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Campus Networking--A CIO's Perspective

Syllabus interviews J'el Hartman, CIO for the University of Central Florida, about issues surrounding the growth of campus networking. Hartman is responsible for library, computing, networking, telecommunications, media services, and distributed learning activities at the university.

Syllabus: What are the some of the overall trends you’re observing in campus networking?

J'el Hartman: The first thing I’d say is that, over the last decade or so, both in higher education in the business world in general, computer networks have become absolutely central and mission critical to virtually every business process that we have. The good news is that we’ve wanted to build network-based services, and we’ve done that. And now that we have them, we find that they impact almost every aspect of the institution and institutional life. We’ve become increasingly dependent on our network resources—departmental and campus networks, as well as the commodity Internet, Internet2, and other emerging research networks.

To a great extent our reliance on the network is roughly comparable to our dependence on the power grid. The recent blackout in the northeast, I think, has pointed to how much life can change in the event of a power grid outage.

The same can be said for anything that impacts the network. On the one hand, we are seeing growth in the use of our networks. On the other hand, we’re now looking very seriously at the kinds of risks, threats, and even routine planning and operations that deal with the reliability and security of those networks. Higher education, as you well know, has been an open environment for the creation and sharing of information, and our networks have been designed to facilitate open access to information. We are confronting the conflict between open, free access, and secure network environments. We are going to have to adjust to change and the new realities of what it takes to keep our networks operating, secure, and robust.

S: Are these changes and the increased dependence on the networks impacting academic and administrative departments in similar ways?

JH: Actually if you think about the multiple dimensions of how computer networks are used, the previous distinctions between administrative and academic uses are really falling by the wayside. There are simply uses. Increasingly, users are thinking about the network as an extension of some other device, their desktop PC, their laptop, their PDA, their cell phone, or whatever it might happen to be. And their uses of the network are a continual blend of what we used to call administrative applications, academic applications, and communication or social applications of computing. The applications themselves—an ERP system or an academic database, or a library database—today are certainly as valuable as they always have been. But the use of our computers as communication devices, which has been enabled by networks, is what has really substantially changed.

S: How would you characterize the new expectations for having access to databases and information?

JH: The model that we are all leading to is anything, anytime, anywhere. And that means the ability to get information. The ability to communicate. The ability to conduct business, that is, make transactions. All on a 24/7 or 24/365 basis. And we have moved from a just-in-case to a just-in-time expectation. When I prepare for a meeting, I often find myself looking up information minutes before the meeting starts, as opposed to hours or days before. We’ve become reliant on, and expectant of, information to be at our fingertips online, and the way we think, the way we work, and the way we interact has changed accordingly.

S: What are some of the challenges right now in campus networking?

JH: Well, on the one hand, there are the things we want to do, some of which include moving into wireless and to new applications. And then there are things that come as challenges or issues to be confronted and managed, which include bandwidth management, the advent of Peer-to-Peer computing, or worms and viruses coming into the network. One might classify all of those into good things or not-so-good things. On the “good things” side are the new and exciting uses of our networks, having to do with the new applications that are becoming network based and the convergence of voice and video into the network domain. Our networks now are not only pipelines for data, but also increasingly for voice and video services.

Another challenge is that the kinds of devices that are expected to have access to the network is growing. It’s not just our desktop machines, laptops, servers, and mainframes, but now also hand held PDAs of various kinds, tablet computers, and even security devices and video projectors—all kinds of things are now getting IP addresses and interacting through the network or exchanging information, that several years ago would not have been part of the picture. So that means that the networks are being used for more things and are depended on by more kinds of devices, and more and more those devices are mobile.

S: What’s one of the more difficult issues to confront?

