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Textbook Example

Seneca College's data and voice networks have been planned, sorted and structured the way they should be. It just took a three-year retrofit to make it possible.


November 1, 2003  


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Most of Seneca College’s 28 wiring closets still carry the nickname of “tub rooms” because they shared space with some unlikely hardware — the utility sinks used by custodians.

Nicknames, it seems, die hard. “When this building was built in ’68, you didn’t have to plan for all the data,” explains chief information officer Terrence Verity, referring to the sprawling Newnham Campus in the northern reaches of Toronto. The sinks were there first. The plumbing that ran between these rooms simply made them the obvious place to locate telephone punch boards and terminate copper wire.

“Obviously needs changed. You not only had a telephone patch panel, but data racks for your technology,” he says. Storage space was pushed to the limit with each passing year. Cabinets were jammed next to each other. Ceilings and walls were stuffed with discarded and outdated wiring. “We were just piling stuff on everything.”

But after investing three years and almost $2 million into the network and its cables, Canada’s largest college is now wired by design. Thousands of feet of unused copper and coax have been ripped out of the structure.

Data is now fed through 500,000 feet of neatly laid Category 6 cable, voices travel along 175,000 feet of new Category 5 wiring, and dedicated wiring closets are now connected with 8,000 feet of 24-strand, 62.5-micron fiber.

20 wiring closets

A central data center sits in a new Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) building at a campus shared with Toronto’s York University.

In all, equipment once crammed into a total of 1,500 square feet is now organized throughout a combined 9,000 square feet. And 20 wiring closets are now dedicated to technology. Only eight closets still house utility sinks in the few areas of the college that aren’t being renovated.

The work was financed as part of a massive “SuperBuild” project designed to make way for an additional 4,000 students at Seneca alone, as the provincial government prepared to eliminate Ontario’s fifth year of high school. (This year, the last Grade 13 students needed to share college and university seats with Grade 12 graduates.) Related renovations and expansion efforts for the Newnham campus cost $39 million, with the TEL building valued at $85 million.

Three years after work began, crews are in the final throes of construction, evident by the sound of drywall-smoothing sandpaper in several hallways.

Chief technology officer Louis Koutsovitis wipes the resulting dust from the grill of a cooling fan that continues to inhale drywall debris. The equipment has already been vacuumed twice because of it, but that’s not so bad, he insists.

One helpful construction worker used a paint gun to beautify the inside of a wiring closet in the building that houses college dorms, caking several switches in the process. But even with the dust, the paint, and 10 power supplies that have been fried by unexplained power surges, he’s visibly thrilled about the massive retrofit that came in on budget.

“The only thing we kept was the voice home runs back into the rest of the campus that isn’t being renovated,” Koutsovitis says. “The wiring closets, we put them exactly where they should be, with the right spacing.”

While staff once wondered where some wires went, spreadsheets now track each new cable from its jack to its termination point.

Seneca was first wired with Category 5 cable about eight years ago, and standardized Avaya PBX switches ensure a common voicemail interface for each phone. But the data network snaking through the Newnham Campus is entirely new.

About 3,000 new ports will offer access to the 100 Mbps switched Cisco system that will replace its 10 Mbps shared counterpart by this Christmas. Wireless access points will be introduced by January.

Despite the scope of the work and ever-expanding enrolment numbers, Seneca’s staff was able to offer uninterrupted service throughout the retrofit, shutting down for only two days during April’s Easter weekend.

And temporary disruptions were limited to individuals, when baffled crews had to cut some cables just to determine where they went.

The Newnham campus is still the hub for all Wide Area Networks, and houses the college’s telecommunications systems. Here, Seneca operates an array of technology, including eight Sun servers, five Citrix boxes, eight Microsoft application servers and a handful of Novell equipment.

But space constraints required college staff to find a new home for their data center, meaning the relocation of 60 Sun servers, nine NT boxes and a handful of Hewlett Packard equipment to the Seneca campus at York University, found almost 25 km away. The move itself was nerve-wracking despite three months of preparation and the help of a consulting group, Verity admits. Production and development servers were loaded onto separate trucks in case the data had to be re-loaded, and drivers were told to roll through the city with extreme care. (The staff even toyed with the idea of a police escort.) But a detailed inventory ensured that each server, KVM switch and LCD screen could be matched to its exact home within a cabinet. The administration systems, Web servers and email servers were running by the first night, while a complex learning management system — with its fiber storage array and Storage Area Network array offering access to such things as teaching materials — was live by Sunday evening.

Wireless plays key role

Where Newnham equipment was exposed to paint and drywall dust, the TEL facility had to be opened while construction continued on other floors.

“There were backup generators that should be working and aren’t, electricians still working on things and shutting things down,” Verity says. “But basically, it’s a relatively stable environment.”

Then there was the challenge of linking the two campuses.

“We couldn’t get a high-speed connection from any of the conventional (land line) providers that was affordable for us to run the data center,” Koutsovitis says. The solution was a MIPPS wireless network.

A dish now sits on the roof of Newnham’s college dorms, firing data at 100 Mbps toward its counterpart on the roof of the campus at York University, with a backup dish streaming data at 45 Mbps. Signals are then fed through fiber into the TEL building that sits next door. “Not enough, but good enough for the time being,” Koutsovitis says of the speed. While the move went according to plan, some final modifications are still being made. Sun servers left at the Newnham campus kept the same IP address as those in the TEL building, and subnets were simply spanned in the name of simplicity, Koutsovitis adds.

“But that was not a good idea. If there’s a hiccup in the fixed-point link for any reason, people over here will continue to function because the core of the network is here. But the (TEL) data center can’t even talk to itself internally because the routing capability is coming from here.”

The team is now moving the servers onto other subnets, changing their IP addresses, and moving the routing to the data center.

The wireless MIPPS system could eventually be relegated to a backup role, once the college links into a fiber network being laid between the region’s colleges, universities and research hospitals.

Verity hopes to see a fiber loop within five years connecting all of Seneca’s campuses, from Newnham to Buttonville, a yet-to-be-announced Markham site, King City, and York University. “And with that, we’re talking gigabit speeds.

“It’s dark fiber so we have to light the ends, and it’s basically looks like Ethernet so we’ll be OK,” he adds. “But we’ll have to get some comfort with it. And if the backhoe goes through the fiber somewhere, you need backup.”

Still, the work will never be completely finished, with evolving technology and a learning environment that can present its own set of challenges. The college is home to thousands of students who explore the reaches of the network on a daily basis.

External security audits are conducted every two years, with the integrity of the system checked annually as part of a fi
nancial audit, Verity says, adding that the data systems have never been hacked.

“We don’t run our technology systems any different than a bank, because this is mission-critical,” he adds. “Because when the technology fails, we don’t have Seneca College anymore.

John G. Smith is a freelance writer based in Ajax, Ont. He can be reached at barkleysmith@rogers.com.


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