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Mensa Networks

Cabling and network design in education requires some smart thinking. To that end, innovation is happening everywhere from kindergarten classes to the university lab.


September 1, 2010  


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The education sector stands apart from enterprises and government agencies when it comes to their network infrastructures. On the one hand, the demand for bandwidth and performance is growing by leaps and bounds to accommodate distance learning and convergence.

At the same time, both public and private sector schools are often constrained by budgets, human resources and policy requirements to varying degrees.

Infrastructure trends within the education sector fall into two distinct camps. “From a topology standpoint alone, (K to 12) and colleges and universities are very different,” says Tony Ciciretto, president of Cogeco Data Services. “Universities and colleges typically have local concentrated environments. School boards are much more dispersed over quite a wide geographical area.”

“The challenges are definitely quite different,” agrees John Bell, vice president of systems engineering for Cisco Systems Canada Co. “The K to 12 space is more reactive to public domain statements and tends to be more focused on things such as physical security.

K to 12 is typically more about upgrade paths when achieving a vision. A lot of higher education strategies are all about next generation networks.”

Going public: Ciciretto notes that school boards are very much driven by the need for bandwidth, scalability and physical security. “A lot of applications for both students and administrative staff are being developed at the educational level. In terms of scalability, what they’re using today is multiple times what was used in the past and only one-tenth of what they will need in the near future.”

Changing communication needs are also factoring into infrastructure design. “There has always been the ability for schools and data centres to exchange information,” Ciciretto explains. “Now there is a growing requirement amongst school constituents to communicate with their counterparts and enable collaboration.”

Cogeco’s answer for the Toronto District School Board, for example, is a Layer 2 Ethernet solution based on Fujitsu DWDM (dense wavelength division multiplexing equipment) for the main data centre connections along with Cisco networking gear. This solution is monitored on an end-to-end basis by Cogeco’s network operating centre (NOC), with performance monitoring and reporting carried out to 28 access points.

“With this design bandwidth can easily be scaled tenfold without doing anything to the network,” Ciciretto explains. “A software configuration allows schools to ramp up to 1 gig per second without actually deploying hardware or doing anything physically to the network.”

In British Columbia, the fact the provincial government is the ISP for all government agencies, means that IT managers need to apply some creative thinking to get the bandwidth they need at a cost they can afford.

SD (School District) #23 (Central Okanagan) in Kelowna for example, is in the process of getting its 43 sites up to a consistent bandwidth level, says Dave Norrish, learning technology manager. “A lot have 10 Meg fiber, others just ADSL. We’re always trying to improve on that bandwidth as well as centralize as much as we can. We’ve already built the infrastructure and replaced our switching environment.”

One particular initiative that is adding to the bandwidth pressure is the board’s digital media solution for streaming and on-demand instructional video, as well as digital signage. The district is also rolling out VoIP, with three sites currently on board.

An equally important initiative is the expansion of wireless to include guest services. “Ultimately we see a future where kids can bring their own laptops or netbooks and use that network to do research,” says David Swystun, technical coordinator. “That can be a challenge at times since the Provincial Learning Network (PLN) does a lot of controlling at the router. If we want to do specific things (at the school level) like streaming, we have no control over that router.”

To that end, the SD #23 technical team created an infrastructure using Layer 3 switches within each school. “While PLN serves as a central pipe to each location, we can now control traffic at the school level. Essentially we’ve put another router ahead of theirs,” Swystun explains.

SD #23 is also able to centrally manage the configuration of all wireless access points from a central point using a CiscoWorks WLSE (Wireless LAN Solution Engine). To enable guest access, the plan is to segregate guest traffic from the production network through the incorporation of function-specific VLANs.

SD #67 (Okanagan Skaha) has gone a slightly different route by partnering with the municipality of Penticton to bring fiber to the masses. “All of our 18 sites are connected by a fiber backbone to the board office,” Ron Shongrunden, secretary treasurer explains. “We’re very lucky because our middle and senior schools all have 10 gigabit speeds and the minimum everywhere is 1 gigabit. That’s given us some unique opportunities for efficiencies, savings and shared services because we’re not restricted by bandwidth.”

Shongrunden’s team in, fact, took on the job of installing its own high-performance network. “We took on the responsibility of hanging the wires on the poles.” This do-it-yourself approach has attracted the attention of a number of districts within the province and even as far afield as California.

The all-fiber backbone opens the door to all sorts of convergence opportunities for SD#67. For example, all buildings now have VoIP. The District has also added a centralized IP-based PA system that can be run from a single server to feed all school buildings. A video system is in the works to enable a range of live IPTV type services, including digital signage, teleconferencing and video on demand.

Meanwhile, wireless systems in any school have the capacity to handle up to 30 laptops per class. Video surveillance cameras are also being replaced with IP-enabled video which feeds to the central server.

With everything centralized on one platform. Shongrunden says management is remarkably efficient. “Our switch to Windows 7 for example will take one button to upgrade the entire network. Also, we need only four technicians to look after 3,000 computers, routers and switches for both the schools and the municipality. That’s probably four times the level of efficiency of many corporations out there.”

Meeting the high demands of higher education: When it comes to the world of higher learning, your reputation and your revenues depend on having the best network going. In fact, having the most powerful, ubiquitous services has become a major selling proposition to prospective students.

That is not as easy as it sounds, since managers have to work with limited budgets, while addressing an extremely high demand for physical and virtual/wireless and wireline access on the part of thousands of users in concentrated areas.

“Many can have more than 50,000 users within the community,” Bell says. “Ensuring they all get access to right levels of service and performance is a significant challenge to manage. The networks of the past are simply not equipped to handle what students and faculty are expecting today. As more and more universities move to student-centric learning and teaching via video and collaboration tools, we’re seeing a lot more students creating bandwidth challenges that IT folks have never seen before.”

