Tech U: Tomorrow's IT Challenges Today

Universities are proving grounds for advanced network technologies that serve a global tech-savvy community. We examine infrastructure, wireless and security projects at several campuses to see what business can learn

April 7, 2006

11 Min Read
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When Network Computing's editors first discussed doing a cover story on networking in universities, there were a few skeptics. Although we've done articles profiling specific businesses and their technology applications, we'd never focused on one vertical market segment. Why start now?

The short answer is that universities are unique when it comes to technology. As developers of network protocols and standards, as incubators for many of the leading companies in our industry, and perhaps most important, as sites for large-scale deployments of new technologies, universities play a key role. That's worth exploring.

Over the years, we've seen network technologies commoditize and converge, and we've followed the challenges up the stack and then back down again. Universities were among the first to anoint Ethernet king, and despite ill-fated dalliances with ATM on a few campuses, that decision and others have held up in the broader market. Universities also were among the first to replace mainframes with client-server systems and to capitalize on the Web's potential. Today, universities are blazing trails in many areas.

My views on this issue are somewhat biased, having gained my earliest professional IT experience at a university, where I was involved in road-testing a range of emerging network technologies. I remember installing my first "Internet" connection, a 9,600-bps (yes, that's bits per second) IP-over-DECNet link to ARPANet. To connect our Unix and VAX/VMS servers and first-generation PCs, we installed those nasty runs of IEEE 10Base-5, aka thin yellow garden hose, to connect the $895 3Com network cards installed in our IBM XTs with lightning-fast 4.77-MHz CPUs.

As PCs proliferated and laser printers appeared, we loaded early versions of Novell's Advanced NetWare to support file and print services, interconnecting servers over a campuswide CATV network using IBM/Sytek's PC-Network technology. Before long, we graduated from file and print sharing to client-server applications, with plenty of pain along the way.

That brief trip down memory lane isn't just nostalgia. It illustrates the leadership roles universities have played since the dawn of packet switching, when the first IMPs (Internet Message Processors) were powered up at UCLA and Stanford University in the fall of 1969. Universities haven't always been the earliest adopters of networking technology, but even so, they've often challenged the capabilities of network systems, including scalability, availability, interoperability and manageability. Network Computing editors have seen much of this firsthand through our lab partnerships with UCLA, Stanford, the University of Wisconsin and Syracuse University.

The Future Is Happening Today

The key premise of Tech U is simple: Universities are proving grounds for advanced network technologies. However, while most IT professionals understand the role universities play in advanced technology research, many aren't quite so aware of the role they play in shaping technology directions in other areas that facilitate their teaching mission, define their administrative business processes, and impact the nonacademic social lives of students raised in an Internet society.In the past several years, for example, most universities have kept busy implementing new information systems aimed at more efficiently managing their business operations and better serving their customers. And almost all modern universities play the role of Internet service provider, meeting both the academic needs and recreational desires of students. Finally, the classroom is becoming increasingly virtual and global, with course-management systems and synchronous distance-education technologies supplementing and, in many cases, replacing the classroom lecture mode of instruction.

Our goal is to paint a picture of what's hot and interesting at Tech U today in hopes of giving you a sense for what's likely to happen in the broader industry in the future. Unfortunately, we could only cover so much ground. So we picked several key technologies to highlight important issues that resonate in virtually every modern organization, including high performance, security, mobility and collaboration.

As Robert Kohlhepp explains in "Research on the Rails", universities are staying true to their roots as pioneers of new high-performance wide-area internetworking technologies, pushing the boundaries of traditional WANs. The most notable manifestation is the National LambdaRail project, which uses DWDM (dense wave-division multiplexing) to provide dedicated 10-Gbps intercity links between universities. Similar initiatives are taking place across the country at the local and regional levels, helping to address fundamental issues about scalable high-performance networking that will be required to meet next-generation needs of businesses and consumers.

The demand for mobile network access is felt by every university. When prospective students and their parents visit Syracuse University, questions about wireless network services are the most common inquiries we get. Wi-Fi service on campus is now considered basic table stakes, but the truly interesting challenges lie in providing that access in areas where the density of users is high enough to break most business WLAN systems. The high-density wireless challenge is addressed by Frank Bulk in "Compressed Air". Bulk examines different approaches to the problem, including some that run counter to conventional wireless design principles. Laptop-toting students and faculty have come to expect much more than simple hot-spot service in conference rooms and cafeterias, for instance. They want high-performance networks capable of supporting multimedia apps, and they won't settle for poor performance, even when the user density is very high. That's leading universities to push the boundaries of multiband deployment models and consider other solutions as well--the quality of a school's wireless network is a significant competitive differentiator, and the lessons learned will set the stage for tomorrow's expected pervasive wireless deployments.

