological sophistication of its users, colleges and universities have to grow their networks faster than companies do, Young notes. The drive to access the network from mobile devices, collaborate on projects through the network, and simply have university services that are more streamlined and effective is causing many schools to look hard at network components and issues.

University Business checked in with several IHEs to discover what they're doing to grow their networks and then keep traffic flowing.

Although some network demands can be anticipated, preparation for growth can also be a crapshoot.

A college that's looking at what it needs five years from now can be fairly confident of what will be on its network within that time, but in terms of 10 years, the picture gets murky.

After all, a decade ago, most people outside of academia didn't use e-mail, and the internet seemed a long way from being the shopping, entertainment, and information repository that it is now.

Similarly, trying to predict what will change in computing in 10 years is more an amusing exercise in prognostication than in actual planning. To make up for the lack of crystal balls on campus, many colleges and universities are anticipating growth by simply adding additional capacity now. Some are putting so much new network fiber into the ground and into new buildings that CIOs and IT administrators can't imagine being able to use it all--and that's just how they like it.

IHEs ponder how to balance student freedom to use a
network as they wish, against inappropriate use.

When the Frank W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., was being constructed over the past five years, Chief Information Officer Joanne Kossuth saw the opportunity to put enough network power into buildings for decades. "We knew it would be cheaper to put in more capacity now than to try and add it later," she says. "It's a balancing act, because it's hard to predict what you'll need in the future. But, basically, we spent every penny that we could on putting in fiber."

IHEs with buildings that have already been wired aren't skimping on adding even more capacity when they have the chance. In order to maintain growth, Nashville, Tenn.-based Vanderbilt University, for example, tries to maintain 30 percent more capacity than it's using, says Matthew Jett Hall, the university's chief information architect.

"Our network is managed by design rather than organically," says Hall. "That way, bandwidth doesn't become that big of an issue."

Beyond preparing for growth by increasing capacity, institutes of higher education are creating strategies around how to determine growth, with many schools asking their academic and administrative departments to predict their needs within the coming years.

At The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Chief Network Officer Michael McCarty and his team ask members of the user population to outline how their work will affect the network. For example, recently he was told the radiology department in the university's health system is going to be sending its patient test results to doctors online from now on. With the files over 1 GB each, planning is needed to make sure they zip across the network without clogging it.

Getting different departments to predict their needs is tricky, McCarty notes. "Some people really understand the kind of traffic they're going to generate, but others might not realize how they're going to impact the network in advance," he says. "For instance, the accounting department didn't tell us they would be handling accounts receivable, so we didn't have a line in to handle that workload. We had to order a second fiberlink until we could come up with a new strategy."

At the same time network plans are put in place for growth, institutions are making sure their processes are solid enough to handle traffic spikes and changes. One method increasingly employed is consolidation of once-separate infrastructures, which allows for centralized management.

"We're trying to converge as many systems as we can onto the network," says Lori Temple, associate provost for Information Technology at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "People have come to us asking for fiber to hook up alarms or air conditioning, and we started to see the fiber we put in for data getting eaten away by these requests."

Rather than put in separate networks, UNLV created a converged network that handles different types of traffic. Although this requires more management in order to have data packets routed correctly--there are IT staffers assigned to watch network traffic screens all day--Temple believes that it makes for a more unified structure.

"We're putting more tools in place to automate management, but sometimes you just need people in front of screens, watching the flow," she says. "That helps security, because you can see the traffic spikes and investigate anomalies before they become real problems."

Managing network requests from researchers,
faculty, and students sometimes means saying no.

Bringing together multiple systems can sometimes create an upfront cost that has to be addressed, says Art Gloster, vice president for Information Services at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I. Three years ago, the college began to bring together voice, video, and data, and Gloster's department launched a pilot program for putting VoIP and video conferencing in its dorms. First, though, administration had to be convinced.

"One challenge in managing the network this way was that we had to justify it monetarily," Gloster notes. "We spent some time in putting together the numbers to show that if we invested what we were spending in plain old telephony and put in VoIP, it would have ROI within five years. We had to show we'd be spending the same money, basically."

Other IHEs also report that they're taking a similar, business-focused approach to network management. Rather than seeing the network as a way for information to be piped from one place to another, universities need to look at networks as fitting into a university's overall business model, says Hall.