JH: Peer-to-Peer computing. On its surface, it can be a very useful tool. In fact, there are those who predict that if it were done properly and for appropriate purposes, Peer-to-Peer could be a very sound model for certain kinds of applications. Instant messaging and groupware can work very well in a Peer-to-Peer environment. But the reason Peer-to-Peer has gotten to be so controversial is the early advent of programs that were used for sharing copyrighted materials such as music and video files. Plus, the applications that do that tend to be designed to use as much bandwidth as they want—meaning there is no such thing as too much bandwidth with these applications running. Left unmanaged, they can overrun any amount of bandwidth we can possibly purchase.

So, Peer-to-Peer is a phenomenon that has to be managed both in a legal and technical framework. But new, copyright-legal licensed music services are coming on the market that allow institutions to examine other alternatives for students, rather than simply allowing them download music over the Internet. Penn State is one of the first to have licensed such a service.

S: How is Peer-to-Peer playing out at your own institution?

JH: We have, through bandwidth shaping, basically eliminated it as an issue. We can keep the activity to an absolute minimum, and when we know of a particular issue with a certain user, we can deal with it through the normal student judicial process.

S: Your campus has seen tremendous growth in the past years. How has the network kept up?

JH: About ten years ago, in the 1993/1994 academic year, we had 23,500 students. This past fall we had 42,000. Each year we need to construct about 8,000 square feet of classroom space to meet growth needs, and hire about 110-120 faculty. We are still building out the campus and have on our capital planning agenda more than sixty major construction projects, totaling about $600 million dollars of construction yet to go. The staff, when they can laugh about all this, jokingly refer to it as laying track in front of a speeding train.

The way we’ve kept up, in our division of Information Technologies and Resources, is to assemble a group of experts on wiring, telephone, data, multimedia classrooms, and other kinds of resources as a facilities planning group. We meet monthly with the university’s facilities planning staff, so that by the time new buildings come on line, they have all the necessary facilities in them, everything from the appropriate voice and data systems, to wiring systems, video systems, and multimedia classrooms. We are able to work with our facilities people very effectively to make sure the new buildings are, in those regards, state-of-the-art.

When a major renovation occurs, we are able to get the appropriate technology into it. We have a continuing project we call the Classroom Improvement Project. A modest name, but it appropriates some amount of money every year to either convert existing classrooms to full multimedia, or to upgrade older classrooms to current standards.

We are approaching the hundred percent level of all campus classrooms equipped with advanced multimedia, computer network connections, touch panels, video display screens, and so on, which operate basically the same all across campus. So an instructor can go into one room, and if they know how to operate that room, they can operate in all.

S: What about growth in online learning at UCF?

JH: I’ll just give you a few statistics about our online learning initiative. We’ve been doing online learning since 1996. This fall we have more than 25,000 of our students enrolled in one or more online courses. We’ve developed about 2,400 courses. We have ten online degree programs, and are generating somewhere between five and eight of the university’s total student credit hours through Web-based learning. It’s just one more area where students are using the network heavily for instruction. And to a great extent, what we and many other institutions are finding is that the network itself is taking on the characteristics of what the mainframe used to be as the source of all computing resources. Today, the network is the key component.

S: Could you talk a bit about the strategic role of wireless for your campus?

JH: We feel we need to begin with a solid, wired foundation and that means to wire all the locations that need network access. But it turns out that those locations are typically where people sit to work—their desks, their labs, their classroom seats. What that leaves out is every place where there is not a chair, which is a lot of places. And so what the wireless overlay intends to do, is to provide access literally anywhere in the university environment.

We put wireless in the coffee shop. We put it in the library. We put it in the student union. We put it in the patio behind the student union. Certainly the classrooms have it. The public areas of residence halls have it, and common places of that kind. We recognize the fact that a wired infrastructure will, for the foreseeable future, provide higher bandwidth than a wireless infrastructure can. But, the wireless infrastructure provides something the wired cannot, which is nomadic access to information. It follows you wherever you go. The wireless overlay is intending to provide, literally, an anywhere, any time access to information. We do it in such a way that the user can roam throughout the entire campus and have essentially continuous access to the wireless infrastructure.

