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Finessing Bandwidth for a Campus Laptop Program

Introducing a completely wireless laptop campus brought a new set of challenges for this Michigan university's IT team.

Becoming Michigan's first totally "wireless laptop campus" was a boon for Lawrence Technological University, but it also put some unusual constraints on the Southfield, MI-based institution. Every undergraduate student at Lawrence Tech can obtain a Windows- or Mac OS X-based laptop or tablet loaded with all of the necessary engineering or architecture software.

"What most universities have in a lab, we put right in front of our students on a laptop," said Tim Chavis, executive director of IT services for the institution's Edward Donley Computer Center. Keeping those resources in front of students on a 24/7 basis wasn't easy for the IT team, which was soon fielding calls regarding the "dead spots" that plagued the 10-year-old campus wireless system. After an upgrade of that system last summer, the problems started to surface.

Not long after the initiative rolled out, for example, issues like illegal downloads and slow response times began to crop up. With 60 servers utilizing the institution's virtualized computing environment--and thousands of users accessing the network across campus--"managing the high volume of network traffic was a major challenge," said Chavis.

Dealing with the Inevitable
Troubleshooting problems was difficult at best. At one point, for example, the IT team spent hours pinpointing a denial of service to a bad printer card in one of the campus' buildings. Add in the fact that some of the network components had "gone bad, and were throwing out a bunch of noise that drowned out the useful traffic," said Chavis, and it became clear that the institution needed an effective networking monitoring tool.

"We really lacked a way to track down all of the issues and address them," said Chavis, who tapped into a resource that many college IT teams overlook: a tech-savvy student. At the time, Alex Zarembo was a student assistant in the computer center. While working on his senior project, Zarembo investigated effective methods of monitoring traffic and mitigating security threats in wireless networks. By pairing up with his school's IT team, Zarembo was able to put his newfound knowledge to good use in a real-world application.

"About two years ago we started investigating the alternatives, comparing the pros and cons of each, and looking at pricing structures of those solutions," said Zarembo. Other key considerations included the products' functionalities, and how well they would (or wouldn't) fit with Lawrence Tech's existing network. After shopping around, Zarembo recommended that the school test out a free trial of Plixer's Scrutinizer software, which is used to monitor and report on bandwidth and network traffic details.

The first version of the software was installed in late-2009, and was upgraded to a new version a couple of months later, but not without challenges. "The second version came with a few bugs that took about two months to get straightened out," said Zarembo. "Getting through those [issues] was our biggest hurdle."

Once the system was in place and the associated bugs worked out, it began automatically logging all network traffic and alerting the school's IT team to all interactions between campus systems. The solution also tracks which systems, applications, and protocols are using the most network traffic; provides information on trends and bandwidth consumption patterns; and tracks response time degradations and issues regarding connectivity losses.

An Expanded System
Looking back on their initial goal of "tracking down a few hardware errors," Zarembo and Chavis said that they've expanded their monitoring to cover more corners of the school's IT infrastructure. It also potentially helps protect Lawrence Tech from legal exposure from some kinds of activities.

"How we're using the monitoring system now is very different from what we started out with," said Chavis. In another example--and in response to student complaints about a lack of Internet connectivity--the IT team analyzed network traffic and determined what types of files were being sent through the pipeline. As a result of that exercise, the pipeline was increased to 250 megabits, but not before the traffic was assessed to determine who was using what.

"We had a 30-meg pipe and in a few instances we came up on one student who was using 15 megs of it," said Chavis. "We set some priorities within our package shaper to make sure important university business was able to get through and then narrowed things down for the [residential halls] and other areas, like peer-to-peer exchanges and Xbox usage."

At the top of Lawrence Tech's IT agenda right now is the conversion of standalone servers over to virtualized servers for student use, said Chavis, whose team will continue using the network monitoring software as that ongoing virtualization initiative rolls out. "We're basically just logging everything that crosses our firewall and keeping that data for six months in case of an incident," said Chavis. "It's working out well."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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