Technology (Innovations for Education)

Preparing Your Network for Its Next Generation

networking designs and technologies

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Technology is still changing rapidly, and there’s a lot with which campus administrators must keep up in order to provide students, faculty, staff and even visitors an optimal experience. Here are six things you need to know as you move forward.

1. Get involved early. The first thing administrators must do when discussing their campus network’s capabilities is involve the IT team. “The IT team must get involved early in renovation, building planning and construction projects because technology is a critical part of what happens in every building on every campus today,” says Joanne Kossuth, CIO at Mitchell College in New London, CT. Mitchell, a private liberal arts college founded in 1938, has about 1,000 students.

“Building for current and future needs is even more critical because, if you don’t have appropriate amounts of conduit to support your operations 24/7, 365 with minimal downtime, then you’re going to have to invest more money later to correct the issues that arise as a result,” says Kossuth. “Your system must be upgradable and flexible and able to handle the next generation of technology.”

Kossuth should know. Until recently, this EDUCAUSE member was vice president for operations and CIO of Needham, MA-based Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, where she designed the entire network infrastructure and had redundant conduit and fiber runs and fiber to every room as well as wireless network overlay. “In 2000, Olin had one of the first fully diverged networks,” she recalls. “Two years ago, we did a network refresh — we had gotten 11 years out of our previous iteration of networking. In this refresh, we didn’t need to touch cabling because we had planned ahead.”

Now Kossuth is busy assisting Mitchell with a refresh of its campus network. “We have increased capacity and replaced devices,” she explains, “and we still have more work to do in terms of planning for the future and mapping out the campus master plan.”

2. Expectations have changed. “Millennials expect to get wireless connectivity — a seamless connection — between buildings and in every building, that they’re able to use whatever device they want and get the performance they need in running their applications,” says Tim Zimmerman, research vice president for Gartner, Inc., an information technology research and advisory company. “Students are now making decisions on where they attend school based on network connectivity and wireless support.”

On the data side, Zimmerman continues, eight to 10 years ago networks were designed for coverage — people just wanted to get on — they were not based on performance or capability. “That wasn’t too much of an issue,” he says. “Now what is driving education is the end-user expected experience. They expect more than speed; they expect there to be no latency challenges. If students have the latest piece of technology but experience slow apps, there’s pixilation or they have to continually retry, they are upset. Even though the system can give well over a Gig of throughput, if it doesn’t address latency in the connection, students are getting a suboptimal experience. This applies to video applications and phone calls that are offloaded onto WiFi where available and cellular coverage is not optimal.”

3. Density is a consideration. Fitting hand-in-hand with quality over latency is quantity. There are a lot of places on campus where there are large numbers of people, such as lecture classrooms, student centers and performance and athletic venues. “You have to plan for a large number of people — for transaction density or density of users,” says Zimmerman, “otherwise, there are still connectivity challenges, and that’s not good.”

Kossuth agrees. “I believe wireless is a critical component in terms of what our constituents want. Some people think wireless means that nothing has to be plugged in anywhere, but that isn’t true. We need to have access points, and we need density for those access points for students, staff and visitors.”

4. Variety is the spice of life. From laptops to tablets to smartphones to Fitbits, every device has WiFi integrated into it at a different level from other devices. And students are bringing them all to campus. As a result, administrators must address the variability of these devices in order to ensure that students are getting the right experience in terms of performance. “There is no standardization for radio in the devices,” says Zimmerman. “The IT team must work with faculty and students to understand what devices are being used and assure that existing devices can get the expected performance. This will help the team develop a device connectivity policy. In the same way that users would not expect to get a Gigabit of performance if they plugged a laptop with a 100 Mbps Ethernet adapter into a 1 GigE wired connection, a connectivity policy documents the parameters of devices that will get the performance that the network was designed to provide. This allows the IT team to reference the policy in an explanation of why students or faculty are having issues with devices that have not been designed to meet minimum parameters. We see a lot of this with older devices that need to have their communication capabilities upgraded and new IoT (Internet of things) devices being introduced into the market.

campus wireless networks

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5. Needs must be prioritized and traffic must be aggregated. Campuses must prioritize the user experience, remembering that students are on campus to learn. Therefore, spaces such as libraries and classrooms should receive a high priority in terms of usage. “We don’t want devices that are networkperformance hungry, like participating in a Halo tournament on Xbox, to have the same priority as students trying to complete education-related tasks,” says Zimmerman.

