Networking/Innovators

Two innovative institutions move toward 21st-century networking and create models for other colleges and universities to pursue.

WHEN IT COMES TO NETWORKING, everything is new under the sun—at least, to colleges and universities looking for new ways to expand and enable connectivity on campus and beyond. For the two universities profiled here, new technological advances, groundbreaking Internet service providers, and thinking past the immediate curve were key.

Innovation: Forging a Super-Powered Converged Network

Innovator: Florida International University Interviewees: John P. McGowan, CIO and VP for Information Resources; Al Losada, director of Enterprise Technology and Support System and services background.

FIU operates the Miami-based AMPATH GigaPOP, a major point of presence for traffic to and from Latin America and throughout the Caribbean. [Editor’s note: The Webopedia (www.webopedia.com) defines GigaPOP as follows: “Short for gigabit Point of Presence, a network access point that supports data transfer rates of at least 1Gbps. Currently, only a few gigaPOPs exist, and they’re used primarily for accessing the I2 network. Each university that connects to I2 must do so through a gigaPOP, which connects the university’s LANs and WANs to the I2 network. Originally, 12 gigaPOPs were planned, each one serving half a dozen I2 members, but the number of gigaPOPs is likely to grow. Whereas the POPs maintained by ISPs are designed to allow low-speed modems to connect to the Internet, gigaPOPs are designed for fast access to a high-speed network, such as I2.] GigaPOP partners of FIU include CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland), the University of Illinois-Chicago, California Institute of Technology, and the University of São Paulo (Brazil). Petabytes of data from astronomical observatories and high-energy physics research projects comprise some of the bandwidthintensive traffic into and out of the GigaPOP.

FIU also boasts a very robust internal campus network that carries converged voice and data traffic including unified messaging (combined voicemail and e-mail). It has a university-wide VoIP system and operates a 12-seat Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com) IPCC Express call center that takes 100,000 calls per year. The call center began life providing technology help desk services, utilizing BMC Remedy software (www.remedy.com). It was recently expanded to include enrollment support to better respond to student needs.

Network as the Great Enabler for Faculty and Students. So, how d'es this infrastructure benefit faculty and students? One way is via the creation of an on-campus grid of faculty computers to apply enhanced processing to collaborative research projects that need teraflops (measures of computer speed expressed as “a trillion floating point operations per second”) of processing power. The grid is also being extended to programs in biology, including a biodiversity project in Panama, and a partnership with the University of Kansas. But FIU also plans to virtualize education in the classroom through collaboration with other colleges and universities, allowing professors and students at multiple sites to work as though all in one classroom. CIO John McGowan anticipates the College of Business’ International Business Program will be among those to take advantage of this opportunity.

At the same time, FIU hasn’t left behind its local constituents. Partly through funding provided by the National Science Foundation (www.nsf.gov), the university provides outreach to greater-Miami-area high school science teachers and students who can work on collaborative real-time applications with university faculty.

Lessons learned. Enterprise Technology and Support Director Al Losada admits that all of this didn’t happen without some pain. Fortunately, University Technology Services (UTS) looked at the initiative not as a technology project, but as a university project. UTS involved the entire community in the planning, including recruiting advocates from various departments to interface with their users. This made the project a positive experience rather than an invasive one, say those involved.

The university also performs a return on investment (ROI) analysis for every new project under consideration, to ensure that total cost of ownership (TCO) is accounted for. That’s partly what drove the VoIP implementation, say McGowan and Losada. The cost of the initial campuswide VoIP system was recovered within about two years, due largely to the ability to replace Centrex lines (costing $26 per line per month) with the new system (about $5 per line per month). There were also some savings in consolidation of services among multiple campuses. The main campus now provides many functions remotely that previously required onsite equipment and/or personnel.