When he joined Vanderbilt in early 2004, Hall had come from the network computing group at Bank of America, and he was surprised at how technology teams at the university weren't integrated with one another. Also, there was a dominant focus on maintaining the network, but not on growing it.

"Now, we've built in supply-chain management and business function review procedures into our network," says Hall. "I've also put a three-year plan on my website to have transparency about how we intend to grow the network into something that looks more like an enterprise system."

Likely to be helpful in the future for network growth management is that tech advances have driven equipment and storage space prices downward. Even broadband is far less expensive now than in years past, says Craig Smythe, who is on the higher education team at Cisco Systems.

"There's a big decline in prices of Ethernet services, and prices have gotten to a level where we're seeing quite a few schools implement a 10GB backbone," he says. Storage, too, is getting cheaper and more sophisticated, so universities are able to put a great deal of content on the network, and serve it up through a local area network, without a deleterious impact on performance.

"The cost savings on bandwidth and storage can be shifted to spending in other areas," advises Smythe. "For instance, a university might think of adding network security professionals to handle access issues on a larger network."

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of network management is student use. In general, illegal downloading of music and movies is on the decrease, found a recent study by Entertainment Media Research. Many consumers now pay for music and movies that they once downloaded through file-sharing services like Napster.

But the problem hasn't gone away, especially among students. This leaves many IHEs pondering how to give students freedom to use the network as they wish, but keep them from bringing copyrighted material onto the network inappropriately.

At Northeastern University in Boston, the question is especially intriguing, since it's where Shawn Fanning created Napster. "Our philosophy is to have an open network that's managed," says Bob Weir, the university's chief technology officer and vice president of Information Services. "That was our mission when Shawn was here, and it's still our mission."

To ensure students can roam free (but within limits) and still have a managed network, Northeastern employs a number of bandwidth monitoring tools created by its IT department. The software tracks how much bandwidth each machine is using and puts information about large downloads into a graphical chart. Beyond illuminating problems on an individual machine level, this data can determine the best time for network maintenance. Unlike corporations, where network retooling, security updates, and storage upgrades can be done at night in an empty office, IHEs don't have the luxury of such downtime. Tracking student use helps NEU staff do maintenance when it affects the least number of students and faculty.

Pace University in New York City also looks at student use in a way that's distinctive from the rest of the campus; traffic is routed as a result. Chief Information Officer Frank Monaco notes that residence halls are segregated on the network from research labs and administrative offices, making for three different network streams that can be managed more easily. For example, dorms are assigned lower priority for bandwidth during the day, and offices get less bandwidth in the evening.

"To give everyone quality of service, you have to be able to control bandwidth in a way that makes sense," says Monaco. "That also assists in being able to expand your network." Knowing where traffic is flowing, and being able to direct, rather than just monitor, that traffic is vital for ensuring proper network use--and that the network doesn't sputter with a major addition like VoIP.

As IHEs refine network plans and manage growth, many implement strategies to deal with unexpected twists and turns in technology in the future.

At Northeastern, IT administrators make sure they won't be surprised by sudden equipment needs by keeping infrastructure current, and on a steady refresh cycle. Networking hardware has a lifespan of about four to six years, says Executive Director of Technology Rick McCool. With recurring funding, NEU can replace 20 percent of its network gear every year, he notes. "We know we have the reliability we need to do innovative strategies that might require newer equipment."

Building more accountability and responsibility for network use among different user groups is also an option for ensuring that network equipment is used effectively. At the University of Miami, the separate network set up for students is managed by the students themselves.

"We gave them the bandwidth, and said, 'If you can manage this, it will cut down on the costs of using the network,' " says Lewis Temares, UM's vice president and chief information officer. "They've taken it upon themselves to make sure downloads are done at 3 a.m. rather than 3 p.m."

With researchers and faculty, network use is often kept in check by having departments pay for more bandwidth if they outstrip existing capacity, says Temares. "Sometimes their wishes exceed our capabilities. But we tell them that they can have more network utilization if they put in some research grant money, or a department charge-back. If they know they have to pay for it, they tend to be more conservative in their usage estimates, and mindful about how they're using the network."

Pace University maintains separate residence hall, research, and administrative networks for easier management.

Such tough love--combined with management tools, network savvy, and appropriate planning--can go a long way toward keeping capacity robust and reliable at colleges and universities. After all, you don't need to wear white gloves to see the value of being a virtual traffic cop.

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in Saint Louis Park, Minn., who specializes in covering technology.

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