The Fighting Irish tackle network infrastructure


JUST FOUR YEARS ago, the University of Notre Dame did not have a telecommunications leg to stand on. To access the Internet for research or e-mail, the 6,400-person undergraduate student body had to use dial-up access to individual ISP accounts or try to get time on the limited number of networked systems available on campus.p. Today the South Bend, Ind., university has in place an infrastructure that allows every student to plug in to any network port in any university building and immediately access the Notre Dame Network.p. After managing IT and research departments at the University of Arizona, the Air Force Weapons Lab, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, Dr. Larry Rapagnani, assistant provost for information technologies at Notre Dame, found the lack of infrastructure at the university an enticing problem.p. “It was the challenge of building it from scratch [that brought me here],” he says. “[I would be the] first to do it and build something that would last into the future and satisfy student needs. It was nice to see it fired up the first time, and it worked as perfectly then as it does now.”p. Universities today operate much the same as any business. And part of Notre Dame’s mission includes equipping students with the tools they need to stay competitive.p. “Our 18-year-old freshmen were born when the PC was built, so they were brought up in a PC-centric world and don’t know any different,” Rapagnani says. “They view their computer as a tool, not as a computer. It’s no different to them than the phones in their dorm rooms.”p. But Notre Dame’s IS head still has to justify the business case for buying and deploying new technology. His requests for money must be weighed against those from a plethora of other sources — both academic and operational — and it can make for some tough trade-offs on the part of the university.p. When Rapagnani goes before Notre Dame’s board of vice presidents to present his budget, he avoids as much as possible explaining the bits and bytes of his needs.p. “We don’t really talk about technology a whole lot. We talk about what problems need to be solved. We talk about it in terms of the impact on the university,” Rapagnani says. “Going in and talking about the fact that we need to buy a computer with this number of gigabytes, this much memory, and a certain amount of bandwidth, just puts people to sleep. Frankly, they really don’t care. All they want to know is the business case for what I’m proposing.”p. Notre Dame’s infrastructure was designed on the premise that every student should be able to plug a PC or Mac into any port on campus and immediately be on the ND Network. To accomplish that, Rapagnani and his 150-person staff in the Notre Dame Office of Information Technology (OIT) built a clustered network that consists of 6,900 network ports installed in 27 residence halls, the student center, classrooms, and many other buildings on campus. They use a robust DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server to manage all the students’ computers from one center.p. Although Notre Dame does not mandate that students bring a computer to the university, Rapagnani says 95 percent of them do. The remaining 5 percent, or any student who doesn’t want to lug around a laptop, can use one of the 600 PCs or Macs and 180 Sun machines stationed on campus.p. To get started, a student plugs in to a network port and accesses a Web registration page. After a quick registration process, the student receives an e-mail name and password, and then is free to access the network from any port on campus.p. The architecture, which runs on Dell Optiplexes, Apple PowerMacs, and Sun Ultra computers, has a DS3 connection and is optimized to get maximum bandwidth. But with such a large number of students accessing the Net, Notre Dame — like most companies — needs bigger pipes. Indeed, Rapagnani and his IS staff have to make special allowances for network traffic skyrocketing between 8:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. — prime study hours.p. “Everyone, of course, wants more bandwidth. At this point we are fairly saturated, and unfortunately will probably always be saturated,” Rapagnani says. “There’s a delta cost associated with doing something like [increasing bandwidth], and it resonates in the several hundreds of thousands of dollars. The board asks themselves, ‘How does that request for new funds rack and stack against opening two more sections of a history class?’ Those are the kind of trade-offs we’re making.”p. For students who run into IS problems, there is an easily accessible FAQ page on the OIT’s home page. About 83 percent of the problems are solved at that level, Rapagnani says. The remaining problems are elevated to the particular department at OIT that handles the product or service. All of this is provided at no charge to students.p. Notre Dame’s OIT Web page also has a document that outlines the guidelines related to Internet usage.p. “As a national Catholic research university, we have to educate our students that anything they do while using the ND Network reflects back on the university,” Rapagnani explains.p. One of the IOT’s concerns is students’ use of non-sanctioned Internet services. Last year Notre Dame blocked access to Napster, but Rapagnani concedes that there are a lot of Napster look-alikes that the OIT can’t possibly spend the resources to block.p. Notre Dame uses an honor system and does not actively track what Internet bandwidth is being used for, just as it uses the honor system for its educational system.p. There’s a pragmatic side to Notre Dame’s position on non-sanctioned Web sites as well: The more bandwidth is used for playing music, the more money is needed for additional technology.p. “We always have the question of tuition increases per year. If we’re going to give them Internet connection at DS3 and we need to buy services to go to OC3 because people want to play music, we have to bump tuition to pay for that,” Rapagnani says.p. Next up on the technology front for Notre Dame is wireless technology and the total integration of various devices, such as phones, pages, PDAs (personal digital assistants), and LANs. Also in the works is VOIP (voice over IP) technology and IP TV. All of these are aimed at keeping the university and its students competitive.p. “[What is key is] keeping ahead of demand and notifying the university with enough advanced notice to budget for upgrades or expansions,” Rapagnani says.p. p. Friday, October 13, 2000

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