University networks go back to school with better bandwidth control

Bandwidth control and prioritization will be critical to university IT departments as they prepare for students' return.

The explosion of personal mobile devices on corporate networks is nothing compared to what university network managers see. The days of students bringing one device onto a university network are long gone. Students now are connecting three or more devices, including laptops, tablets, smartphones and even video game consoles.

High-bandwidth research and learning applications and the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend, coupled with full-time residents expecting unlimited Internet access, add new demands to university networks every autumn. Universities and colleges can't afford to increase bandwidth every time new users or devices join the network, however. As college IT departments prepare for another school year, they have to find a way to control bandwidth and manage consumption. Bandwidth control and capacity planning can help universities strike a balance between users' personal and educational Internet use.

Bandwidth control helps university networks balance work and play

When the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth outgrew its legacy WAN optimization appliances a few years ago, it started shopping for a vendor that could help manage the bandwidth demands of its growing network of students, devices and applications, said Richard Pacheco, network systems manager at the university. Located outside of a major metropolitan area, UMass Dartmouth has a hard time finding affordable, high-bandwidth links, so it needs to make good use of its bandwidth at all times, he said.

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UMass Dartmouth ultimately chose the Exinda 8760, a WAN optimization appliance from Exinda Networks, to help it manage bandwidth. "[Exinda] allows us to optimize our bandwidth so we not only make sure our everyday business and education applications work continuously , but also provide some bandwidth guarantees to our students and residents who live here 24/7 for personal use," Pacheco said. The Exinda 8760 appliance is making these guarantees possible by enabling the university to prioritize applications and traffic based on device, location, time and user.

Institutions of higher learning can set bandwidth policies based on users or groups of users. A class can get a certain amount of bandwidth for a specific application, or a single student can receive a bandwidth allotment for using Skype for a meeting or personal video chat, said Brendan Reid, vice president of product management at Exinda Networks. IT also can allot megabits per second for each scenario during specific hours of the day.

"Network administrators for a college or university have a unique problem set," Reid said. "They must figure out how to control and contain the use of social applications so they don't cannibalize network resources for priority learning applications." But universities can't simply lock the network down, he said. Exinda's university customers need to provide both an academic experience and a cultural experience.

UMass Dartmouth is one customer that has begun making its own network policies. The school assigns more bandwidth to educational applications in classrooms and research labs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Pacheco said. From 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., the school assigns more bandwidth to residence halls, as recreational traffic spikes. The Exinda 8760 appliance also lets the university allot each student an equal amount of bandwidth based on IP address, so one resident can't tie up the network by downloading DVDs or other large files.

"We allocate each student a fair share of bandwidth per IP address, and they can do with it what they will -- [UMass Dartmouth] is content agnostic," Pacheco said, noting that many residents choose to use their bandwidth allowance for gaming, streaming Netflix or Hulu videos, or using video chat applications, such as Skype, to stay in touch with family and friends.

University networks should use resources wisely

Despite being "content agnostic," UMass Dartmouth, like nearly every university, does require its students to sign a usage policy that outlines appropriate use of the Internet, Pacheco said. UMass Dartmouth also requires each device to be registered on the campus network and he is seeing at least two per student.

But universities aren't and shouldn't be rushing to add more bandwidth for Internet use, said John Pironti, president of consultancy IP Architects LLC, noting that institutions of higher learning are segmenting their networks to separate educational and leisure use.

"[Universities] have already thought about BYOD, bandwidth considerations and some degree of traffic management -- it's been a reality for some time. They are going to have to make sure they have done capacity planning for the network every year,"Pironti said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, News Writer and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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