“A lot of this ­project was not just about improving the ­services we provide but also improving how agile we are,” the College of Lake County’s JAMES SENFT says.

Feb 04 2014

How a Community College Brought Its Network into the Mobile Age

The College of Lake County shares four infrastructure ‘catch-up’ tips for meeting student and faculty connectivity demands.

Situated about an hour north of Chicago, the College of Lake County serves more than 18,000 full-time community college students across three campuses, as well as roughly 750 faculty and staff. But until recently, it wasn't able to provide network services as well as it wanted to, says Director of Information Services James Senft.

The reason? Like many colleges, CLC has been overwhelmed by the growth in mobile device use and the ensuing bandwidth and connectivity demands. Admittedly, Senft says, the IT staff has had to play catch-up when it comes to modernizing the multicampus infrastructure to meet the demand.

"Our equipment was aging," he says. "It was either at end of life or near it, and we needed to do something. We looked at our infrastructure to decide where our deficiencies were. One of them was the backbone; another was our wireless network. It was good, but it wasn't where we needed it to be."

The school's Voice over IP phone system was also showing its age and provided little in the way of ­redundancy or disaster recovery, Senft says. If something knocked out phone service at the primary campus, the phone lines at the two satellite campuses went down as well.

Senft and eight technicians set out to formulate a plan to modernize the school's network. They ­upgraded the backbone infrastructure from 1 Gigabit Ethernet to 40 Gig-E, added new wireless controllers and increased the number of Wi-Fi access points by nearly 50 percent. Along the way, the roving tech team also upgraded to Cisco's Unified Communications System. It did all of the work on time and under budget. The keys to Lake County's success, Senft says, were careful planning, a persuasive return on investment strategy and a deployment approach that broke the project down into multiple components.

But the biggest single factor was a deliberate change in how the school approached the role of IT, he says.

Plan, and then plan some more.

"We had a long design process in place before we formulated a budget," Senft says. "And then ­after the ­budget was approved, we re-reviewed everything. We dove deep into how everything was connected, to identify potential points of failure. We got our team and our Cisco engineers communicating. That's really important. You need to get everyone — the app people, the network people, the server team — saying this is what we're doing and how it will affect you."

Build your case.

The second key step was convincing those who held the purse strings that the money would be well spent. The argument that resonated with the college's board was that if the campus equipment wasn't replaced soon, ­service to both students and the community at large would ­suffer. The stress on the infrastructure began with the increasing load ­created by the explosive use of wireless devices accessing the ­campus network, but it didn't end there, Senft says.

"We had all these new ­devices hitting the network, and we needed the technology on the back end to support them," he says. "It's one thing to get on the network, but another to get the quality of service required. That's what drove the core upgrade and the design of the back-end infrastructure."

80% Percentage of colleges that allow unlimited mobile access to their networks

SOURCE: "2013 State of ResNet Report" (ACUTA/NACUBO, February 2013)

Another key selling point for the board was disaster preparedness. By upgrading the system, the campus network would be resilient to failure.

"Besides quality of service, we needed infrastructure in place so that if something bad happened, the whole network would not come crashing down," Senft says. "That's where a lot of the new technology helped out. In lots of places, we used to have only a single power supply or circuit. Now, there are no single points of failure."

Break the project into manageable pieces.

The IT team took a concentric approach to the implementation.

"The first thing we tackled was the core," Senft says. "Everything rode on that. After we implemented the network core, we did the phone system and finally the wireless. We were essentially working from the inside out."

Senft also turned to CLC's IT provider, CDW•G, to gain services support and expertise in managing the phased-in deployment.

"They really kept the projects moving and in line, and everyone updated," he says. "We had little hiccups here and there, but we met all our milestones, timelines and budgets. That was a big factor in the success of all three projects."

Take a long view from the start.

CLC also upended how it planned for IT, looking to future-proof its network infrastructure, Senft says. In the past, the school would ­upgrade its network as needs arose.

"If we needed five more network ports, we'd put them in," he says. "Today, we look at infrastructure slightly ­differently. If someone says they need five more network ports, we might look at it and ask, how is that system redundant? We might need 10 ports and expand those servers and switches over multiple lengths. It's a change in philosophy."

As a result, CLC is much better prepared for any new challenges as they arise.

"We can adjust more quickly," Senft says. "A lot of this project was not just about improving the services we provide but also ­improving how agile we are. The old system was maxed out.

"Now, if someone comes up with a new service they need implemented, that roadblock is no longer there. We've removed ourselves from the role of putting out fires. Now, we can provide the best services for our community, with enough time to do it right."

<p>Darren Hauck</p>