Bucking Conventional Network Wisdom Pays Off
This Georgia university faced a crossroads: to continue down the path of a big name network vendor and pay high prices or to go with a lesser known choice and reap the benefits...
When Rob Yawn joined the IT organization at the University of West Georgia (UWG) seven years ago as the manager of networking, "they showed me the purple Extreme Networks box, I said, 'What is this?!'" Yawn recalls. "It took me about three weeks," he adds, "to realize the people at Extreme Networks had it figured out."
Like many institutions, the Carrolton-based campus, with about 11,500 students and 2,000 staff and faculty members, has grown in student population, added buildings, and expanded its computing operations. At the same time, the university has faced the same economic challenges that have plagued other universities in the country, forcing it to be smarter in how it allocated its funds. In IT, that meant choosing a single source for its networking equipment in order to achieve the operational efficiencies. After weighing their options, they decided to go with Extreme Networks.
As CIO Kathy Kral notes, "We were seeing maintenance costs grow every single year. We were spending so much on maintenance; we didn't have enough left over to upgrade the technology in our existing buildings." So when the school decided to make the switch to one vendor, the motivation was initially "cost-driven," she explains.
As that migration progressed over the next several years, what IT noticed was that "The entire network became easier to manage," Kral says. "It cost us less. But also, the network became rock solid and stable." Since Yawn's network crew had a total of three people—including Yawn himself—manageability was an important consideration.
Manageability by a Small IT Team
Now, Yawn proclaims, "For the last three years, we have been homogeneous, running Extreme Networks. That's all we run from the edge to the core."
He lists the advantages of the decision. First, there's the support. "We have the new wireless LAN solution from Extreme Networks that we're rolling out on campus. They've literally spent all day talking with us on the phone and remoting out to desktops to help us configure systems."
Second, there are the network management aspects. The university runs Extreme Networks Ridgeline management software (formerly EPICenter) for configuration, provisioning, troubleshooting, and status monitoring. Yawn has three monitors hooked to his desktop system, and one is dedicated to showing Ridgeline. "I'm monitoring for alerts," he says. "If somebody calls up and says, 'I need this port provisioned on this VLAN in this building,' I can quickly consult different views in [the management tool] and determine that that IP address is associated with that switch in that building on that floor in that closet and go in there and do what is necessary for the customer."
When more urgent matters arise—such as a switch going down or a controller needing rebooting—the system sends out emails. Yawn is quick to add, "In defense of Extreme Networks, the last couple of times that's happened, it hasn't been the switches; it's been the power in the building—a bad UPS or a circuit breaker popping in the building."
The administrative, classroom, and other campus operations follow a star network topology. At the middle is an Extreme Networks BlackDiamond 10K Series switch acting as the core router. A 24-port fiber Summit X450a performs routing duties for residential buildings. The edge switches in the academic and administrative buildings as well as the residence halls are mostly stacks of up to eight switches consisting of a mix between Summit X250s and X450s.
The latter model uses a stacking technology that Yawn says he appreciates for its flexibility. "Because of the stacking technology, we can manage those devices as one," he explains. "We can add physical members, delete members—it makes us infinitely more flexible." Plus, stacking delivers performance comparable to traditional chassis switches but with the added advantage of having no chassis. "The chassis itself is a point of failure," he points out. "You don't have that with this stack member approach. If a member [of the stack] goes bad, you only lose what's plugged into that one physical switch, rather than everything."
Students at UWG pay a technology fee and then decide how the funds will be spent. These days, the big push is to beef up wireless connectivity in areas where they congregate—lobbies, halls, eateries, and the residence halls. The goal, joke Kral and Yawn, is "to be able to use a wireless laptop on the shuttle bus as you drive around the campus."
To deliver robust and secure wireless access to the Internet, the campus is running two Summit WM3600 wireless LAN controllers. While each is capable of supporting up to 256 access points (APs), the campus currently has about 150 802.11n APs (a mix of Extreme Networks Altitude 4610s and 4620s) ready to be installed, to replace an older generation of APs.
The university runs its wireless network "like a Starbucks' hotspot," Yawn says. "There is no client software you have to run on your computer. The access point is open and you can just connect to it." But to do anything on the wireless network, the user must authenticate using his or her school email address and password through a captive portal. That authentication works for any device capable of browsing the Internet.
The previous generation of wireless hardware is being replaced by Extreme Networks new generation of 802.11n wireless LAN products. Yawn points out that previously the school had to use custom code that drove people to a non-university-branded log-in page and required ongoing maintenance to enable authentication. Now, because the Extreme Networks wireless LAN technology has the same functionality built into the controllers themselves, "the authentication piece was done with an out-of-the-box installation of a RADIUS server on a virtual machine with little or no custom code," he says. "That functionality, which we had had to more or less outsource to system developers, was brought back into the networking arena. [Now] we can manage that ourselves."
A small but vital by-product of the wireless upgrade is that the captive portal page to which people are transferred in order to log into the network now looks like a university web page.
Gear to Support More Learning
The growth in wireless is accompanied by an increase in wired devices on campus too. The university is adding wired capacity to accommodate a conversion of traditional classrooms into "problem-based learning spaces that have a lot more technology in them," Kral notes. Whereas previously the network needed to support a faculty member standing in the front of the room and lecturing to the class, now those same spaces need to accommodate teams of students collaborating on projects and sharing and showing their work on large displays set around the room. "There's a lot of networking that goes into those rooms," says Kral.
"The cool thing about Extreme Networks is that the management of setting that stuff up is so much simpler," adds Yawn, who is convinced that the decision to shift over to Extreme Networks networking gear was the right direction for UWG. CIO Kral concurs. "The network is extremely stable. We've reduced our maintenance costs considerably. And our partnership with Extreme Networks is probably the best vendor partnership we have, whether they're talking at a technical level with Rob or talking with me at a strategic level."
Extreme Networks, Inc.
3585 Monroe St.
Santa Clara, CA 95051