A Hot Time for the Help Desk

How can you keep campus wireless networks up and running at the busy start of a new school year? Start planning now for fall 2006!

WHAT DO YOU GET when you combine a flood of new students, the start of a semester, and a wireless network? A. User access problems B. Network problems C. A spike in the number of trouble tickets D. A frazzled help desk team E. All of the above F. Do you have to ask?

The start of a new school year is always a busy time on college campuses, especially for the network support team. Along with that inrush of new students—and their inevitable individual difficulties in gaining access to the network— will come computer viruses and other forms of malware, bits of fresh technology, and imaginative new uses for computers and software, all serving to confuse and bog things down.

“When I get 600 new students,” says Rusty Bruns, CIO of Charleston Southern University (SC), “for two weeks my entire office d'es nothing but help students get up and running. We’re swamped.” The CSU campus has one wired and two wireless networks.

The team at the University of Akron (OH) also reports a tidal wave of wireless network support requests in the first few weeks of a semester. Going by the data in their help desk tracking system (FootPrints, by UniPress Software), they have completed 3,263 wireless setups since August of 2004. The most common question from students is, “How can I connect?” reports Holly Mothes, manager of the Technology Support Center.

IT SupportGetting Connected

The tracking system data tells the tale of some of those 3,263 setups. “We have a lot of individuals who have used their own laptops at home or in coffee shops,” explains Matt Bumgard, a member of UA’s technical support team. “They can see our network when they get here, but can’t access it.” In most cases, it’s a simple matter of reconfiguring the student’s network client. “If the proper utility program for their wireless card is on their system, it’s just a matter of configuration, and it’ll take less than a minute to resolve,” says Bumgard. The support team members make a point of explaining exactly what they’re doing as they help each student, so that next time, the student can access the network on his own.

But what if the appropriate utility program is not already on a student’s system? “We usually advise students to come to us,” Bumgard says. “Those cases take 10 to 15 minutes to handle, depending on the speed of the machine and what it takes to get the utility working. The max is about 45 minutes, but (fortunately!) those are rare.”

Hoping to cut down on the number of cases that require hands-on help, UA’s technical support team has created knowledgebase resources on the campus intranet and is working on flash demos of how to handle the installations and configurations, to help students connect themselves. There is also a network card available in the student bookstore for $35 that is guaranteed to be compatible with the campus wireless network.

Monitoring Traffic Flow

Once a student has gained access, the wireless support headaches are far from over. “Time is everything,” Bruns warns. “Students today want it now; they don’t like to wait for anything.” The appetite for speed very definitely applies to their network access.

In an initial wireless network pilot program at Charleston Southern University, Bruns discovered that unforeseen demands were bogging down the network. “We weren’t prepared for what students were doing in downloading music and DVDs,” he acknowledged. “We had about 550 users, and just 40 of them ate up the whole bandwidth.” To address the problem, the school installed Packeteer, an appliance that monitors network traffic and allows individual access points to be controlled.

File-swapping network activities are restricted, Bruns adds. “In the beginning, I was seen as the bad guy because I wouldn’t let [students] trade music. But in the long run, none of our students got busted for illegal swapping, so I turned out to be a pretty good guy.”

We weren’t prepared for what students were doing in downloading music and DVDs…just 40 users ate up the whole bandwidth.
CIO Rusty Bruns, Charleston Southern University

The wireless network at the University of Akron is also carefully watched. “We look for things characteristic of computers that are infected with worms or viruses trying to propagate,” says Mothes. “When we see something like that, we’ll track down the user ID of the person and disable it for wireless access, knocking that individual off the network until he contacts the help desk and gets it fixed.” UA uses Ipswitch’s What’sUp as part of its toolkit for monitoring and managing the school’s wireless network.

An Ounce of Prevention…

Ed Boyd, assistant CIO at Georgia College & State University, is only too aware of what viruses can do if left uncontrolled. “60 percent of the traffic on our wireless network for the residence halls can be viruses,” he notes. “So we’ve had to go to an authentication scheme that forces a check every time students log on to see not only that they have virus and spyware detectors installed on their computers, but also that the support files for their antivirus applications are up to date.”

Bruns at CSU has a similar setup. “We’re using a Cisco Systems product that we installed last year called Clean Access. It’s a client that is downloaded onto all student computers. Whenever students try to log on, it not only checks that their virus protection is installed and up-to-date, it also checks their Windows version to be sure it also is up-to-date and hasn’t been hacked,” he explains. “If there’s a problem with either, then all a user is allowed to do is to go to the appropriate sites to download the necessary files. Once the system has been fully updated, then the student can proceed.”

Automating Support

There is a growing pattern of network support teams moving from manual maintenance procedures to automated systems. While wireless network pilots often required staff members to physically install network cards and software, more and more PCs are coming with cards already installed, leaving only a simple configuration that students can usually accomplish themselves.

Moreover, the wireless networks themselves are becoming increasingly automated; tasks that once had to be done individually and manually can now be performed globally by software tools. “Once we got up to 600-plus access points,” reports Mothes at UA, “it just became too much to do con- figuration and administration manually. We standardized on Cisco Systems’ Wireless LAN Solution Engine [WLSE]. Now we can roll out changes globally, in the middle of the night.”

Automation is helping university IT administrators handle a large volume of support and maintenance needs more efficiently. But despite steady improvements in the technology, nobody expects to see wireless networks become self-supporting anytime soon.

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