The Knowledge Network

To achieve its goal of becoming a state-of-the-art learning institute, the University of Sharjah has implemented a massive local area network (LAN) to provide video and data services to its students and faculty members.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  June 12, 2002

LAN solution|~||~||~|The University of Sharjah has deployed a massive local area network (LAN) throughout its campus as it aims to establish itself as a learning institute that delivers state-of-the-art academic services, methods of teaching and IT services. The network, which offers 12,500 data and voice points and comprises a mix of Gigabit and ATM switches, enables the University to roll out data and video services to its 6000 students and faculty members to facilitate learning processes.

“We have one of the largest, if not the largest, local area network in the UAE. The infrastructure entitles us to 12,500 voice and data points, but we have only used 6000 points,” says Salah Al Thami, head of networking, telecommunications & operations, University of Sharjah.

Avaya has provided the ‘passive’ part of the network infrastructure, laying cabling throughout the University’s campus — including both male and female campuses, a communal administration building, housing for faculty staff and student dormitories — while Nortel has played an ongoing role in the ‘active’ network’s expansion. The vendor has provided a mix of its ATM Centillion switches and Gigabit switches at the core of the network with Business Policy and Centillion ATM-Ethernet models performing the switching at the edge of the network.

“The infrastructure is based on Avaya’s Systimax cabling — both copper and fibre — around the University’s 29 buildings,” explains Al Thami.

“The core switches and the edge switches are from Nortel. We have three Centillion 1600 switches and we have three System 5000BH switches and one Passport 8600 — those are the core switches — and we have in excess of 128 Gigabit and ATM edge switches,” he adds.

Investing in such a comprehensive network infrastructure ensures that the academic institute has enough bandwidth capacity to roll out video and CD services to students’ desktops and the University’s 52 laboratories without encountering any bottlenecks or service outages.

“We have tested it [network] with more than 50 users using the same video at the same time and in different buildings and we haven’t seen any problems,” comments Al Thami.

“We give most of our users 100 M/bits/s from the switch to their PCs, even in the labs we provide them 100 M/bits/s switched access not shared,” he adds.

The bandwidth requirements of the institute’s learning tools were also a key factor in the University’s decision last year to migrate from the ATM network that was installed in 1997 to a Gigabit Ethernet-based network. The increased bandwidth capabilities that Gigabit offers over ATM enables the academic institute to roll out these services and still have a high level of network redundancy.

“We have taken about 60% of our network into Gigabit Ethernet. Our aim is to go to 100% Gigabit, maybe even optical, which gives you 10 Gigabit instead of one. We are hoping to get the tender, approval and implementation completed before the end of 2002,” Al Thami explains.

“The [remaining] 40% of our ATM network is actually a redundant OC12 (optical carrier) between all three main switches and that is quite enough bandwidth for such [data and video] applications,” the head of operations continues.

||**||Student services|~||~||~|Students are able to access video and CD services via the University of Sharjah’s intranet. The CDs and videos are designed to provide students and faculty members with additional learning tools and self-testing facilities whenever they require them.
With the University’s colleges including Engineering, Business & Management, Art & Sciences, Health Sciences, Law and Sharia & Islamic studies, the topics covered by these CDs and video tools range from networking, health sciences, nursing and English.

“These CDs are educational programmes, for example, we have speed reader and word typing for English. For Health Sciences there are 27 CDs, biology 21 CDs, nursing 11 and so on. We also have some Nortel CDs for networking,” says Al Thami.

“Management information systems (MIS), computer studies (CS), and computer engineering students find these Nortel CDs beneficial. The [current] ones cover entry and intermediate levels and topics such as SNMP 1, SNMP 2, Frame Relay, overview of ATM and Optivity. But now the students are looking forward to more challenging CDs,” Al Thami adds.

The University has a Sun Microsystems E450 Unix server, which acts as the video server and instructors and faculty members can send videos for their courses to it. Al Thami and his team then convert the videos into digital images, which enable multiple students to access the same tape concurrently.