Planning and staffing. The planning group also spent considerable time thinking about what a converged network would mean, and therefore decided to meld its telephone, networking, and operations groups organizationally before it tackled the physical infrastructure. Losada notes, “We had to artificially create that environment at first, but it’s now a natural thing that the teams work together.” Virtual teams are assigned for new projects, including members from the video/multimedia group.

Outside consultants are occasionally used for specific tasks or projects, and FIU did hire a project manager especially for the VoIP implementation project. The university also plans to outsource an Oracle/PeopleSoft (www.oracle. com) project that is about to begin. However, like many colleges and universities, FIU makes extensive use of its own students’ brain power and know-how.

Innovation: Building a Campus/Vendor Partnership for Bandwidth and Resale

Innovator: University of Pennsylvania Interviewee: Michael Palladino, associate vice president of Networking and Telecommunications

System and services background. Like FIU, the University of Pennsylvania also hosts a GigaPOP known as MAGPI (Mid-Atlantic GigaPOP in Philadelphia for Internet2). By one means or another, nearly one-third of the K-12 school districts in Pennsylvania are connected to MAGPI, as are other higher ed institutions such as Princeton (NJ) and the University of Delaware.

The Penn connection to Internet2 supports international high-speed video conferencing, distributed and online health care, bridging of K-12 to higher ed, and regional workforce development. One example of a supported project is the oncampus General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) Lab, which is a multi-disciplinary research laboratory. A few of the major research thrusts in the GRASP laboratory include three-dimensional reconstruction of environments for use in immersive environments, development of assistive devices for people with disabilities, the design of novel sensors for vision and perception, and modeling and control of biological systems.

In addition to its Internet2 connectivity, Penn also has become a reseller of commercial Internet services (Internet1) to non-profit organizations in the tri-state area. By aggregating traffic at its site, Penn is able to purchase huge amounts of service and make pieces of it very affordable for its partners/subscribers on a cost recovery basis.

Challenge and fulfillment. Fortunately, Associate Networking and Telecom VP Michael Palladino foresaw years ago the need to provide a large conduit to the Internet. When he realized that “even” a T3 (45Mbps) circuit wasn’t going to fulfill the university’s needs, he sought other avenues. At the time, multinational Tier 1 Internet service provider Cogent Communications (www.cogentco.com) was offering a revolutionary idea connectivity in 100Mbps increments at $10 per megabit. Palladino was skeptical, as the offering seemed too good to be true, but he decided it was worth a shot and initiated Cogent service with a link to the Penn campus at 100Mbps. Within six months, he found that it was saturated.The use of the bandwidth grew exponentially, pushing Penn to upgrade to a full gigabit connection. Because the university has a leased dark-fiber (previously idle fiber-optic cable) link to the telecom hotel (a building constructed or rebuilt for data centers; an Internet data center) in Philadelphia and uses wavelength division multiplexing (WDM), it’s able to have up to eight connections to that site.

In addition to the gigabit link, Penn started its resale service with 100- Mbps, added a second 100Mbps link within nine months, and just recently bumped up the service again to 500Mbps.

Lessons learned. Palladino notes, “We’re large and can’t afford to be out [of service]. If we were out for two days,” he adds, “I would be fired” (and he’s not joking). But his group has found the service to be very stable and reliable. Even with all the growth experienced, the level of support hasn’t slipped. Penn has now chosen to have only one backup ISP, rather than the two or three it had in the past.

Palladino was also pleasantly surprised to find that the price quoted by Cogent was not a “teaser rate” and has stayed stable, which, together with the reliable service, has led to a long-term partnership that will stay in place through 2009. Dave Schaeffer, Cogent’s CEO, observes: “We’re an enabler. What organizations do with this bandwidth is only limited by their imaginations.” Penn is one of nearly 400 universities and colleges served by Cogent.

Overall, the impressive amount of connectivity purchased by the University of Pennsylvania has permitted the 50,000 users of its network to pursue their studies and research without ever having to “beg” for more bandwidth.

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