The top back-to-school IT projects at 10 colleges and universities show a tidal wave of change in higher education. Many of the changes could presage broader shifts in enterprise and consumer technology.
Not surprisingly, wireless is fast becoming the default network connection for campus users, who typically own between two and four wireless-enabled mobile devices. At the same time, virtualization and growth in cloud-based services are centralizing and offloading IT functions. These changes, coupled with soaring video traffic, are triggering bandwidth upgrades at all levels.
As students begin to populate campuses around the world, we're tracking six major areas of technology change.
1. 802.11n and all-wireless access
802.11n Wi-Fi campus deployments are growing and increasingly eliminating wired wall jacks and switch ports. (See also: Is it time to cut the Ethernet access cable?)
University of North Texas in Denton took the 11n plunge, replacing a "hodge-podge" of 11b and 11g access points with about 250-300 11n access points from Aruba Networks, says Joe Adamo, senior director of communications services at UNT.
Schools with 11n already deployed are seeing big changes. Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., recently renovated four dorms, offering only 11n wireless connectivity for students. "We've seen an abandonment of the wired infrastructure [by users]," says John Turner, Brandeis' director of networks and systems. The estimated cost for rewiring the four buildings was $200,000. The final cost of the Aruba Networks WLAN deployment for the four buildings? Less than $80,000.
Morrisville State College in Morrisville, New York (site of the first large-scale 802.11n wireless LAN, built with Meru Networks gear) is likewise is making wireless the default network access in all new or rehabbed dorms and classrooms.
"That's a huge shift in IT's historical thinking," says Jean Boland, the college's vice president for administrative services and IT.
With its fully deployed, campus-wide 802.11n WLAN, based on equipment from Aruba Networks and Xirrus, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh this year deactivated all the 100Mbps wired jacks in all campus dorms, putting an end to the "one per pillow" access that has been a higher education standard for over a decade. Students can request that a wired jack be activated (and all requests will be granted).
"We'll never get rid of the wired infrastructure in the residence halls," says Dan McCarriar, CMU director, network and production services. "But if I can eliminate some switches, we can keep down infrastructure costs and realize some power savings."
2. The rising tide of mobile devices
Many incoming freshmen students this year have more than one mobile device. Laptops plus smartphones (or a Wi-Fi-only device such as the Apple iPod touch), and in some cases wireless game controllers, are a typical combination. Apple's iPad tablet is popping up on nearly every campus, heralding a new type of mobile device.
More campuses are trialing the use of these personal mobile devices, either as complements or even replacements for the decade-long focus on student laptop computing. Stanford University School of Medicine will hand out iPads to its 91 incoming first-year med students. George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, will give this year's freshman class a choice of either an iPad or a MacBook notebook. And Seton Hall University in Greensburg, Penn., will give freshman both an iPad and a 13-inch MacBook Pro.
One of the pioneers in "mobile learning" is Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. This year's 1,000 to 1,200 freshmen will be the third class to receive a choice of the latest iPhone -- in this case the iPhone 4 -- or the Wi-Fi-based iPod touch. (See also: iPhones go to front of the class at Texas university)
What's distinct in ACU's approach is that from the start, the hardware handout has been accompanied by a concerted effort to create both network and learning infrastructures to support extensive use of the devices by students. This year, the campus WLAN is being upgraded to 802.11n (the iPhone 4 supports 11n for the first time), with 1Gbps Ethernet links to the Alcatel-Lucent access points (which are rebranded from Aruba).
ACU has also re-architected its weekly first-year orientation classes, now dubbed Cornerstone, around the mobile platform.
"We wanted to create a central locus to immerse students in mobile learning, as we had been doing with faculty and staff," says Arthur Brant, ACU's director of enterprise infrastructure. Cornerstone classes will introduce students to the handsets, and to the university's growing portfolio of home-grown and third-party mobile learning applications and online resources.
Duke University, Durham, N.C., has released version 2.0 of DukeMobile, a collection of mobile applications available for Apple iOS, Research in Motion BlackBerry, and other platforms. The new release offers an improved interactive map application, which now shows the user's relative location, locations of printers on the campus-wide printing network, and guided walking tours of the campus. Students can access and search library card catalogs and chat with a librarian if they need help, plus view event details, news, a campus directory and other services.
3. Recentralizing IT through virtualization
In many schools, demand for high-performance computing and enormous storage capacity, coupled with the need to realize savings and efficiencies, is driving a recentralization of IT resources through virtualization. (See: Purdue University plans for post-PC era.)
