Evolving Strategies for Campus Network Infrastructure

If you could go back in time 10 years, and spend a day on your campus to revisit the information technology environment at the time, it would undoubtedly occur to your 2004-era mind that things were quite different. What would likely strike you immediately is how isolated the campus felt in terms of information flow and information technology networking. Perhaps you would feel as if you were on an island community, advanced in its use of information technology and busy working hard to use networking to extend communication and collaboration across your campus to faculty, students, and staff—but only on the island, not off it.

Now fast-forward through time to your campus today, bringing your fresh impressions from 1994. The comparison that likely stands out most is your perspective of networking—that networking now is much more global and your campus vastly less isolated as an island unto itself. The focus of the institution’s information technology networking environment—and yes, even the overall focus of the entire institution itself—is now on connections beyond the campus boundaries.

The Evolving Nature of the Campus Network

The advent of the Internet—the Web—and the globalization of higher education as brought about by the revolution in information technology is driving an evolution in the way we think about the campus network. Our network managers can likely document that today more of the traffic that flows across our campus networks is bound to-and-from the Internet (i.e., off our campuses) rather to-and-from on-campus destinations. We are all broadening our horizons, and while we still make use of resources on our campuses, we now are more likely to look off-campus the majority of time. And those same on-campus resources are increasingly used more by Internet users than those located on our campuses.

Whether your institution is research-intensive, teaching-and learning-focused, residential in nature, or a combination of all three—whether you are large, medium, or small in size—whether you are public or private—your institution is impacted in a significant way by this evolution in networking in higher education. Research-focused institutions have concerns about ensuring that their faculty researchers are well-connected into the growing cyberinfrastructure. Research agendas (and thus research grant funding) is now broader, and more global in perspective. Institutions with a focus on teaching and learning must realize that this area, too, is now far more global, both in terms of the course materials brought into on-campus teaching and the outreach via online education to a broader community of students. Institutions that feature significant student-residential foci must accept that there are both pedagogical and recreational components to their on-campus residents’ use of information technology and overall residence life experience.

If we are now convinced that indeed, globalization has indeed impacted our institutions (regardless of size, funding, or focus) and we accept that this impact has led to an evolved landscape in networking in higher education, then understanding that evolution and its ramifications for network strategies and funding is of importance not only to CIOs, but to all parts of the institution—administration, faculty, students, and staff. The key feature of this evolved network landscape is that now, not only are our campus networks of strategic importance, but so too are the connections of our campus network to the broader Internets (the commodity Internet and advanced Internets and cyberinfrastructure supporting research).

Driving Forces

Today our campus networks are driven by the mission of the institution, which is becoming global; campus networks need to link students, faculty, and staff on our campuses to the world beyond our campuses, not just to each other. The overall driving factors include the evolving nature of research, teaching and learning, and the service missions of our institutions.

As well, institutions need to realize that our constituents are becoming far more mobile. No longer are users satisfied simply to sit in front of a device that is hard-wired into the campus network in an office, lab, or dorm room. Today, information technology has gone mobile—with laptops, PDAs, smartphones, and other small devices. Users are expecting to be mobile and to have access to participate in the global Internet not just from their homes, computer classrooms, offices, and labs, but also from every space where they can work, study, investigate, and communicate.

These overall mission drivers are also impacted by events that are driving the foundational architectures behind them, including:

  • Broadband pricing—We need to find ways to get control of the costs of these larger pipes and find ways to reduce the marginal costs of expanding, as that expansion is linear or geometric over time.
  • Security and reliability of the network—We now are much more concerned about who is connecting to our networks, and how and where our network is open to access.
  • National cyberinfrastructure—There are now more Internets to connect to; among them Internet2’s Abilene Network, the Teragrid, and National LambdaRail.
  • Mobile computing (WiFi)—With the pervasiveness of information technology today, we need wireless networks to enhance and expand the connectivity available on our campuses (and off).
What Are the Opportunities?

As our institutions seek to develop their campus network strategies, there are opportunities to be seized—not just additional expenditures to be made. While no CIO will likely ever (nor should ever!) state “… this is completely a one-time expense,” there is the opportunity to make strategic one-time investments that can control future ongoing expenses, to the point where budgets can be maintained at close to zero-growth while not hindering the advancement of the institution’s ability to serve its community. Specifically, wireless connectivity (WiFi) that expands on-campus network access, and dark-fiber connections to the Internet(s) that extend the campus borders to strategic access points, are areas of opportunities to be examined, where a one-time investment can pay great dividends and may be easily maintained within existing ongoing budgets.