“Additionally, we have to take the aggregation of these needs at the edge of the network and make sure that the aggregate of data traffic is being addressed by the rest of the network,” Zimmerman says.

With more than a Gigabit of wireless capabilities at the edge of the network, it is not uncommon to see a requirement for 10 Gigabits from the wiring closet upstream to the network core and application servers. Having the bandwidth at the edge of the network and the ability to manage it all the way through the infrastructure as well as the ability to prioritize traffic is key to assuring that students and faculty are getting the experience that they expect from the communication infrastructure.

A new issue that IT teams must also address is the future convergence of networks. As video surveillance cameras become IPbased, they no longer require a separate network. The same is true for access control and HVAC systems, which are moving away from proprietary protocols to IP-based networks. “Historically, you may have four, five or six networks that exist separately on the campus that, in the future, are going to be consolidated,” says Zimmerman. “As we see the traffic aggregation and additional streams of information use the campus infrastructure, this supports the need for higher bandwidth networks. There will be requirements for 10/25/40/100-Gigabit Ethernet support at different segments of the network based on user needs.”

6. Security is a consideration. “There are numerous models for delivering security, both third-party outsourced services and in-house services,” says Kossuth. “Regardless of what you select, it’s important to understand that you have the ability to enable policies in terms of access and protecting data at rest and in transit.”

“It is important that the IT organization document what they need for each aspect of a security policy,” says Zimmerman. “For each role that is defined — guests, students, faculty — what access is needed to what resources? How will threats be addressed, whether it is rogue access points, potential viruses or attacks on the network? How will the IT team prevent users from accessing or downloading illegal material? Each of these areas and other aspects of security are a very important part of a security component that is part of an overall network communication strategy that services the needs of many differing constituents.”

When it comes to technology, it’s challenging to stay ahead of the curve because it changes so rapidly. Diligence and planning are key to providing all users with an optimal experience. “The biggest component,” Kossuth sums, “is to get involved early in the conversation. Your system must be upgradable and flexible and able to handle the next generation. Also, knowing how to use data effectively to make decisions is going to be even more important.”

THE NEXT STEP: SOFTWARE-DEFINED NETWORKING (SDN)

Software-Defined Networking (SDN) is an emerging architecture that is dynamic, manageable, cost-effective and adaptable, making it ideal for the high-bandwidth, dynamic nature of today’s applications. This architecture decouples the network control and forwarding functions, enabling the network control to become directly programmable and the underlying infrastructure to be abstracted for applications and network services. SDN architecture is:

  • Directly programmable: Network control is directly programmable because it is decoupled from forwarding functions.
  • Agile: Abstracting control from forwarding lets administrators dynamically adjust network-wide traffic flow to meet changing needs.
  • Centrally managed: Network intelligence is (logically) centralized in software-based SDN controllers that maintain a global view of the network, which appears to applications and policy engines as a single, logical switch.
  • Programmatically configured: SDN lets network managers configure, manage, secure and optimize network resources very quickly via dynamic, automated SDN programs, which they can write themselves because the programs do not depend on proprietary software.
  • Open standards-based and vendor neutral: When implemented through open standards, SDN simplifies network design and operation because instructions are provided by SDN controllers instead of multiple, vendor-specific devices and protocols.

Source: Open Networking Foundation (www.opennetworking.org)

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

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