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6 ResNet Pain Points and What To Do About Them

Today's students expect high-performance residential networks with plenty of bandwidth and anytime, anywhere wireless access. Here are the top ResNet challenges at institutions across the country.

residential network

With students bringing an ever-increasing number of Internet-connected devices to campus — all with an insatiable appetite for bandwidth — colleges and universities are under pressure to provide high-performance networks in residence halls and other non-academic areas. Many are being forced to bolster their residential networks with more bandwidth: A recent survey found that the percentage of schools that dedicate at least 1 Gbps of bandwidth to the ResNet has doubled in the last three years, from 25.5 percent of survey respondents in 2012 to 51.5 percent today. The 2015 State of ResNet survey of 550 higher education executives, published by the Association for College and University Technology Advancement (ACUTA), the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), and the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International (ACUHO-I), is part of a five-year effort to measure the pulse of residential network practices and policies in higher education.

Campus Technology reached out to several technology leaders involved in overseeing campus ResNets, to find out more about their challenges and solutions.

Improving Wireless Coverage

Bandwidth alone is not enough — students also want anytime, anywhere wireless access. The 2015 State of ResNet report found that 65.4 percent of surveyed campuses provide robust wireless coverage (of four bars or more) throughout more than 80 percent of their campuses, a 20 percent increase from 2013.

Administrators at Providence College (RI) confirm their top ResNet priority has been making sure the wireless network is robust. Jim Rizzo, help desk manager, said students increasingly expect to find a good wireless connection everywhere on campus. Also, newer networks are being designed to handle the assumption that each user is going to have three or four devices. "We have something like 10,000 devices on our wireless network, but when you add up our faculty, staff and students, there are fewer than 6,000 people," he added.

"One of the biggest changes we made this year at Providence was creating a separate wireless network for consumer devices that don't support enterprise-level network security," explained Rizzo. The main wireless network at Providence for computers, tablets and mobile devices uses 802.1x, which the majority of students' game consoles, Apple TV and Roku devices don't support, he said. So Providence set up a separate wireless network called PC-Devices for those. The network is limited to Internet access only; it cannot access any internal campus resources other than those that can be accessed off campus (such as e-mail, the Sakai LMS and the college Web site).

It's a similar story at West Chester University (PA), where Joe Sincavage, director of networking and telecommunications, reported his university is 90 percent of the way through a six-year journey to outfit the campus residential areas with wireless networking.

Because the project has been a phased progression since 2009, Sincavage said, West Chester has learned some lessons about wireless deployment along the way and applied them in newer residence halls. For instance, initially wireless access points were installed in hallways, but networking executives found that I-beams blocked wireless signals, there were dead zones in corners and student rooms received less than optimal coverage. Turn the clock forward to 2014, and the newest residence halls have been constructed with in-room wireless access points. "There had been concern that students might damage the access points and initially they had been put above the drop ceiling, but ceiling tiles also block signals," Sincavage explained. In newer buildings, the access points are exposed. There is some damage to them, he noted, but very little.

Using Aruba Networks' wireless equipment and products, West Chester can identify gaming devices and automatically move them into its guest networking configuration. "That safeguards our servers so that [the devices] only get out to the Internet," Sincavage said, "but also streamlines their communication through the network."

One issue West Chester has yet to solve is students wanting to print wirelessly to their personal printers. "We can't support that today, because it interferes with the network," he said. "But we are trying to work with Aruba on new technologies to support that."

Bandwidth: To Shape or Not to Shape?

The 2015 State of ResNet survey found that 55 percent of responding institutions that provide their own bandwidth also limit and/or shape bandwidth. Students' love of streaming video services is making bandwidth management a necessity at Miami University (OH), according to Chris Bernard, director of network engineering.

"Their desires are quickly outpacing our capacity to provide the services," he said. Miami has been a customer of Procera Networks for bandwidth management, and three years ago, Bernard's team began working with Procera on a solution called ResNet Turbo that allows high-bandwidth users to pay more for increased bandwidth.

In the first year, more than 100 students signed up; in the second year, more than 300 did. In the current year, the number is around 1,000 (out of a total of 7,600 residential students). The current price for 2015–2016 is $85 per semester. "Bandwidth prices keep going down, so that makes it easier," Bernard said. "We have made a lot of changes to infrastructure to facilitate higher bandwidth speeds. We have really been moving our edge network to more of an ISP-class network rather than a higher education network or even an enterprise network."

ResNet Turbo also benefits the students who don't have it, Bernard explained, "because they don't have to contend with the folks who tend to suck up a lot of bandwidth. ResNet Turbo traverses the same infrastructure, but it is a separate pool of bandwidth we have allocated for them."

