Oct 31 2006

How to Overhaul a Campuswide Network and Live to Talk About It

Montana State University-Northern successfully overhauls its campuswide network and offers tips to other wiring warriors.

Montana State University-Northern overhauled its network and gained a tenfold increase in speed and capacity for many network tasks.

Behind the diploma-covered walls of the administration building at Montana State University-Northern (MSUN) in Havre, Mont., a monster was growing. It had crept into the ceilings, too, just above the fluorescent lights. Its tentacles stretched for miles, and new ones sprang up periodically. Its bad temper wreaked havoc on faculty, staff and administrators who dared to go up against it.

The menace was the university's antiquated network system. Years of adding new cables to the old buildings created a tangled web of connections that not even Network Manager Kevin Mielke could get a handle on.

“The network started out really small and just grew,” says Mielke, who inherited the network job five years ago. Network managers came and went before him without marking a trail. “There weren't any maps,” Mielke explains. “We had no idea where any particular run went or how many connections and splices were out there. Behind walls, above ceilings, tucked into crawl spaces–the connections could be anywhere.”

Snaking coaxial cables were connected to feeble Thinnet multiple port repeaters that weren't able to isolate problems. “If the hub in the administration building went down, the entire building would go down, maybe because someone had unplugged their [network] connection and didn't terminate it properly,” recalls Mike Campbell, MSUN CIO and director of IT services. “The repeaters were very temperamental.”

The final straw came in 2000, just after the university hired a new IT director, Robert Bentz. “The first week Robert was here, we had a network problem at the far end of the administration building that brought the whole campus down because all network activity went through the main building,” Mielke recalls. It took Mielke three days to pinpoint the repeater that caused the problem–a connector hidden in the ceiling. “At that point, [Robert] decided we needed to get some wiring done.”

The Plan

Tip 1: Be Consistent
If you decide on a name-brand switch, stay with that brand throughout the project. “It's much easier from a management standpoint, and it's easier to get technical support.”
–Mike Campbell

“We knew what we needed to do,” Campbell says. Beginning with the administration building, the IT team would rewire all 10 buildings on campus with leading-edge technology that would take them into the next decade. The old phone system would be updated as well. At the time, Category 5 enhanced fiber cabling, which is tested to 350 megahertz, and Cisco Systems hubs and switches were the industry standards for networking.

They knew that rewiring the old buildings would be a challenge. Some classroom and dormitory buildings were 50 years old. They had thick walls, and there were no easy networking paths or equipment closets. What's more, the buildings were situated acres apart, making the connections more difficult.

“We were sending guys into 12-inch crawl holes to find a networking path,” Campbell says. “You couldn't send just any [guy] up there. We were also running our wire through some old steam tunnels. Some were abandoned; some were still in use. I wouldn't want to go in there on a bet.”

Initial funding for the $450,000 project came from a university foundation loan and an IT infrastructure fee paid by all students. The full project would have to be funded and completed in several phases.

Tip 2: Stay With One Contractor
“If you are doing one building at a time, try to work with the same contractor each time. They are aware of your buildings and how you like things done. If they're good, it pays to hang onto them.”
–Mike Campbell

The Cavalry

Northern contracted with a cabling installation company in nearby Helena to run the new Cat5e lines throughout the campus, which Mielke says was a smart move. The cable installers were very experienced in working with older buildings.

“They made a number of suggestions and gave us a lot of help,” Mielke says. The contractor drilled through loads of concrete to link buildings together, and that added to the cost of the project.

The cabling company rewired the three-story administration building with 40 miles of Category 5 cable and Cisco's 6509 backbone switch, 8510 switch and 3600 series router. Connections were simplified and mapped. The same wiring was used for the new Nortel phone system, along with a standard digital phone switch. “That allows us to make every jack either a phone or a network jack,” Mielke explains.

With the installation complete, the team removed the old Thinnet cabling and switches. Then they connected the old network used by the rest of the campus to the new switches.

Administrators noticed immediate results. “We saw a tenfold increase in speed and capacity to transfer files from the server or do Internet downloads,” Campbell says. Installers also added an OC3 45-megabyte Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) circuit that replaced the old three-frame relays for the Internet connection.

However, for the networking team, nothing could beat the reliability of the new network. “It hasn't failed because of hardware or cabling issues since [the installation],” Mielke adds.

Tip 3: Finish as Quickly as Possible
The entire project took almost four years, but the majority of the buildings were wired in the first 18 months. While standards have surpassed Cat5e, “I still think we're the best wired campus in the state, and other universities tend to agree.”
–Mike Campbell

The Next Phase

With the most critical part of the project completed, the network team began to update the buildings that housed computer labs, then classrooms and finally the dormitories. Old one-way cables were replaced with redundant fiber between buildings.

That way, “If we had problems in one area, we wouldn't lose another building,” Campbell explains. All classroom buildings were rewired next, followed by the campus's two dormitories. Each building houses its own network closet complete with Cisco 2900 series switches.

The installation of all 10 buildings took about a year and a half because the job was tedious and labor-intensive. “We had to take all the [old] cabling out of those multifloor buildings and run all the jacks,” Campbell says. What's more, the project was delayed several times while additional funding was arranged.

Today, the campus includes 20 buildings with two Cisco 6509 switches with redundant fiber between all the buildings.

Tip 4: Keep in Mind What's Next
When planning the project, plan for the future. “When we started the project, gigabit [capacity] servers were just coming out. Now we're doing gigabit to all our servers.”
–Mike Campbell

With the new network and gigabyte Ethernet in place, the university was able to offer network storage to its students and staff. “Now people can transfer over gigabytes of data to our network storage, and it has little or no impact on our network,” Campbell says.

As the network has proven more reliable, faculty and staff are clamoring for more smart classrooms with Internet connections, streaming media content and Web-based delivery methods. What's more, the new network opens a world of technological possibilities that were once out of the question.

“Will we look at Voice over IP [Internet Protocol] phones in the future?” Campbell asks. “I think there's always that possibility.”

Montana State University-Northern

Founded: 1929
Location: Havre, Mont.
Enrollment: 1,640 students
Campus Buildings: 20

Old Network:
• Miles of one-way coaxial cable
• 15 8-port Thinnet hubs
• 10 megabyte (MB) Bayonet network connector

New Network Includes:
• 40 miles of Category 5 fiber cable
• Cisco 2900, 6509 and 8510 switches
• Cisco 3448 Ethernet switches
• 100/1000MB Ethernet connections
• OC3 45MB ATM circuit

Stacy Collett is a Chicago-based freelance writer.