JEFFREY RICE and DENNIS SEYMOUR of Olivet Nazarene University say that with a new networking infrastructure from Cisco, if a switch goes down, 95 percent of the university's servers are still up and running.

Sep 28 2010

5 Tips for Upgrading Your Networking Infrastructure

Colleges and universities are upgrading their networks to support the latest video and wireless apps. Here are five best practices for when you make the move.

Colleges and universities are upgrading their networks to support the latest video and wireless apps. Here are five best practices for when you make the move.

Today's applications require more bandwidth than ever. That's why, when planning a network infrastructure upgrade, the IT staff at Olivet Nazarene University factored in support for YouTube videos, video conferencing, and widespread wireless usage for e-mail, Facebook and other highly interactive applications.

But meeting the existing needs of the 5,000-student campus in Bourbonnais, Ill., wasn't enough. Olivet Nazarene and other universities have found they must build their networks today with an eye toward the future, deploying a scalable infrastructure that delivers long-term backbone support for an ever-­expanding list of applications.

“Technology changes so fast, we could be pushing a lot more video and other apps in our infrastructure,” says Dennis Seymour, director of information technology at Olivet Nazarene. “We want to be safe and prepared for the future.”

One near-term consideration at the university was that the aging infrastructure – a network built with equipment that was nearly a decade old – had to be replaced.

“There was uncertainty around not knowing what would happen if our core systems went down,” Seymour says. “We weren't able to see down the road any future plans for them being maintained 24x7, and we weren't sure what parts would be available. So we thought it best for us to start making a move and planning for the future.”

The university selected Cisco Systems as the main supplier for its upgrade, based on a few factors: the scalability and resiliency of the products, and confidence that Cisco would have the service infrastructure to prevent complications.

“Cisco products gave us a nice, elegant design where we could take down the whole core and still have the campus running,” says Jeffrey Rice, network manager. “We really wanted a good solution for faster recovery.”

The university chose Cisco Nexus switches at its network core, along with Cisco Catalyst 3750 fiber aggregation points in each of its buildings, with Catalyst 2960 switches supporting end-user connections into the network.

In the transition to Cisco, Olivet Nazarene embraced a “top-of-rack” design in its two data centers, in which every server rack has a dedicated switch, with each of those switches supporting locally connected servers. In the previous design, every server connected directly into the core, so if the core went down, every server went down with it.

“If a top-of-rack switch goes down, we still maintain 95 percent of our servers,” Rice explains. “Cisco's Nexus was a more elegant solution for top-of-rack than competing products.”

Drawn from the insights of Seymour and Rice, as well as experts at other universities and market analysts, here are some critical steps you can take to future-proof your network.

Recognize that performance is critical. Take a hard look at the performance levels needed before and after a network upgrade. You must make major advances today and provide plenty of capacity to meet future requirements.

Charleston Southern University, in Charleston, S.C., deployed a Brocade TurboIron switch to support its database backup operations, replacing an aging switch that had served the same purpose. In so doing, the university cut its time to back up those seven servers by more than half, from 52 hours to 23 hours. Previously, there was no guarantee that weekend backups would be complete when the IT staff returned on Monday. Now, the university knows it can back up as many as 10 servers before the start of a new workweek. “For future use, this has given me some leeway I didn't have before,” says Rusty Bruns, CIO at Charleston Southern.

480.3 million
The packets-per-second throughput supported by the HP switches recently deployed at Columbus State University

Source: HP, Columbus State

Deploy as much capacity as you can afford. When considering a major network infrastructure upgrade, it makes sense to build for the future with maximum fiber infrastructure, says Ron Bonig, research director for higher education at Gartner.

“Pull as much fiber as you can,” Bonig says. “Once you get that in the ground, then switch upgrades and advances in switching will keep your bandwidth up.” Adopting a similar mindset, Columbus State University conducted a network upgrade using HP gear, and overbuilt from a bandwidth perspective, says Mack Ragan, manager of networks and infrastructure, university information and technology services for the Columbus, Ga., institution.

“We're undersubscribed, which is good,” Ragan says. “It gives us a lot of room for growth,” particularly for bandwidth-hungry applications that are anticipated, including Video over IP.

Choose the configuration that suits your network best. At Columbus State, the university has focused on a chassis-based network configuration because a single chassis supports multiple types of connectivity, different modules and can scale to higher bandwidth in the future, Ragan says. 

Tennessee Tech University, in Cookeville, Tenn., recently upgraded its network with Extreme Networks gear. The university prefers stackable networking equipment rather than chassis-based equipment, because the former approach makes it easier to complete adds, moves and changes, says Jerry Boyd, assistant director of information technology services.

“Chassis-based wiring gets very messy very quickly,” says Boyd, who has used the chassis approach in the past. “Every time you went into a closet you had a major undertaking just to figure out where your port was and how to get wiring back in there,” he says.

Understand that mobile devices are here to stay. Today, students and professors use netbooks, iPads and other wireless devices to access the Internet and are consuming more capacity every day. The impact of these devices is much more difficult to determine than that of desktops and servers, so they must be a factor in capacity planning.

Stick to a short list of vendors – one, if possible. Keeping up with technology advances is tough enough. The last thing any IT organization needs is more complexity. Many universities have narrowed their supplier list to one vendor or a short list of suppliers. IT organizations at colleges and universities “are looking for commonality to their network,” says Gartner's Bonig.

“Look to deploy the same type of switches everywhere, or at least the same family, with the tools to manage them, to make upgrades, and to push out fixes as efficiently as possible.”

Upgrade Checklist


  • Think about how wireless is impacted by the upgrade. Wireless is a core technology at virtually every college campus, so network upgrades inevitably impact wireless infrastructure.
  • Don't take on too much. The explosion in mobile and wirelessly connected devices should be approached with caution because of a lack of common security protocols.
  • Be sure your new networking gear can work with installed equipment. One university ripped out a major manufacturer's switching gear because it was incompatible with its preferred antivirus software.
  • Look for PoE support. New desktop and end-user networking products should support Power over Ethernet for simplified installation and maintenance.


<p>Katrina Wittkamp</p>