When to Consider Outsourcing

The number of schools outsourcing or considering outsourcing ResNet services has nearly doubled from 22 percent in 2013 to 38 percent in 2015, according to the State of ResNet survey. Very simply, universities are outsourcing to save money, said Ric Simmons, deputy CIO and executive director of information technology services at Louisiana State University, who also has been involved in the design and interpretation of the survey. "Funding continues to be a challenge, along with staff retention, and those two tend to be intertwined. Outsourcing can provide relief in the cost to maintain cable and network infrastructure as well as support staff," he added, with the caveat that you do give up some control.

When Ellen Yu Borkowski was named CIO of Union College (NY) in 2010, she soon realized the campus network, particularly in residence halls, was outdated and sorely in need of upgrading. "Most of the equipment was old and we actually didn't have full wireless coverage in the dorms," she said. "The dorms were a pain point. If you tell students during campus tours that there is wireless in the residence halls and then they get here and find out it is not truly wireless the way they expect, that can be a challenge."

Borkowski worked with a consultant to analyze options, including the cost of replacing the whole network in residence halls. "I realized that if I was going to ask for this much money, I should do my due diligence and compare the cost to outsourcing over five years."

Borkowski also had to take into account that she has only two networking staff members, who are already stretched pretty thin, as well as some student employees. "One challenge was we were not a 24/7 support shop," she said, and there wasn't enough money to hire more support staff. She looked at several outsourcing options before choosing Apogee, which offers turnkey ResNet solutions.

"Apogee could provide us 24/7 support with multiple channels for support," Borkowski said. "They ended up being cheaper than doing it ourselves and they guarantee a certain bandwidth, the cost of which would be hard to anticipate. That falls on the shoulders of Apogee with a consistent fixed cost to me over five years."

It took a year to come up with the funding, but the college transitioned its ResNet services to Apogee in January 2013. "We have been very happy," Borkowski said. "We do hear complaints from students, but as soon as we do, Apogee is right on top of it. We have an Apogee technician on site and he will go out and talk to students and check their connectivity. He does testing all the time. They try hard to make sure they are addressing any complaint."

Managing Student Employees

Most colleges and universities that manage their own ResNets rely on student employees to help provide support. While the students benefit from some great work experience, several network executives said it can be a challenge to manage a student staff.

"Our IT department is pretty lean in terms of full-time IT staff, so we depend pretty heavily on the students," said Providence's Rizzo. Most of the time, the help desk is staffed by just Rizzo and a few students. "I am still learning how to best manage them," he admitted. "The biggest issue is training the employees to our expectations that they handle things as professionally as possible. It is not always easy when you turn over a quarter of your staff every year and they can't work more than 20 hours per week. It is difficult, but we revamp our training program every year."

Engaging Students About Problems

Miami University's Bernard pointed to another challenge of managing the ResNet: engaging students when they have problems. Some students just go on Twitter or other social media and complain, he said. "When we respond and ask if we can help, most of the time we don't get a response — and it is very frustrating for the IT people," he said. "I have Twitter up on daily basis looking for certain hashtags such as 'MU wireless sucks.' We say, 'I can't ask for your unique ID on Twitter, but open a support desk ticket and tweet the ticket number back to me and we can follow up on it.' And nine times out of 10, we will not get a response."

Bernard has talked to executives at Kent State University and a few other schools in Ohio who have hired students to be network ambassadors, serving as the go-to person in the residence hall when there is a problem. "But so far they have told us it hasn't helped," he said.

ResNet Strategic Planning

The State of ResNet survey has tracked whether institutions develop a strategic plan for their ResNet operations. "Such a plan may include an approach for management, as well as cost and performance information, for wireless Internet (WiFi), Internet bandwidth, cable TV, IPTV, VoIP and related services," the report notes. Over the last three years, the number of respondents that have a strategic plan in place has risen sharply, from 34 percent to 60 percent. Still, that leaves 40 percent without strategic plans or unsure if they have one. LSU's Simmons said he is not surprised that so many have no ResNet strategic plan: "Some organizations focus on keeping the wheels on the road, and they see a strategic plan as a burden to construct and a commitment to follow. They may see it as taking away agility. It takes time and buy-in to construct."

Dealing With Guest Access

Guest network access is an issue many universities have made changes around, according to Ric Simmons, deputy CIO and executive director of information technology services at Louisiana State University. He makes a distinction between guests (those who have been invited on campus by faculty, students and staff) and visitors (who could be anyone who walks onto campus). "I am aware of campuses that provide visitors access to the campus network, and I believe that is risky with regard to security. If that person does something nefarious or illegal, the organization has a link in the responsibility chain for what happens on its network. So at LSU we do not allow visitor access to our network," he said.

To tackle the issue at Providence College (RI), administrators reached out to other universities about how they manage guest networks, and recently made changes to make the process more secure. "We now require sponsorship before guests get on the network," said help desk manager Jim Rizzo, "and the sponsor actually has to confirm the guest."

One positive development in the guest network arena is Eduroam, a secure, roaming access service developed for the international research and education community. "If you work at Penn State and are an Eduroam subscriber, you can come to LSU and without even asking me for an ID, log onto our network with your Penn State credentials," Simmons said.

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