At Concordia University in Montreal, the major infrastructure challenges were dealt with back in 2003 with the introduction of a campus-wide VoIP system. “At the time we had a hub and spoke implementation,” explains Mike Babin, assistant director, communications for Concordia University. “It was underpowered and the stress on the network from end user demands was quite drastic. It simply didn’t have the reliability or redundancy to support voice. So it was much a network overhaul as a VoIP project.”

In 2008, Concordia built on its infrastructure to become one of
the first universities to implement 802.11n across the entire campus.

This replaced a mixed bag of 802.11 a, b and g. “We put it in before the standards were ratified,” Babin says. “That’s because we could see quite an increase in demand for wireless services in terms of traffic and load on our back end systems. With 1,200 simultaneous users on the network at a time, we were suffering a lot of service outages and performance was horrible.”

Concordia has approximately 600 access points throughout 60 buildings on two campuses.

“Because of what we started with the VoIP project we’re able to make the network more homogeneous in terms of equipment and enable central management with controller-based access points,” Babin notes. “More importantly, we can support 3,000 simultaneous users easily without any problems in terms of systems stress or load.”

The next step is focusing on network security and automation of operational processes. The network also has the robustness to handle video conferencing and simulcasting of lectures in different classroom sites. “We’re getting all sorts of demand for applications. We’re fortunate to have the bandwidth.”

At the University of Winnipeg, the infrastructure overhaul is going on right now. “We’re in the midst of totally gutting anything and everything relating to voice and data over the past 10 years,” says chief operating officer Richard Nakoneczny.

A big reason for that is the fact that the university has half a million square feet of downtown space in 12 buildings within a fairly compact space, he explains.

Over the years, the university had managed to accumulate a dog’s breakfast of equipment and cabling. “We had a veritable museum of networking: twisted pair to coax with Radio Shack adapters, you name it, it was there. There was even twinax cabling. No one could figure out that one. There was everything from fiber to Cat 5e.”

Given the students’ “insatiable appetite” for wireless, and the advent of video on demand, it was time for an overhaul, Nakoneczny says. “When the province came up with money for deferred maintenance, we decided cabling was as much a part of the infrastructure as a door or a roof. So we ended up with the funding to replace all the physical cabling.”

In replacing the cabling, Nakoneczny was able to take advantage of some refurbishing work being done on some of the campus’ historical buildings.

“It gave us a good opportunity to get cabling where we needed it. Rather than shimmying wiring through partitions or using surface mounting, we were able to put in a proper cable run within the new walls,” he says. “That meant taking off the exterior limestone and burying the cable in the back of that and putting the facing back on. In fact we overdid it taking into account how the building will evolve over the next 40 or 50 years.”

The team also adopted a three-tier wiring closet model, each of which has different capacities. “These were natural aggregation points for the network that were configured based on available end points and capacity requirements, so we can provide guaranteed bandwidth throughout the campus, which is something we couldn’t do before,” Nakoneczny explains.

The next step is replacing all the telephone lines with VoIP. “Our Meridian system was totally out of capacity. There wasn’t a single port left on it,” he adds. Cisco Telepresence is also being used to network with two other Manitoba universities (Brandon and University College of the North). CNS

Denise Deveau is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached via e-mail at denise@denised.com.


Ryerson applies some standard thinking to cabling

“People just don’t put the same thought into cabling as they do other parts of the network,” says Tony Etherington, datacomm specialist, education vertical for Panduit in Markham “At the end of the day; however, structured cabling is the least expensive part of your network costs, but has the longest lifecycle. It’s not an area to be cutting corners.”

In the education sector, there is no end to the variety of approaches that school boards and universities are using, he adds. “We see a lot of school boards sticking to Cat 5e for all their cabling, maybe Cat 6 for their data centres. Within universities and colleges, we’re seeing CAT6 copper cabling with OM3 or singlemode fiber for the backbone. Within the data centres we are definitely seeing Cat6 and/or 10 gig copper as well as OM3 and singlemode fiber. It’s all decided by the applications they need to run over their network for their computing, wirless, video, building management and security systems.”

Campuses are also jammed for space, which means an increased focus on consolidation and virtualization. “Where you used to be able to have eight communications paths to a single server, now it’s two (one primary/one redundant),” Etherington says. “More and more are also moving away from under the floor datacomm cabling to overhead routing so you don’t hamper the cooling air flow in the under floor plenum.”

As a person that must work with a lot of legacy systems, Barry Caverly, manager, communications infrastructure services at Ryerson University in Toronto, is one person that has invested a lot of time and effort into getting his cabling infrastructure up to standard. He has already done over 3,000 CAT6 connections into the data centre, as well as centralized the copper distribution point.

“The legacy design used direct patches from cabinet to cabinet, which proved to be as difficult as it was time consuming,” he explains. “Having the correct length cables were an issue.”

Often longer then required cables were installed which led to issues with cable management, he adds. “Now we’ve consolidated 60 cabinets horizontally to three racks so we’re only one patch away from any two points in the data centre.”

A major part of the project overall has been standardizing connectors Caverly says. “We have taken the existing fiber backbone from traditional panels and field-terminated connectors and are now re-terminating the fiber using LC connectors with fusion spliced pigtail. We have also standardized the fiber within the data centre using Panduit’s pre-terminated fiber plug and play solution. This has allowed us to quickly deploy fiber when needed. So we have one common place to patch fiber and one standard length fiber patch cable.”

When it comes to working with legacy systems he says, “You just can’t trust a lot of stuff that’s been in for many years. Standardization is the way to go.”