John Rathje, CIO and Vice President for IT of Kent State University, spent two years working on a network modernization strategy. 

Apr 29 2021

Building Higher Ed Networks That Are Ready for Anything

Universities are turning to new and improved networks with the flexibility to adapt to whatever comes their way.

Like most higher ed IT leaders in the early weeks of 2020, John Rathje had never imagined a day when his organization might need to function entirely remotely. What he had done, however, was develop a vision for his university’s network — a vision that made all the difference when the pandemic hit.

“We’d already spent the better part of two years working on our network modernization strategy,” explains Rathje, CIO and vice president for IT at Kent State University in Ohio. That strategy understandably didn’t address a crisis scenario as complex as the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did happen to call for exactly the kind of network Kent State suddenly needed right away.

“It needed to be able to scale to meet demand, and it needed to have flexibility and agility, management and monitoring — all of that had to be built in,” Rathje says. As the coronavirus swept through Ohio last winter and Kent State prepared to shift to remote instruction, he and his team only had to launch the validated plan they already had in place. “We just had to execute,” he says. “We knew exactly what needed to be done.”

Describing what happened next as a “holistic implementation” designed to bolster and add resiliency to the network, Rathje says his team looked to Aruba networking solutions to get the project off the ground.

As the school community deserted Kent State’s campus, “the first thing we realized is that our network traffic patterns would be completely different,” he says. They also recognized that remote learning would call for more streaming, including video. With those potential stress points in mind, and with funding available through the federal CARES Act, Rathje’s team trained its focus on a network switching upgrade and on improving the school’s switching and wireless monitoring, he says.

RELATED: Which CARES Act-funded technologies best support underserved remote learners?

First, to facilitate better switch management — and because Kent State’s IT infrastructure is built on ArubaOS 8 technology — the team added a tool called Aruba NetEdit, which coordinates and automates switch configuration. On the network monitoring front, it turned to Aruba AirWave, a multivendor management platform that streamlines monitoring of wired and wireless infrastructure.

AirWave also provides real-time visibility into access points, switches and controllers, and the devices and applications running on a network. Aruba NetEdit, on the other hand, tackles the challenges associated with network switches. With automated workflows and analytics capabilities, it allows IT teams to easily configure multiple switches at once and make networkwide changes quickly and efficiently.

Just as it’s been for higher education as a whole, the past year was extremely challenging for the Kent State community, Rathje says. Still, when it comes to connectivity, he thinks the university has more than held its own.

LEARN MORE: Read the case study on Kent State University's network upgrades.

“The way we’ve designed and engineered our network,” Rathje says, “we’re going from a two-lane road to a six-lane expressway that can handle any type of vehicle with ease.”

Whether that traffic includes thousands of students accessing digital resources from distant locations or the same number logging in to the university’s systems from onsite classrooms and residence halls, Rathje thinks Kent State’s network is now built to stand up to anything that comes its way. “It gives us exactly what we need today, and it gives us the flexibility to adapt in the future,” he says.

Reliable Networks Connecting from Anywhere

Few IT experts in higher education are willing to bet on what that future might bring, but most agree the pandemic has driven home how important it is for universities to have networks that are ready for anything.

“From what I’ve seen, just about everyone had plans to modernize before COVID, and now they’re just doubling down,” says Rob Clyde, a board director with ISACA who is also on the advisory board for the Data Analytics and Information Systems Department at Utah State University.

Many universities, like Kent State, took advantage of emergency relief funds to push their networking projects forward. “If they originally thought they’d get it done in three years, once remote learning entered the picture, their goal was to finish up in one,” Clyde says.

Each institution, he notes, followed its own path in this regard, but most devoted the bulk of their efforts to ensuring reliable network access with VPNs and to ramping up the use of cloud services and applications.

Off-campus users at Utah State, for example, can connect to the university through its Cisco AnyConnect VPN, while cloud-based platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have become go-to tools for videoconferencing. At the seven schools and colleges at Widener University, where most students attended classes remotely throughout 2020, Software as a Service solutions are being used to expand digital infrastructure at a manageable cost.

“From a networking perspective, the beauty of cloud is that it’s far more flexible, you have less downtime and it’s much easier to scale,” Clyde says. “With cloud, you’re not running your own equipment; if tomorrow you go from 1,000 to 10,000 users, you don’t have to go deploy a bunch of new physical servers.”

DIVE DEEPER: Consider these essentials when choosing a cloud security posture management solution.

New Higher Ed Networks for New Needs

One IT leader who knows something about scale is Jeanne Skul, network services director in the Division of Information Technology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When Skul and others in her department learned they needed to prepare the campus to go remote, they were just beginning the discovery phase of a network transformation initiative dubbed Next Gen2 Network. Conceived to ensure UW–Madison’s wired, wireless and cloud enterprise network meets present and future needs, the project was put on hold as COVID-19 arrived.

“We anticipated it was coming, so we had time to prepare,” Skul recalls. By the end of February 2020, her team had increased IP capacity for the university’s central VPN to allow it to support up to 24,000 remote connections. The team also boosted space for departmental VPNs, along with VPNs that graduate students would need to access school resources and conduct off-campus research.

MORE ON EDTECH: How to ensure a college’s VPN can handle the remote workload.

Pivoting to the campus wireless infrastructure, Skul and her colleagues added Wi-Fi access points in select parking lots and garages, and they distributed Wi-Fi hotspots to students who lacked internet access at home. A separate group within the university’s IT division, Academic Technology, focused on bringing faculty members up to speed on Zoom and other tools they would need for remote teaching. Finally, a WAN team ensured routing off campus could handle demand.

As it turned out, Skul says, the school’s VPN use over the past year has been far less than anticipated, peaking at about 7,000 users. “Our learning management system is in the cloud, our email system is in the cloud,” she says. “Looking back, we probably overdid it, since you really don’t need to be on a VPN to get most of the services you need to work from home.”

That’s something her team is likely to keep in mind as the pandemic winds down and UW–Madison moves forward with its network transformation initiative. As part of that project, her team is creating an overlay network, and it’s using new research data management software designed to improve data transfer between disparate systems. The team is also considering new network monitoring tools with artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, and it’s adding automation wherever possible in its network-related workflows.

“The goal is to become nimbler and more flexible and to be able to spin things up faster or quickly decommission things in a secure manner,” Skul explains. She and her team made progress on all accounts as they tailored the network to the realities of COVID-19, but they still see room for improvement, she says. “I think there’s going to be a lot of work ahead over the coming months.”

Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni