Wired or Wireless, Staying Connected

Who is in charge of the campus network? Who is allowed access? All colleges and universities have wireless networks, and network functionality and security is vital for students, faculty, staff, and guests. But with so many mobile users and visitors coming in and out of campus networks, it's a challenge to monitor and maintain. Presented here is advice from the experts on successful installation, maintenance, and security of campus networking.

Refresh, Reality, and Security
Refresh, reality, and security are the three biggest challenges campus technology teams face today, according to Lev Gonick, who has been teaching, working, and living on the ‘net since 1987. He chairs the CIO Executive Council for EDUCAUSE, and his regional, statewide, and national leadership is well known. Gonick is the vice president, Information Technology Services and chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. “The challenges of finding resources for refresh; choosing from a philosophy of a wired network as preeminent to a reality of the need for mobility — and network security” are all areas that CIOs and IT teams need to confront, according to Gonick. But “the real question that CIOs need to be thinking about,” he says, “is whether or not it should remain the purvey of your on-campus networking team or whether in fact wireline networks have become sufficiently pervasive, sufficiently commoditized that in fact we should be looking to third parties like ATT or IBM or somebody like that to manage those networks.”

Bandwidth Utilization
“The greatest challenge universities face is bandwidth utilization,” says Chris Ford, who currently serves as the network administrator for Brescia University in Owensboro, KY, and is a lecturer for Computer Science courses there. “This encompasses peer-to-peer applications, malware, viruses, and legitimate network activity,” he says. “It is sometimes quite difficult to give legitimate network activity priority, while restricting illegitimate activity.” Nonetheless, Ford believes that “all members of the campus should have access; some may have more restricted access than others,” he adds, but “network access in a university campus environment is essential.”

As for who’s in charge of that network, “Administration of the campus network should be kept to a small group. This cuts down on errors in which too many people are making changes.” Brescia University recently partnered with Avenda, a network access control and security solution provider. “Without the Avenda system, we would not have the dynamic security and versatility that we currently have,” Ford says. The system has “really helped us to overcome the difficulties in implementing our network infrastructure.”

Pay Attention to Architecture and Design
“You need specialists in various areas of the network to pay attention to architecture and design,” says Dennis Cromwell, associate vice president for Enterprise Infrastructure at Indiana University. “The expertise can be sourced, but you need to ensure it is part of the team.” Cromwell leads the UITS Enterprise Infrastructure Division, which manages the critical technology infrastructure that enables Indiana University services and software applications.

“One needs to make a fundamental decision whether we want to acquire best of breed and integrate solutions, or try to find a vendor that can provide all the pieces.” Factor in cost, capability, and time to deliver, suggests Cromwell. Design work is also key — and managing change with good systems management practices. “Access is an interesting paradox: you want tightly controlled access to provide accountability, requiring authenticated access by known people — but our campuses need to provide some level of guest access,” he says. Wireless on university campuses, especially large ones, “may be the most complex wireless implementations anywhere. No vendor solves all of this off the shelf, and it will take effort to work through these issues,” he says. “If a CIO does not have mobility as one of the few things that keeps her up at night, then I think she is missing something.”

Deferred Maintenance Won’t Do

“Happily, the case has now long been made that the network is an essential part of campus infrastructure and not a discretionary frill,” says Richard Katz, a strategy, technology, and assessment consultant for colleges and universities worldwide who served for 14 years as the vice president of EDUCAUSE. Nonetheless, the ongoing challenge is to continually fund the network. Colleges and universities too often defer maintenance on their buildings and physical plant.

“On a building with a 50-year useful life, you can get away with some of this,” says Katz. But “with a network that needs to grow to accommodate the increasing convergence of voice, data, and video streams, such deferred maintenance simply won't do.” As well, networks need to accommodate the multiplicity of mobile devices we now carry. “This will become a greater challenge over time,” he says. His advice? “Slow and steady wins the race. Develop a secure and ongoing source of funding for the campus network and invest in the network regularly.”

Funding Is a Constant Challenge
Funding a state-of-the-art network is a constant challenge, according to Fred Archibald, computing infrastructure manager for Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley. “As budgets continue to get squeezed,” says Archibald, “this becomes ever more difficult.” However, it's still very important to refresh the network technology on a regular basis, he says. “Students these days have grown up with network technology — especially when it pertains to wireless and mobility,” says Archibald. “They expect their academic institutions to have the latest in networking technology.

“And yes, security is also a big challenge, posing an ever-changing ‘cat-and-mouse’ game. We walk a very fine line trying to balance enabling users to use the network and making it convenient, while trying to make the network as secure as possible.”

Because of this, it's important to monitor the area as a whole. Rapidly evolving wireless technologies compete for WiFi spectrum, says Archibald, and this can sometimes disrupt services. Though WiFi improves daily, it’s “still not as reliable as wired and is still a shared medium,” he says. “It's important to stay ahead of the curve in delivering top-notch wireless services to users. They will be less likely to try to install competing services that can compromise both reliability and security.”

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles, and features for schools, nonprofits, and companies in the education marketplace. He can be contacted at victor@VictorRivero.com.

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