Wireless infrastructure today is more affordable than it was at its outset. Access points are now only a few hundred dollars each (some as low as $150) and no longer require expensive-to-install power connections (they get power from the network, much like a telephone). Even very large campuses can often install a broad-coverage WiFi network for under $500,000, with a life-cycle replacement cost of about $140,000 per year (3-year replacement cycle). Smaller campuses can get by for much less. And with the continuing drop in hardware costs for wired networks, it is quite possible to, over time, absorb this additional expansion of the network into existing, base budget funding models.

Integrated communication strategies are more than the convergence of voice, data, and video applications onto a single network. The real driving factor in this area is the broader development of mobile communication technologies (laptops, PDAs, smartphones, and so on) that are pushing the campus network to grow beyond the “walls with wires” model to accommodate access to these devices. Wireless networking has reached maturity and its deployment at universities has the potential for radically changing the way they do business.

Acquiring a dark-fiber connection between the campus and the nearest major network peering point is another example of an initial capital investment being amortized very quickly when compared to the costs of broadband services leased from providers. And right now, for perhaps a limited time, there is a glut of dark fiber underground in many of our states and communities (put there during the dotcom surge in the late 1990s and never lit). This fiber can sometimes be acquired at fire sale prices, and it represents a capital investment that replaces an ongoing expense (though some component still is needed for operation and maintenance). But perhaps more importantly, once acquired, it provides a very scalable platform for expanding connectivity as costs for high-speed communication equipment follows the usual diminishing marginal cost curve. In essence, an investment in this kind of resource today may not only pay for itself quickly, but also represent a way to make future expansions with small capital investments, rather than increasing ongoing expense commitments.

Then there is the advanced Internet component. There is significant activity going on nationally, both in the development of national cyberinfrastructure as well as regional high-speed optical networks (RONs). The direction being taken by a growing number of higher education institutions and consortia of institutions is to own (or acquire long-term leases) on dark fiber. This provides the institution with an asset that can be scaled as technology develops to provider higher and higher capacities of connection, as those capacities are needed by the function of the information-technology-enriched institution.

On the national front, initiatives such as National LambdaRail are driving the broader research component, providing very high-speed “waves” (10Gbps connections) that will link individual researchers or campuses to foster research collaboration. Regionally, many states have either acquired, implemented, or are planning acquisitions and implementations of optical fiber networks to link their institutions to each other and to the developing national cyberinfrastructure. These RONs are becoming the segmented “quilt” pieces, which are being woven together to create the national-level cyberinfrastructure.

Figure 1 shows the relationships quite well in this symbiotic process involving campus, regional, and national connectivity development. Elements include campus researchers, campus infrastructures, RONs, national experimental and optical infrastructure, and dark fiber. Each element is both an enabler and motivator of the other, resulting in a process by which advances are driven in all areas.

And of course, we still have the on-campus wired infrastructure to maintain. A solid foundation of wired infrastructure remains the cornerstone of any campus network strategy, providing high-quality network access to users at their desks, in their labs, in classroom, and in their residences. It is well-recognized that a wired infrastructure will, for the foreseeable future, provide much higher bandwidth than a wireless infrastructure can. Therefore, WiFi is an extension to the campus network, not a replacement for a well-connected desktop. And it makes no sense to acquire a massive pipe to the Internet(s) when you can not distribute that connectivity well on your campus. But it is the case with wired infrastructure, that drops in the pricing of equipment (per port costs) can help the institution keep pace with advances in technology as budgets are held constant, or even are constrained.

Upgrading Key Areas

If your institution can’t “do it all” right now, look for ways to build portions of your network as “showplaces,” in an effort to capitalize on putting the newest technology where it will do your institution the most good. IT organizations that are forming strategies are often hung up on homogeneity—wanting everything to be the same, new, top-drawer, and funded. Yet, perhaps only a key portion needs to be done today; better to have a multi-phased project with funding secured for the initial phase than to spend years trying to find funding for doing everything in “one shot.” A good example of this scenario involves upgrading on-campus wiring.