“We are also using Oracle application software, which is on top of the Sun Solaris Unix system. All the users have is the client version of the Oracle [application] so they can watch the videos,” Al Thami explains.

Once the CDs and videos have been converted to digital images they are backed up to the University’s substantial storage area network (SAN). The Compaq solution also houses data for students, faculty members and staff, while critical servers back up to the SAN on a daily basis.

The SAN offers almost 1 terabyte of storage capacity for the University and Al Thami says the decision to invest in the solution was based on the independence that a SAN solution offers.

“A SAN is different to network attached storage (NAS), which uses your existing network. The SAN has its own network and has its own switch. It will not overload our [existing] network,” he states.

The University’s network also supports over 40 servers, which are housed in the campus’ data centre. The mix of HP Netserver 2000s, Sun E450s and Dell PowerEdge servers cover everything from academic services to the Internet, e-mail and administration data.

“In our data centre we have over 40 servers. Every server is running at least one application. Five of them are Sun E450s Unix servers with different hardware configurations and running different applications,” comments the head of operations.

“We have servers for academic services for computer science (CS), computer engineering (CE) and management information systems (MIS). Those servers have different applications targeted towards the students in those faculties. We also have other servers for human resources, finance, administrative services and also the data centres services, which are e-mail, Internet, proxies, security, firewall and filtration software,” Al Thami explains.

||**||Network expansion|~||~||~|The University’s network has grown in parallel to the physical expansion that has taken place around the campus and its buildings since its inception in 1997. This development has likewise necessitated an increase in IT staff.

When Al Thami arrived at the University just over two years ago, he was the sole member of the networking, telecommunications and operations department. However, he has since added two networking staff — an administrator and engineer — two systems administrators and one telecommunications engineer to look after the Avaya cabling solution and the Lucent PABXs, which provide voice services to the University’s students and faculty staff.

To monitor the network and ensure uptime of the data centre and its services, the University’s network team is using Nortel’s Optivity management platform, which provides them with a view of the network and alerts them to any problems with the switches.

“The network management server is inside our data centre However, I have the capability to monitor it even from my office as a client,” Al Thami comments.
“We run another tool from Nortel to monitor the switches either at the core or the edge, which gives green or red lights. We hope every morning that everything is green. If there is a red light we will go and see what the cause of the problem is. But Optivity handles all management issues from A to Z, and even if you need to configure aspects of the network, it incorporates a device manager,” he adds.

When it comes to future plans, completing the migration to Gigabit Ethernet is the top priority. However, Al Thami reveals that the University is also examining the merits of deploying wireless local area networks (WLANs) around the campus.

“If there is any future expansion to our network we are thinking about getting wireless,” he says.

Al Thami believes that deploying WLANs around the campus would facilitate laptop learning and provide a solution to the congestion that occurs in the labs during exam times or near project completion dates.

“We are thinking about [laptop learning] as well because our network can expand easily. Enabling students to bring their laptops with their wireless cards would be an excellent step. Although we have a number of labs, during the end of the year or project deadlines the students are all rushing to the labs. But if you have laptops it will reduce the load on these labs,” he explains.

However, the head of operations remains sceptical about the security of wireless networks, despite the improvements that have been made in the technology.

“The only thing that we are worried about is the security of wireless solutions. I know that it is getting more mature, however, there is still some security aspects that have to be addressed by all vendors. If we go for wireless we will do testing and not only with Nortel,” he says.

Although, the University is willing to throw open the tender for wireless networks to other vendors, Al Thami says Nortel won the initial networking contract in 1997 on three criteria.

“The University evaluated the technology and benchmarking, pricing and support were the three criteria that gave Nortel the advantage,” he says.

The University’s expansion plans do not stop with wireless though; the academic institute is also considering rolling out Internet access to every student dormitory. While the male and female dormitories are each equipped with a lab, these labs are only open at certain hours. Providing Internet access to their dorms would enable students to connect to the LAN and intranet whenever they need to.

“It is feasible and can be easily done. We might need some supplementary hardware, but we are seriously thinking of adding a group of additional services in the near future, maybe even before the academic year starts in September,” Al Thami states.

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