Networking & Wireless | Feature
No Longer Held Hostage by the Student Resnet
Several years ago, it was common for IT department staff at Birmingham-Southern College (BSC) to say that they were being held hostage by the student residential network. Jesse McKneely, director of infrastructure and project management, IT, Birmingham-Southern College said, "The memories of camping out in an office filled with virus-plagued student computers, trouble-shooting outdated network equipment, and the angry voices of our students are still fresh in my mind." But today BSC has an advanced resnet solution that has led other schools and local businesses to seek out the IT department's expertise on network design and security.
Jesse McKneely is the director of infrastructure and project management at Birmingham-Southern College.
Until 2004 the IT department at Birmingham-Southern College was responsible for the networking needs of 27 academic and 23 (now 36) residential buildings across 200 acres. As student bandwidth and residential entertainment demands skyrocketed, we realized that our residential network (resnet) equipment was fast becoming antiquated and inadequate. The resnet setup process, requiring manual configuration of each student’s computer, laptop, or device, and all the troubleshooting activities, led us to spend approximately 80 percent of our time on the resnet, but still left us feeling like we were never caught up. In August 2003 a catastrophic virus hit, shutting down the student network for the first three weeks of the semester, and bringing us to our knees.
In the midst of this perfect IT storm, BSC welcomed a new vice president of IT, Anthony Hambey, who said, "We will never do this again." The network crisis, along with a commitment from the highest level of leadership on campus, provided our department with a new resolve to banish Band-Aid solutions once and for all and finally bring BSC’s resnet into the 21st century.
Quick Tips for Implementing and Maintaining Managed Resnet
- Set Clear Goals
Objectively evaluate your current resnet set-up, but do not be limited by it. How fast should your Internet connection be? Do you want WiFi everywhere? Would you like your resnet partner to handle move-in weekend without you? Would your students like “live” technical support at 2 am in the morning?
- Talk to Everybody About Everything
Because of our active participation in groups like Associated Colleges of the South and Educause, we were able to exchange notes on what worked and what didn't and learned from our peers' experiences. Along with the knowledge we gained from others, we were able to give back to the community by sharing our managed resnet experiences as we attended various trade shows and conferences.
- Outsourcing is Delegation, Not Abdication
You will still be responsible for managing the relationship with your service provider and for the ultimate success of the resnet. I negotiate contracts, set clear expectations, articulate strategic and technological vision and direction, and oversee our partner’s team of experts to execute and deliver efficiently.
- Keep it Simple
Instead of forcing the network to be all things to all stakeholders, create simple building blocks that exist independently yet can integrate easily into the larger network. In this way, you can ensure that each building block, such as WiFi, cable television, or video is regularly upgraded and scaling to meet evolving student needs. We have an internal yardstick at BSC: if we can't fit our latest IT project or announcement into a brochure, it's time to simplify.
We attended multiple conferences, traded resnet horror stories with peers from across the country, and realized we were far from being alone. Through all of this one school stood out. Unlike the vast majority of our peers, Southwestern University had decided to outsource their student resnet to a partner and happily said they had "stopped chasing [their] tails."
After extensive internal discussions and planning, our IT team decided to put out a request for proposal for managed resnet. Since there wasn't a common network implementation that would satisfy what we wanted at the time, we described how we wanted things to function and let companies show us how their solution would meet our needs.
Most of the companies we contacted didn't even respond. The cable companies talked about installing a cable modem in each room and the phone company wanted to use DSL modems. Either way, we didn't want to manage that many pieces of equipment. Both solutions would have also created a wiring issue that would have forced us to spend money we didn't have at the time.
We carefully considered the bids that did come in, and ultimately chose Apogee because they focused exclusively on the unique needs of higher education and wouldn't be adapting a solution from another industry to fit our campus.
Exactly one year after the virus hit BSC’s new resnet came live. For the first time, we unveiled the following services:
- Tiered-internet service with speeds for both high- and low-level users, including a no-cost option for all residents;
- Around-the-clock network support for all the devices students bring to campus, as well as a full-time campus coordinator provided by Apogee to offer boots-on-the-ground support whenever necessary;
- Ubiquitous WiFi connectivity in student residence hall rooms and all common areas;
- Advanced cable television service, including video-over-IP (IP-based television service), giving our students the flexibility to watch television on traditional screens or on their laptops whenever they wished, or wherever they were on campus;
- Unprecedented security, including regular security refreshes and protection from future virus attacks; and
- An SMS alert system, that is an opt-in service allowing BSC to quickly communicate with students in case of emergencies.
Technologically, our IT team welcomed the following changes:
- The complete upgrade of all resnet network equipment while deferring upfront capital expenditures. Apogee assumed initial investment in equipment and installation, allowing us to derive millions of dollars in savings over the life of our contract;
- A stand-alone student resnet architected independently of the administrative network, ensuring that future security breaches would not bleed into other networks; and
- Guaranteed bandwidth and connectivity equipment and service upgrades that scale with the growth of student devices such as laptops, tablet PCs, smart phones, game consoles, and more.
Our network and the services we offer now may in fact be more expensive that what were doing, but teaming with Apogee made for a much better environment at a fraction of the cost of doing it ourselves. We have, however, seen economic savings in reduced support costs and help desk staff, and on large projects like our recent metro Ethernet connection, which will pay off over the time by avoiding leasing fees associated with our old connection.
We've also been able to focus on IT work that advances the academic and administrative goals of the school. We have retooled our course content management system and provided better service for video and other media in our classrooms. Out-sourcing our resnet also helped us provide better wireless coverage on a faster timeline than we could have done alone.
At BCS, the IT department is no longer consumed with the tedious micro-management of resnet activities like connecting a student’s newest gaming console. Today we can focus on work that meets the mission-critical goals of the college.
Jesse McKneely is the Director of Infrastructure and Project Management at Birmingham-Southern College. He has been in charge of the campus infrastructure since 2003 and has participated in several case studies dealing with network design and security.