Today, the most advanced users and devices (perhaps five percent of the population) can make use of 100Mbps speeds with the promise of Gigabit to the desktop on the horizon. This is leading some CIOs to consider wireplant upgrade strategies to bring their 10Mbps-capable wiring up to the higher standard—across campus. This is how it was done before—massive wire upgrade installations in the 1980s and 1990s. But d'es everyone really need 100Mbps? Maybe your physics department, your informatics and computer science school, or your engineering college needs it? Maybe your advanced visualization facility needs it? But d'es your physical plant? Do your enrollment services, finance, and other administrative offices? Likely not. A key pervasive application that drives bandwidth use is desktop video conferencing; but the popular desktop video conferencing devices using H.323 compression do just fine with well under 1 megabit speeds. So don’t invest where you don’t absolutely need to; save that funding for other areas and take a wait-and-see approach to an all-encompassing wireplant upgrade.

Which area of your campus networking strategy can be most effectively advanced with a smaller investment, if funds are truly constrained, will differ on an institutional basis. But the key concept should be to do what you can, when you can, anyway you can and make even piece meal advancements (using “budget dust”) than to sit idle, thinking only of how to fund a large-scale plan if the funding isn’t likely to materialize.

Presenting Your Campus Network Strategy

Campus network strategies, to be both successful and of high value to the institution, must flow from the institution’s overall strategy for information technology, which should be based upon the primary institutional strategy for its role in higher education. Without a firm understanding of the institution’s mission and strategy, and of how information technology more broadly fits within that mission and strategy, it is difficult to develop a stand-alone campus network plan.

Part of an overall strategy for information technology, the campus/institutional network—both physical and human in the staff that supports it—should be portrayed as a fundamental strategic asset for the institution. A good next step is to take stock of your current campus network environment. Key factors to examine are the technology and its age, replacement value (i.e., how much would it cost to replace everything with more modern equipment to perform similar functions), and the budget currently being spent to maintain it (in capital, expense, and human resource). The last is critical, in that the three elements are tightly linked, and investments in one can be sometimes offset by reductions in another due to modernization.

Since most every university believes that its faculty is its heart, involving faculty early and often in network planning is a good choice. Researchers will be better able to help administration understand the value of network investments that support their research efforts (i.e., bring in grant funding). Faculty can better articulate the value of information technology and the improved flow of data to their pedagogical activities. Students will be better able to motivate investments by the institution if it becomes clear that information technology in general, and network access are critical to their learning, advancement, and ultimately in helping articulate the factors that influence their choice in institutions. All can do this better than the CIO alone, who may be viewed suspiciously as only wanting new toys and to pad his/her portfolio.

Significant decisions regarding the development and adoption of a campus network strategy are usually made at the institution’s cabinet level. Whether that is the Chancellor or President depends upon the size of the institution, but usually this cabinet includes a chief financial officer, a chief academic officer, and a chief administrator. All must be “on-board” for significant decisions involving expenditures to be made. If it is the case that the institution also views information technology to be as strategic an asset as buildings, administration, or financial holdings, then the CIO is well-placed to start the process of building consensus. But if the CIO is not at “the big table” then the key will be to find someone who is and who can articulate—passionately—the case for investment in campus network infrastructures.

What D'es It All Mean?

There can be a tendency for institutional administration and its faculty and students to view all these “new” campus network needs as somehow the result of an overenthusiastic CIO/IT function. To make such an assessment is in error. Institutions are not isolated islands of research, teaching, and learning—they are a part of a world that has become connected, interdependent, and collaborative. Institutions no longer drive the use of information technology in the global sense; they are passengers on a train that has left the station. Institutions must react to the changes in the world that reflect the criticality of IT—and network systems in particular—and adapt, improvise, and overcome obstacles to their participation in the new global environment. These elements are critical factors in positioning the institution for success, or some might say survival, in a global higher education environment.

In the context of part of an overall strategy for information technology, the campus/institutional network (both the physical network and the staff that supports it) is a fundamental strategic asset for the institution. As such, it is vital that the institution keep control over its telecommunications infrastructure and most effectively manage it to maximize its contribution to achieving the institution’s fundamental goals. By doing so, the institution can keep pace with the globalization of higher education that will undoubtedly continue through the rest of this decade, and further into the 21st century.

Special Acknowledgement

The author wishes to specifically acknowledge the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) for use of significant material in this document that was drawn from the author’s ECAR Research Bulletin (Vol. 2004, Issue 4)“The Impact of Globalization on Campus Networks,”published February 17, 2004. The EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) provides timely research and analysis to help higher education leaders make better decisions about information technology.

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