S: Do you think it is a reasonable goal for most campuses to have ubiquitous wireless?

JH: Well, that’s an individual campus situation. I have attended a number of conferences where that particular issue was under discussion. And the sense of it seems to be that, like student expectations of networking, student expectations of wireless are becoming universal. And the campuses that provide it will fulfill those expectations. The campuses that do not will experience a gap between students’ expectations and the resources provided. Where that happens, you will probably find students attempting to build their own wireless implementations, which then may become problems.

S:What do you think about hot spots that branch out into the community?

JH: Well, I think that’s really a good idea and it certainly is evidence of the popularity of wireless in general. The problem with the hot spots is that there are so many vendors that to use the hot spots, depending on your travels, you may need to have multiple subscriptions to multiple providers. That currently limits the effectiveness of the hot spot phenomenon. There are signs that the vendors are going to begin working together like the cell companies did, to provide roaming agreements. When that occurs, then one subscription should be sufficient to provide the kind of roaming with wireless computing that you’ve got with wireless cell phones. Then that service will be much more valuable and practical.

S: What are you doing with VoIP?

JH: We are beginning to deploy voice over IP as a niche application, as opposed to a general replacement for our campus telephone system. We see VoIP as a solution in specific cases. For example, we just built a major new cluster of buildings for our hospitality school. They will be the first all voice over IP installation. We also are using VoIP at other selected locations. But our main telephone system is a modern, though otherwise traditional, PBX architecture that will continue to grow for the next few years. Then we’ll reassess VoIP.

Part of my own personal concern about VoIP as a total solution is the question of it riding the same infrastructure that we are all the time defending against threats such as denial of service attacks and so on. The idea of convergence, where voice, video, and data come together in a single infrastructure, is a very attractive notion. But it remains to be seen whether we could provide as reliable an infrastructure under the VoIP service as users have become accustomed to.

The issue is not, “D'es it work?” The issue is, “Is it as robust and reliable as the voice network has been in the past?”

S: Right. And then you have the security issues as well as your concerns about reliability.

JH: If it were not for security concerns, it would be a much easier thing to agree to. Plus, there are cost issues. And depending on the VoIP architecture and the traditional telephone architecture available, there are some cases where VoIP may be the costlier of the two solutions. That tends to vary on a case-by-case basis, but it’s certainly one of the factors one has to consider.

S: What types of new research applications are you seeing on your campus network?

JH: Research-based applications tend to be highly variable. But they involve either access to remote devices at high speed, movement of large data sets, or collaboration such as using caves, immersadesks, and things of that kind—or simply H.323 video conferencing. The growth in that set of applications is enormous. In fact, you now hear people referring to e-science, meaning the impact of computing, advanced computing, and networking on many branches of science where there are new computer-based branches of the former fields. They use simulations, computer modeling, computer data sharing, and visualizations as ways of advancing the science.

So those are simply now gearing up to require more and more computing power and bandwidth to interconnect researchers among institutions, particularly as collaboration expands. And so, research computing is one area that is emerging as one of the more exciting arenas for computing. An example you’re well aware of is Internet2.

S: What initiatives exist in higher education that may help promote research-based applications?

JH: Right now on the national scene is National LambdaRail (NLR), which is a new multi-ten gigabit research network environment. And some states, including Florida, have a state component of that network.

For Florida LambdaRail, we’re building out a ten gigabit infrastructure and then, of course, when that comes to our doorstep, we’ll need to upgrade our campus networks in whole or in part, to ten gigabit, to accommodate these new kinds of science and collaborations that are developing. And like Internet2, this was seen as reinventing the commodity Internet except with modern technology and higher expectations, which it has done. These new fiber based initiatives, like National LambdaRail, will do it yet again at another order of magnitude higher performance.

And what has tended to happen is, is those kinds of resources and expectations will trickle down and become available to other kinds of uses beyond research over time—simply increasing the opportunities for all kinds of network access to grow in their use of bandwidth.

