Mark Strandskov says the network upgrade at Central Michigan University was designed to deliver service 100 percent of the time – even in the event of a disaster.

Total Upgrade

Delivering reliable access to networking resources requires a holistic look at the network, from wired and wireless gear to network security.

Delivering reliable access to networking resources requires a holistic look at the network, from wired and wireless gear to network security.

May 2011 E-newsletter

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For IT managers at colleges and universities, the key to keeping students, faculty and staff happy is staying focused on network performance. With that in mind, many are undertaking infrastructure upgrades to ensure reliability, speed and higher bandwidth.

At Central Michigan University, a number of enhancements have been made to the institution's network. For connectivity to the university's virtual private network (VPN), IT upgraded to Cisco Systems ASA 5520 appliances from the older 3600 series, says Mark Strandskov, associate director of  network services.

The older units had been in place for about seven years and were also being phased out by Cisco, he says. The 5520 model offers users a secure tunnel for connectivity between campus and 19 remote sites. “In addition, if we have home users or users who are on the road, they can make a secure connection from their notebooks back to the campus to utilize campus resources,” Strandskov says.

For their network core, CMU uses Cisco Catalyst 6509E switches with the Virtual Switching System (VSS) Supervisor cards. This allows two physical switches in different locations to function as one. That means redundant links on a lead switch stacked in a building can be attached to data centers in disparate buildings, Strandskov says.

“It virtually looks like one backbone switch, so you set up your trunks hooked up to two different buildings,” he explains. That way, if something happens to the fiber, one of the lead switches in the buildings or the core switches in one of the networking data centers, the network stays up. If they lose one of their network data centers because of a disaster, the university will still have the other core running, he adds.  

“Our goal is to [design] it so we can lose a switch, a circuit, a fiber link, a complete backbone networking data center, and have almost everything in the network up and operational," Strandskov continues. “So from a disaster recovery, fault tolerance standpoint or a mishap like a tripped breaker, we want to keep the network functional 100 percent of time.”

The IT department also upgraded switches in a couple of buildings, including the main library, which hadn't been changed since it was built in 2002. They chose Cisco's Catalyst 3750-X switches, which gives them 10 gigabits between their backbone closet and the campus network infrastructure, he says.

Strandskov adds that even though it cost a little more than $1 million for the network upgrades, the IT staff knows it is delivering a better overall experience to its users.

“If we didn't have the network functioning in the middle of the day, classes could be severely impacted,'' he says. “People wanting to communicate with other people wouldn't be able to do so, and research wouldn't be able to occur.”

Going Mobile

Not surprisingly, providing robust wireless connectivity anywhere, anytime is also one of the most pressing concerns for IT directors at colleges and universities, and Strandskov says CMU is no exception. With 28,000 students and 60 remote locations to support, having enough wireless access points has been another major priority at CMU (see sidebar).

One of the main reasons for colleges to consider network upgrades is the proliferation of smart mobile devices, says Rohit Mehra, director of enterprise communications infrastructure at research group IDC.

“They are really data intensive,” Mehra says. “You need a lot more bandwidth than what you needed three to four years ago.” Colleges and universities should consider upgrading every four to five years to take into account the life of current equipment and changes in standards, he adds.

On the Case

Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland is also looking to improve its network performance. The IT department in the past couple of years focused on upgrading its edge networking infrastructure to ensure that its firewalls and other intrusion detection technologies would be robust enough to handle a move to cloud services for all e-mail communications and calendaring, along with video content.

600 megabits per second
The maximum data rate of the most advanced 802.11n devices shipping today

SOURCE: Wi-Fi Alliance

“We determined that we had to make sure our university's edge infrastructure was capable of the huge additional demand on traffic leaving and returning to campus,” says Lev Gonick, vice president for Information Technology Services and CIO at Case Western.

The IT department also realized it needed to upgrade to 802.11n for better wireless performance and speed, says Gonick. The university, with 10,000 students, 2,400 faculty and 3,500 staff, has 1,500 access points. But IT staff knew that what was once sufficient to allow 750 to 1,000 users to connect simultaneously without performance degradation wouldn't work now.

Today, Case Western has three times the number of users who want connectivity, not just for e-mail and social media, but for wireless video and voice services too. Gonick says users want to stay connected as they move between buildings, which required a third-generation architecture for online wireless connectivity.

The IT department doubled the number of access points, and Gonick says they can't do the upgrades fast enough to keep pace with demand.

“There is a general expectation among our students and our faculty that the network needs to be available, reliable and not congested and impacted by spam and other services,'' he says. “Maintaining or keeping up with expectations on campus is very much like an arms race – you can't stop once you get going.”

Wireless Focus

Upgrading wireless capabilities is an important aspect of keeping a modern network up to date, especially at a college or university.

A few years ago, Central Michigan University's former president mandated that wireless connectivity should be available everywhere on the main campus, an edict that caught the CMU IT team off guard, says Mark Strandskov, associate director of network services. The main campus in Mount Pleasant, Mich., has 20,000 students, and IT staff realized it didn't have enough access-point density to service several areas.

“If you have 300 people in a lecture hall, we could put in a single access point. But if all 300 are trying to connect at same time, it probably won't work very well, and that's where density comes in – being able to handle a given number of users for their needs,'' Strandskov says.

Universities were early adopters when Wi-Fi was first introduced about a decade ago. Students were bringing notebooks to college and wanted the mobility that wireless connectivity offers, says Rohit Mehra, director of enterprise communications infrastructure at research group IDC.

According to Strandskov, around the same time CMU became focused on adding wireless access points, the IT team discovered that Cisco Systems, their wireless provider, was discontinuing the product they used.

“Typically, we standardize on one product and replicate it so everything is very consistent throughout the network,'' says Strandskov. “We had to go back and re-evaluate what we were going to do. That's when we started to look at 802.11n, which was ratified around that time, and we were an early adopter.”

Last year, the IT department started replacing all the old access points with 802.11n. The majority of the access points are the Cisco 3500i devices with spectrum analysis built in, and the remaining 25 percent are Cisco 1142 and Cisco 1252 units. The 802.11n gear offers much better bandwidth availability, reliability and faster speeds, Strandskov says. Today CMU has just under 1,400 802.11n access points on campus, with the exception of two apartment complexes that use outdoor mesh access points that will be upgraded in the 2011–2012 school year.

For students and faculty, that means network performance is a lot faster, especially if they're trying to download or transfer large data files, Strandskov says.

<p>Andy Wakeman</p>

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