GUEST COLUMN | by Steven E. Alter
From the student’s perspective (the customer from a service delivery view point), network access — specifically wireless connectivity and the ability to connect any device, securely — to the Arcadia University’s network — is the most critical technological capability provided. Just think about what a student brings to campus on their first day: desktop computers, laptops, mobile devices, and gaming systems. All require secure network connectivity (wired and wireless), at any time during the day or evening from anywhere on campus. From a CIO’s perspective, this is a challenge of significant proportions. Consider creating a secure wireless network for devices that you do not control, while taking into consideration Arcadia’s tree-lined open spaces and residence halls built from concrete and cinderblock.
Students expect wired and wireless network connectivity that magically appears whenever and wherever they turn on their computing devices. This includes, but is not limited to, sitting in an open area, a classroom or residence hall and performing research, streaming videos or accessing their social media tool of choice. Worse yet, if the wireless is not available but the wired capability is, the students believe the network is unavailable. When I challenged a student who told me the “network was down” although I knew wired capability was available, he looked at me and said “students don’t have ethernet cables to connect our laptops.” That was my moment of truth: when I fully understood the ramifications of not having wireless service on Arcadia’s campus. I also delivered ethernet cables to the help desk, library and residence halls just in case a backup plan was required.
Engineering the redundant wireless network, thus ensuring that students could access the network wirelessly from anywhere on campus, became an immediate priority. Think about the adverse reactions, negative recruiting and impacts on retention, where students and parents (another customer) alike start to talk about your university’s lack of reliable, available wireless networking at the price they’re paying for tuition, room and board, and technology fees. The ramifications are unacceptable.
As a result, teaming with my implementation partners, and using a combination of heat maps, appropriate access points, and controller technology, Arcadia University implemented a wireless infrastructure with complete main campus coverage. This includes redundancy and instantaneous automatic failover such that students are unaffected should there be an unplanned outage. This infrastructure, tested at 4 a.m. EST, has resulted in 100 percent availability while providing full campus coverage, since being implemented in mid-January of 2012.
This proven and sustainable availability has resulted in secondary benefits. Now Arcadia can offer reliable guest wireless for prospective students and their families during campus visits, along with the ability to host community events, such as a TEDx and business conferences. The university can continue to build its relationship with the surrounding community, with the knowledge that our infrastructure can support external groups.
A successful wireless strategy and implementation alone are not enough to attract and retain students who like to make their residences look like their bedroom’s and living room’s at home. This requires the ability to connect all their uncontrolled devices that require network access and do so securely into the university’s infrastructure. This was a foreign concept to me since my prior experience was in the area of aerospace and defense in which every network device is under restricted access control. In the world of higher education, connectivity is expected.
Once again, solid engineering is at the heart of this technology solution. Employing the “defense in depth” philosophy, Arcadia is implementing a multi-tiered approach as follows:
- Provide three independent networks where we segregate the students, guests and faculty and staff network traffic.
- Utilize Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) technology to validate that the student devices connecting to our networks are from known users and the patch levels on those devices are current. If this is not the case, those devices are excluded from the network.
These capabilities are exercised daily. However, the key times of the year when the implementation is tested and stressed are at the start of the fall and spring semesters along with anytime individuals return from an extended break and bring back new “toys.”
The campus environment is constantly evolving. A CIO must continue to ask the following questions: What will the classroom of the future look like? How should a CIO provide expandable and reliable network capabilities? What devices will students and faculty alike use to connect into the network in order to enhance the pedogological experiences? With respect to today’s wireless and open network at Arcadia and with the engineering performed, we can provide secure access to any device that requires network connectivity. Today, Arcadia has enabled the university’s network needs for tomorrow.
Steven E. Alter is the Vice President and CIO Arcadia University. Write to: [email protected]