S: Would you say that’s happened with Internet2, the trickle down effect?

JH: Yes it has. In fact, in most campus networks, because the traffic between Internet2 locations is independent of the kind of use, users are communicating over Internet2 all the time, for both research and non-research purposes with almost no second thought to it. And the kinds of technologies, IPV6, IP security middleware, quality of service (QoS), and so on, that have become the focus of Internet2 development, have now worked their way into the products and services that we use for all of our networking. And today, those issues, quality of service, bandwidth shaping, and so on, are now part of the commodity Internet arsenal as well. Of course the problem with the commodity Internet is that the bandwidth is less predictable. But the technology is certainly moving forward.

S: What kinds of directions are you watching for in the future for campus networking?

JH: If you think about the directions in which the network phenomenon is moving, it includes the following kinds of things. The first is that people are using networking to do more things. The convergence notion of voice and video is an example. The second is that they are doing those things in more places. So the issue of both wired and wireless access comes to play. And they are doing more of it, or doing it in ways that demands more bandwidth, meaning that the totality of our needs today requires increasing the size of our Internet connections. And we already have Internet2 and Florida and National LambdaRail-size pipes to support the emerging applications that are coming down the road.

And we have needs for people to have access off of our campuses, which is stimulating a demand for broadband in the home, wired apartment complexes, and connections between places where large amounts of traffic flow. We have connections to our regional campuses in different cities, that allow the students there to access our services over our own network. So essentially, it’s spreading out to touch more users in more places with more applications.

And the needs then are for increasing bandwidth and reliability, and we therefore need better tools to manage all of that on a day-to-day basis, both in terms of the network as a resource, and to both monitor its characteristics to make sure it’s running properly and to defend it against internal and external threats. It’s getting harder with all of those things, because they tend to be additive.

S: Do you find that the networking infrastructure is affecting the brick and mortar in some way, perhaps making it possible to build more flexible designs for learning spaces?

JH: There are different answers that I would give you to that question. One of which is that we are designing our brick and mortal facilities differently, around technologies like networking. A second is, that we have a potential opportunity to build less brick and mortar by virtue of use of the Web. An example would be the 7,200 students that we have taking fully online courses at UCF.

If those students were actually here on campus in classroom seats taking those same courses, we would need more seats. And so the fact that the students are online has eliminated at least the pressure to build that many more classroom seats for them, and there is a direct savings that results from that. Now it turns out there has been no specific decision that says “Don’t build this, put them online instead.” But the fact that the online program is growing so rapidly has taken some pressure off the need to expand.

We have the opportunity perhaps to avoid some construction because students are able to access resources outside of our brick and mortar buildings. That includes libraries, labs, and classrooms. But I would say that we really haven’t cancelled any building projects as a result. So the actual impact is one of avoided costs, not cancelled projects.

S: You’ve talked about a lot of changes today, regarding campus networking. Is the amount of change we’ve been seeing going to continue?

JH: I would say is the things we have talked about are all, in their own way, evolutionary. We continue to move down the path toward greater use of networks, more dependence on networks, more ways to use our networks, and more devices having access to networks. There are authors who write about networked refrigerators, networked homes, networked clothing, that is network devices down to the level or our wristwatch and our sh'es and our appliances in our homes, and all manner of things. This all suggests that what we have seen to date, in the growth of use of networking is just a precursor to things to come.

S: If there was one thing that you could wave a magic wand and influence right now, in the world of networking on campus, what would that be?

JH: If I could have anything I wanted? If I could have anything I wanted in networking, I would have infinite free bandwidth and the total elimination of viruses and worms. In other words, I would have infinite free availability of bandwidth and no security or technical risks. Networking and the management of campus networks is becoming both increasingly complex and taking on increasing risk. Okay, while we may never quite get there, it’s worth working towards. But it is also delivering increased benefit.

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