It is a common misconception, even among our own staff, that network security is less important to universities than to business and government organizations. That's hardly the case. They're often unable to implement rigid perimeter security policies, for example, because doing so would inhibit interuniversity research. In addition, they must securely integrate student-owned and administered computers, so the challenges are different. In "Taming the Masses", Jordan Wiens elaborates on an On Location piece we first published in 2004 that discussed how the University of Florida dealt with security challenges related to peer-to-peer networking, an initiative that has been expanded to address a full range of end-point security challenges. As networking becomes increasingly public in nature, these challenges will expand outside of academia.Although security is a hot topic, applications are more interesting to most. In particular, leading universities--many early pioneers to technologies like e-mail and videoconferencing--are recognizing that emerging Web-based collaboration tools are transforming the way people work in an era of rapid globalization. Derrick Cogburn has traveled the world--physically and virtually--studying the ways in which collaborative technologies can change people, organizations and society. And in the process of examining these issues, he's been engaged in a multiyear search for the best Web collaborative technologies, tools that allow distributed workgroups to learn and work together. He's yet to find the perfect tool, but you'll surely learn a thing or two from his experience in "The World Is Our Campus".

In "Sims on Steroids" Jennifer Zaino profiles the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, which is using dozens of real-world simulations produced by Wharton's Alfred P. West Jr. Learning Lab to teach future MBAs how to react to situations from oil buying to risk management.

And finally, in "The Real Big Apple" Beth Bacheldor pays a quick visit to Virginia Tech University, home of System X, the 20th most powerful computer system in the world and one of only two on that list built with Apple computers. Because, as we know, academia loves its Macs.

What We don't cover

Although the articles contained within this cover story were judged by our editorial team to be some of the most important technology issues being addressed by universities, this list is by no means comprehensive. Many others were worthy of further coverage.For example, as early adopters of client-server systems, a migration spurred on many campuses by Y2K concerns, more than a few universities experienced technical and budgetary challenges. Today's three-tier systems are more stable and considerably more functional, letting universities focus attention on enhancing system responsiveness and scalability and making an increasing array of services available over Web portals. Students register online, faculty have quick and secure access to academic records of advisees, and data warehouses allow more flexible ad hoc reporting for administrators.

Universities also make good use of many open-source technologies, and not just for financial reasons. Because of their unique needs, campus IT groups like the flexibility and customizable nature found in open source.

On the instructional side of the house, most campuses have implemented online Web-based course-management systems from companies like Blackboard and WebCT, two leading vendors that recently merged. These course-management systems open the door for highly functional distance-education initiatives while supplementing on-campus course offerings. An increasing number of college classrooms now support rich computer, network and multimedia capabilities with wireless access for students and, in some cases, with wireless response systems that let faculty ask questions and immediately display aggregate response statistics.

More Tech U.

Beyond meeting academic and administrative needs of students, most campuses with large residential populations take their roles as ISPs seriously. Dorms are wired with Ethernet and increasingly unwired with Wi-Fi. Supporting the Internet surfing habits of college students requires pretty fat pipes, and still students will consume all the bandwidth IT can offer. This has led many campuses to deploy packet-shaping hardware to throttle usage, particularly as it relates to peer-to-peer applications. Leading-edge schools are adding multimedia to the mix, providing access to music and video services.It's clear we've only scratched the surface of the Tech U landscape, but we hope this cover story will prove helpful to our business readers as you consider tomorrow's challenges. Universities aren't the first adopters of every new technology, but their unique contributions, in education and research, help to define the future of networking.

Dave Molta is a Network Computing senior technology editor. He is also assistant dean for technology at the School of Information Studies and director of the Center for Emerging Network Technologies at Syracuse University. Write to him at [email protected]

Training Tomorrow's IT Leaders

When universities test the limits of wireless technologies by deploying thousands of APs, their experiences impact the entire industry. And because successes and failures are realized fairly quickly, the results are immediate. However, the academic-program decisions made at universities have a longer-lasting and more general impact on the IT industry because the people who leave these programs shape the IT products and services of tomorrow.

Some people believe a strong liberal arts education should be the academic goal of universities, particularly at the undergraduate level. Teaching students how to think critically, express themselves effectively and work together in teams is arguably of more lasting value than teaching them technical skills that may soon become obsolete. On the other hand, many organizations lack the capacity to simply hire smart people into their IT shops and then train them. They need students who have a basic understanding of technology architecture, business applications, network protocols and systems.Historically, many IT professionals have received training in computer science and engineering, academic disciplines with rich histories. Many of Network Computing's current and former tech editors gained their entry into the profession through this path. But increasingly, universities are recognizing the multidisciplinary nature of IT and crafting new academic programs that train students not only in technology but also more broadly in the role that information plays within modern organizations and society. In other words, while classic IT training focuses on the "T," these new programs focus more on the "I."

More Tech U.

Last October, more than 250 academics met at Penn State University for the first "i-School" conference, where research and educational trends in this new field were discussed; next year the group will convene at the University of Michigan. Syracuse University School of Information Studies, home to one of Network Computing's Real-World Labs®, is one of the pioneers in the i-School movement. Other leading players include the University of Michigan, University of Washington, Penn State, University of Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech.

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