University of Maryland at Baltimore is creating a common computing facility in a leased, 3,200-square-foot space just off the main campus. It will house existing gear from jammed-up computer rooms on campus, and from school and departmental facilities (a hallmark of many schools). But it will also provide high-end data processing and storage to meet advanced computational and research needs, says Peter Murray, the institution's CIO.
Virtualization is a key part of the new commons. "Virtualization lets us give folks their own separate piece of the needed resources, without having [to resort to] expensive local resources," he says. The new site will be fully operational in early 2011.
Much smaller Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., will create 170 virtual machines in its current fiscal year, nearly doubling the 100 it already has. It's part of a consolidation process to create a cost-effective, high-performance compute, backup and storage service, in two data centers. "Our plan is to build an environment that's attractive to our professional schools with [currently] their own data centers and resources," says Ellen Waite-Franzen, Dartmouth's CIO.
The facility is using VMware's vSphere software components and Cisco's Unified Computing System as the hardware platform.
Fayetteville State University in North Carolina is using VMware's VMView with Samsung's line of integrated monitors to virtualize computing desktops in a new community computing center and in various on-campus software development and science labs. The approach simplifies desktop support and maintenance, and lets IT create multiple software images for each user, varying with different courses, for example, says Joseph Vittorelli, FSU director of systems and infrastructure.
4. Increasing clouds
In tandem with such virtualization is growing use of cloud-based services. Dartmouth has just adopted the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Services (BPOS), which are online versions of Exchange, SharePoint, Office and other Microsoft applications. The school chose Microsoft over Google's comparable product because it plans to integrate the on-campus Exchange Server with the cloud offering. Dartmouth is also evaluating cloud offerings via Amazon and Rackspace.
Brandeis this fall will complete the transition of its campus e-mail and calendar services to Google's online equivalents.
"Google can do it way better than Brandeis," Turner says. One key factor in Brandeis' decision: Google's excellent support for mobile users. "To keep up with them, we'd have to make sure we were always updating all our software," Turner says. "Just the new iPad puts us behind the eight-ball right away."
Dartmouth's Waite-Franzen says she expects more education software vendors to create cloud offerings. SunGard Higher Education, for example, announced earlier this year it will offer as a hosted service the federal methodology for calculating student financial aid eligibility base on the latest government rules.
5. Video reality
Video usage is growing, fueled partly by student use of online video streaming services. In addition, there's expanding use of video in learning, such as "lecture capture" systems that create and store searchable videos of class presentations by teachers, visitors and students.
Duke has just chosen Panopto's Focus software as the new foundation of its DukeCapture System, created in 2006. The new software will let Duke also support student-shot class and personal videos, according to Duke CIO Tracy Futhey. To date, the system has created about 15TB of data. Duke is studying ways to revamp its storage architecture into tiers, based on video usage patterns and data retention policies.
Video puts new demands on campus networks. Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., wanted to create more fine-grained bandwidth control and optimization, partly as a result of the rise in video traffic. "We used to create a [bandwidth] partition, and students competed for that bandwidth for certain file types," says Joanne Kossuth, Olin's CIO. "With the increased use of video, of podcasts, and video conferencing, that strategy no longer worked."
The college chose Procera Networks' PacketLogic product line, allowing detailed, wire-speed packet inspection, analysis, shaping and optimization. "It gives us greater flexibility and control," Kossuth says.
6. Bandwidth or bust
All the foregoing trends are leading to big bandwidth upgrades on many campuses. Nearly all of the 11n deployments mentioned here make use of 1Gbps Ethernet backhaul to the LAN, for example at Abilene Christian, Dartmouth and Fayetteville.
University of North Texas upgraded its campus distribution network from 1Gbps to 10Gbps, and new design to improve redundancy, UNT's Adamo says.
On the back end, Internet bandwidth is soaring. Morrisville more than doubled its connection, from 90Mbps total to 200Mbps. Olin did exactly the same. North Texas University ended 2010 academic year hitting about 300M to 400Mbps and expects to reach 500Mbps in the new academic year.
Campuses are also paying more attention to cellular bandwidth. Campus-wide network upgrades offer the opportunity to evaluate distributed antenna systems (DAS), which are cables and hardware that take a cellular carrier's signal from an on-campus headend and spread it evenly throughout a building. Brandeis is evaluating this, in part because new energy efficient windows in new or rehabbed buildings dramatically weaken cell signals. "It won't be cheap, but it might make sense to bundle this with our network upgrade," Turner says.
These projects reflect the rapid changes that are stressing underlying network infrastructures. "These are about technology shifts," Carnegie Mellon's McCarriar says. "There are significant costs to maintaining legacy infrastructures that people are not using."
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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