Mobile Computing | Feature

Managing a Mobile Campus

A university in Kentucky adapts its network and policies to accommodate the growing number of mobile devices on campus.

Mobile devices have had a place on Western Kentucky University's (WKU) campus as long as there have been mobile devices to use. Today, the Owensboro, KY-based school's mobile user base ranges from the student who wants to have the latest and greatest "toy," to the business-oriented user who relies on mobile technology to get his or her job done. "Regardless of whom the individual user is," said Jeppie Sumpter, WKU's lead network engineering, "everyone is using mobile devices for the flexibility, speed, and freedom that they provide."

As more of those students and staff members make the migration to mobile lifestyles, the onus is on WKU's IT department to make sure campus-based networks are available, plentiful, and secure. "Usage is coming at us from all angles," said Sumpter. "Students, faculty, and staff bring in their own devices and we also have many university-owned mobile devices."

Illegal downloads and piracy are also coming into play on campus, where university network administrators are being asked by groups like the RIAA (The Recording Industry Association of America) to track and find specific devices on their networks. Being able to determine which network device was involved in the act helps to assure that the entire university is not culpable for the illegal act.

Sumpter spoke with Campus Technology about WKU's biggest mobile challenges, explained how the university is tackling them, and offered up advice to other universities that are grappling with similar issues.

Bridget McCrea: What are the top challenges your IT department has run into with mobile device use on campus?

Jessie Sumpter: Mobile device usage, as we all know and have seen firsthand, has soared in the past few years. Most of our users are carrying multiple devices and those smart phones and tablets need to get on our network. One of the biggest challenges has been trending that growth in order to sufficiently engineer our wireless network right down to the level of ensuring that there are enough IPs available for the users. I would say that in most cases universities like WKU are better prepared for some of the challenges of mobile devices, particularly BYOD, if for no other reason than the fact that we've already been tackling residential student needs for years. What is different, though, is the scale. Another challenge we're facing is the integration into our network of those devices that do not "play well" on our enterprise-level system. It would seem that the enterprise wireless implementation--with all of its controls, capabilities, bells, and whistles--would make this easier than a home-grade wireless implementation. Unfortunately that's not the case.

McCrea: Is mobile device tracking a problem?

Sumpter: Tracking of mobile devices is in some ways the same as tracking other devices, but there are differences. In most cases we don't need to track mobile devices for the same reasons as we need to track down other devices. Our primary goal is physical asset protection and so far the network security driven-use cases along those lines have been minimal. One initiative that we currently have underway is centered on more centralized management capabilities of the university-owned devices. However, we still intend to help our BYOD clients to the best of our ability by supporting, for example, the user whose mobile device has been stolen.

McCrea: How are you tackling these challenges?

Sumpter: We've worked to engineer our network to be as flexible as possible. There are features in many of the enterprise wireless network solutions that allow for quick scaling while minimally affecting the existing users. So even if the device use ends up greater than anticipated--something that's already happened to us--we're able to adapt quickly. Our goal is to provide the best user experience possible while also ensuring network security. To balance the two we've created a system that works in conjunction with our network access control solution. The system allows for the registration or "whitelisting" of user mobile devices for an extended period of time without the need for manual re-authentication. The system is even useful on our WPA2-enterprise wireless network in that it interacts both with network access control (NAC) and with our policy enforcement.

McCrea: How is WKU dealing with the RIAA inquiries and tracking requirements?

Sumpter: There are many situations where we need to identify the physical location and/or probable users on a given machine for an incident. It is true that some of those incidents are for copyright violation complaints. We have developed procedures for handling these incidents that meet the requirements of the notification while also protecting our clients as best as we can. Most of the time when dealing with copyright violation complaints we leverage our NAC systems to identify the users and then work with those individuals to make them aware of what is going on. We also assist them in preventing further violations. We do not, without legal obligation, provide such information to outside groups for these purported copyright violations.

McCrea: Is there still work to do in the area of mobile tracking?

Sumpter: Depending on the goal we are trying to accomplish we have several systems from which to choose. There are features within our wireless network solutions that allow us to gather information on usage and physical location. For example, we can leverage information within our NAC solution. As the centralized management initiatives mentioned above begin to take shape, we will have that solution for a subset of the devices.

McCrea: As the use of mobile continues to grow do you expect new challenges to surface?

Sumpter: From a purely infrastructure perspective we are in pretty good shape right now. We do have several upgrades planned as part of our regular replacement cycle that will enhance our wireless user experiences, including mobile devices. The biggest challenges are likely to be related to security.

McCrea: What advice would you share with another university IT or networking department that's grappling with its own mobile challenges?

Sumpter: Embrace mobile. It's here. Let people know that you embrace it and use that to your advantage. Plan for it as best you can but realize that there will be some things you can't completely plan for. In those unexpected situations you must have a nimble and flexible mindset and be able to develop the project from the drawing board all the way through to the actual technical engineering of your networks and systems.

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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