Jan 27 2023
Data Center

How Higher Ed Can Keep Up With Evolving Data Environments

In higher education, providing a better student experience starts at the data center.

One of the few things more complex than a cloud network is an enterprise network. The diversity of applications and the burden of legacy technology place ridiculous requirements on enterprise networks, and the price of those requirements is paid with the individual efforts required to keep things up and running.

What’s more complex than an enterprise network? A higher education network.

Imagine the intricacies of a multisite operation supporting numerous departments spread across dozens of buildings that house thousands of students, all maintained by a group of people roughly a tenth of the size required to truly get everything done.

Higher ed networks have succeeded because of two things: First, the people who work in universities typically have a love for the underlying tech, allowing them to be more effective than comparable teams in carpeted enterprises; and second, summer break often provides just enough respite from the day-to-day grind to allow teams to evolve their infrastructure so that it’s ready for the next onslaught of students.

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Higher Ed Networks Serve as a Model for Other Industries

In many ways, higher education networks have served as blueprints for the balance of IT practices that exist outside of colleges and universities.

Research networks are frequently among the very first to try new technology, especially if it facilitates the high-speed, high-bandwidth data sharing that is required for long-distance collaboration. Indeed, 100 Gigabit Ethernet, 400Gb and now 800Gb and beyond have all found a place in large research networks, often supporting initiatives that leverage high-performance compute clusters.

But as the networking industry begins a shift from networks (connecting applications and users) to networking (administering those networks), the bleeding edge of technology will naturally expand beyond transport to include operations.

Here again, educational institutions have long been ahead of the enterprise pack. Staffed with Unix admins capable of automating their day-to-day tasks, universities have long-established programmatic approaches to design. However, as more enterprise- and cloud-grade tooling hits the market, some of that DIY spirit should naturally be augmented with off-the-shelf capabilities, allowing these thinly staffed teams to aim their sights even higher.

Less Complex Infrastructure Can Improve Management

For a workforce that is routinely focused on the bits and bytes of IT infrastructure, some of the higher-level functionality can seem a bit unapproachable. Leveraging modern network management tools that are easier to understand means pulling information from the command line and operating at a higher, less-detailed level.


The percentage of organizations that will implement structured infrastructure automation to deliver flexibility and efficiency by 2025.

Source: gartner.com, “How to Evolve Your Physical Data Center to a Modern Operating Model,” March 29, 2022

The trade-off for reduced complexity is often less precise control, which can be a challenge considering the many needs of a large, multisite university. But that trade-off is precisely what is needed to claw back precious time for investigating the next big thing.

In fact, if there is one trend that the universities can pick up from the cloud-scale properties, it’s the reduction of custom infrastructure in favor of a more uniform, one-size-fits-all network architecture. Shedding unique hardware for racks and racks of ubiquitous architecture has been perhaps the most important shift of the past decade. The uniformity of design not only simplifies operation, but also provides a common infrastructure layer that allows for useful advances in automation and operations.

Building a Better Network Means Improving the User Experience

Individual buildings, residence halls and departments or colleges within a large higher education system will continue to have needs dictated by their many users. Therefore, for IT to make progress toward a more uniform experience, it makes sense to start with the data center.

Making the data center more closely approximate a public cloud experience allows IT teams to leverage state-of-the-art technology to drive the speed of operations required to serve a demanding user base. Rapidly meeting the needs of individual stakeholders encourages consolidation, which provides the economic and personnel leverage required to pursue the next big thing — and the thing after that.

But the future of IT isn’t limited to simply seeking small efficiency gains. The ultimate true north for IT teams everywhere must move beyond merely providing connectivity. User and application experience are the new uptime. It’s no longer sufficient to say that something is running. Is the end-user experience what it should be? If not, why?

READ MORE: How one university executed a network connectivity upgrade.

Answering these questions pushes operations well beyond provisioning and break/fix. It’s another level of telemetry, not so much aimed at checking for connectivity as it is examining the overall quality of experience. It requires having a real-time view of what’s going on in the network and how that impacts users.

A class of tools developed with provisioning in mind will naturally elevate the user interface to the primary role. But if experience is job one, the underlying telemetry, which directly impacts the user experience with the network, must become the most important factor. How you identify and evaluate tools useful in this endeavor is fundamentally different. It’s less about the workflows and more about gleaning insights from diverse underlying infrastructure.

It’s those insights that will ultimately yield a better user experience. The question for universities moving in this direction is, where should you start? And given the advancements in the data center operations space over the past five to seven years, the answer just might be the data center.

Sam Chivers/Theispot

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