Mort Rahimi of Northwestern University says bandwidth should never be an issue at a research university.

Mar 03 2009

Northwestern University Keeps Students and Faculty Up and Running By Tackling Bandwidth Issues

College IT departments find creative ways to meet the computing needs of today’s students, faculty and administrators.

Faced with an avalanche of new devices, media and technologies, college IT departments find ways to keep students, faculty and administrators up and running.

College campuses today find themselves awash in a rising tide of new broadband applications and technologies. The multiplayer online game “World of Warcraft” is very popular with students, as is downloadable content such as news, movies and educational videos. Tack on BlackBerrys, iPhones and the iPod touch, and there’s seemingly no end to the bandwidth strain on campus networks. What to do?

Mort Rahimi, vice president and chief technology officer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., tries hard to take the device and new technology explosion in stride.

Rahimi says Northwestern’s IT group upgrades roughly one-third of its hardwired and wireless networks every year. The new equipment is placed at the core of the network and the core equipment is moved toward the edge. He says the university core has multiple 10 Gigabit links that handle voice, data and video, including 50 commerical TV channels.

This strong network backbone helps the university keep up with the ever-increasing demand for bandwidth. “Bandwidth should not be an issue at a research university,” says Rahimi, who adds that the general policy is to avoid putting restrictions on users.

“Students are free to play games, run iPhones and use videos for educational purposes,” says Rahimi.

While many university IT managers echo Rahimi’s sentiments, there are so many new devices and technologies today that some college and university IT managers readily admit that the network may go down at times and the school just has to live with it.

During the NCAA Final Four tournament last year, the IP network at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill went down when students opted to watch the UNC game on ESPN Online rather than on cable TV.

“We thought about the downtime long and hard, but came to the conclusion that the interruption was an isolated incident,” says Larry Conrad, vice chancellor and CIO at UNC, who adds that with the state’s budget situation so uncertain, it didn’t make sense to upgrade the network to accommodate a one-time event.

Other schools may not have experienced an event as dramatic as a widespread network outage, but they feel the bandwidth pinch nonetheless.

Longwood University in Farmville, Va., uses packet-shaping tools such as Packeteer to control illegal music file-sharing by students. And with prices dropping on high-speed networking services, the school activated the OC3 Networks capability in its Cisco 7604 routers to bring its bandwidth up to OC3 levels.

But even with the increased bandwidth, the school is having a hard time keeping up with the demand on the network and is considering imposing a per-packet charge on students.

“With budgets shrinking as they are and applications expanding, it’s getting more desirable for us to charge by the packet,” says Frank Moore, Longwood’s CIO.

Casey Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project, says the problem is not just games and devices such as the iPhone, it’s new technologies as well.

“Skype is not a device; it’s a new technology that puts a drain on bandwidth, yet is a positive peer-to-peer application that most schools want to support,” he says.

“One of the big problems for college IT departments trying to manage all the devices and technologies is the sense of entitlement among the students and faculty,” says Green.

About one of every four students spends more than 20 hours a week online.

SOURCE: Student Monitor

“There’s just a sense that people expect to run what they want to run,” he says, adding that many colleges manage all the devices by segmenting the business and the residential networks and asking students to register all the devices they bring to campus.

Head On

Much like Northwestern, many schools are facing the bandwidth issue head on. Bob Robinson, director of IT at York College of Pennsylvania, says he and his staff adopted a stricter policy toward registering networked devices following the Blaster worm incident a few years ago.

“We were getting 300 infected computers at a time at our help desk,” says Robinson, who says his group realized it needed a much more organized device policy.

Now there’s no limit to the number of devices students can bring to campus, but they must register every device that runs on the college’s network, be it a notebook, Xbox or iPhone.

Another drain on bandwidth today is the ever-increasing use of streaming audio and video by students and faculty.

“Today, students can pull down audio and video of their class lectures on iTunes U, or view the lectures via real-time video feeds,” says Jim Davis, CIO at Iowa State University.

Davis says Iowa State is continuously upgrading its network infrastructure to keep up with the growing demand for bandwidth. One reason Iowa State can handle the load is that the university is part of a consortium of four schools (including the University of Iowa, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin at Madison) that pooled resources to build a regional voice, data and video fiber-optic network.

“We built a ring around the Midwest, including dedicated research circuits,” says Davis. “It’s not endless, but it serves us well. We still have to plan for our bandwidth needs.”

Positive Games

While there is certainly a negative aspect to gaming, it’s also important to consider the positive influence of games.

“There’s at least 50 to 60 years of literature that addresses using games as a teaching tool,” says Mort Rahimi, vice president and chief technology officer at Northwestern University.

“Simulations can teach students about aircraft and flight procedures, and there are also military applications for games and simulations,” he adds.

At the University of Central Oklahoma, the school put gaming labs in the clubhouses in some of the residence halls.

“We used it as a proactive way to get the students together,” says Cynthia Rolfe, the school’s vice president for IT, who says the university put about 10 computers at a time in the residence halls for gaming.

Rolfe says the school originally earmarked $150,000 to build a gaming lab, but because of the ongoing financial crunch, the faculty decided it wasn’t the best way to spend college funds. However, Rolfe says a larger gaming lab may be in the cards in a few years, once games and simulations become more integrated into the college curriculum.

<p>Matthew Gilson</p>