Universities explore visions of student connectivity

Students demand mobility, connectivity and personalisation

Modern universities are facing technology challenges undreamed of even a few years ago, with many of those centred on the network.

How do you provide connectivity to thousands of non-employees, securely and in a cost effective manner? How do you use that connectivity and the services delivered through it as a competitive tool to drive enrolments and funding?

Questions such as these are testing institutions as diverse as Waiariki Institute of Technology (WIT) and the University of Queensland (UoQ).

Waiariki’s Mark Bloor was brought on at WIT to develop the network as part of a strategy to attract students and reach aggressive admissions and performance goals. He began by working closely with iTCo, the originators of the IT review.

WIT has been offering vocational studies for 30 years with a student population of around 7,000 full and part-time students.

Bloor says the biggest challenge of the project was getting the building blocks in place.

“It’s no use whacking new technology on top of fragile foundations,” he says.

Waiariki’s network stretches across five campus locations in the central North Island, but was plagued with poor performance and a switching structure nearly a decade old.

The Polytechnic needed a bottom-up overhaul. The first project would be to revamp the switching and telephony infrastructure. Bloor opted for Cisco to deliver the technology.

He says while each technology area was evaluated independently, a decision was made to adopt Cisco as a total solution.

Each campus had a Nortel Meridian Private Automated Branch Exchange (PABX) that were replaced with Cisco’s Unified Communications Manager on the company’s Power Over Ethernet platform.

Each desk at WIT’s campuses now has a Cisco IP phone, so the system can be administered from a central location. Such centralised management helped WIT both trim costs and improve services.

“It took patience to keep the vision and goals in focus, while working through the back-end ‘boring’ stuff,” he says.

This included the capital expenditure and the business case. These were signed off by senior management and the council, but Bloor describes it as an “education”. It was not speedy and forced the team to keep looking at “futures”.

One of those futures derived from a trip to Canada in 2007. There, Waiariki saw the campus of Montreal University where university PCs were rare. Instead, wires hung out of walls and wireless connections abounded. Students brought their own access devices.

Bloor says Waiariki’s students have a different profile to those in Montreal, but the polytechnic is going through a process to help deliver suitable connection devices to students. That will eventually allow the institute to spend at the back-end rather than the desktop.

The arrival of cheaper netbooks (Bloor’s very impressed with the Lenovo S10), will only aid that transition.

The second phase of deployment involved the rollout of N-band wireless internet access at each campus — making WIT the first organisation in the country to deploy the new wireless standard. N-band offers speeds up to five times faster than conventional B or G-band wireless.

The Waiariki team is now installing access points around each of the five campuses with TelstraClear, who partnered with Cisco on the integration, and Datacraft, performing the actual technology installation.

Bloor says suggestions that wireless is easier and faster to deploy are not necessarily correct.

WIT will soon add Meeting Place software along with remote system logon so classes can be taught and attended remotely. Class sessions will be recorded for later playback by students.

“We’ve had great feedback on the IP phones,” says Bloor. “They’re user-friendly and easy to use. And the beauty of the IP communications is that it’s got a great lifespan. With software updates, the system never really ages.”

What WIT now has is true triple-play capability in a system that can support voice, data and video.

“We’re widely-dispersed all across the North Island, so each location has a separate service level agreement and unique set of challenges. But what’s most important to us is making sure we have the right technology in place to support our long-term growth,” says Bloor.

Meanwhile, the University of Queensland is dealing with similar issues: connecting thousands of demanding students to network services. However, in the case of UoQ, there are 38,000 of them.

They aren’t employees, so you can’t dictate what they use in terms of computing hardware and software. They’re demanding, because they have grown up in the web age, and they expect to be connected where ever they are, even on remote campuses on islands and farms across the state.

So what do you do with all these people, who want to connect with everything from an iPhone to a MacBook Pro? If you’re the UoQ, you take a deep breath and install a multi-million dollar network with around 70,000 ports (offering 1Gbit/s to the desktop) and 4,000 Cisco 802.11n wireless access points.

You also install access points on ferries running up and down the Brisbane River — because the University has its own ferry wharf — as well as microwave links from Gladstone for islands in the Great Barrier Reef. There’s a massive farm, too, for the veterinary students, which uses a mesh system to offer connectivity.

Oh, and while you’re at it, there are five or six (who’s counting) super-computers on campus, as well as a grid super-computer constructed from spare cycles in the University’s several thousand terminal-strong computer labs. As well, there’s the need to exchange data with other universities, along with the massive data packages that come from the synchrotron in Melbourne.

“All this drives complexity,” says Nick Tate, director of IT at the university. “Both technical complexity and geographical complexity. We have around 45 sites scattered across Queensland, all of which need to be connected. We need to support the teaching experience, support high-end research and support the student experience,” he says.

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