Learning curve

The UAE University has taken Extreme measures to revamp its network infrastructure. The establishment wants to lead the education pack as upgrades are deployed in the coming months.

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By  Alex Ritman Published  October 27, 2005

|~|collinsbig.jpg|~|“We do not have the money to have a lot of staff, so we need to make it easier on them, and one of the ways to do this is to centralize the architecture.” John Collins, director of enterprise applications and integration at UAE University.|~|With some 16,000 students and around 3,000 support staff,the UAE University in Al Ain is considered one of the leading educational and scientific centres in the Middle East. At the heart of the university’s Maqam campus, providing a platform for sophisticated teaching applications, sits a complex network that is currently undergoing a major upgrade using solutions from Extreme Networks. “We had a somewhat chaotic approach to networking up until this point,” explains CIO Michael Dobe. “We had been driven more by the lowest bidder than by any kind of technology strategy.” He says that the focus now is on getting the best value for the university rather than the cheapest solution. “It so happens that Extreme provides an affordable solution, but that’s not what drives us to Extreme. They have a solution that provides value — the best value for the investment that we want to make.” Dobe says that Extreme has been a partner of the university for about fiveyears.“But we came to a juncture after this time where the equipment was just getting old. It needed to be upgraded or replaced.” The department worked with several different vendors to see what the best value would be for its investment, given the installed base. “We came to the conclusion, after a pretty lengthy bid process, that this partnership with Extreme was the best solution.” Looking at other potential suppliers, Dobe confirms that they had seriously considered Cisco: “We also had a look at a few non-central competitors — Juniper, Nortel and Foundry. We then determined that it was down to just Extreme and Cisco.” It was down to technical reasons that the university chose Extreme. “The primary business driver was that if we had used anything but an Extreme solution, it would require a forklift upgrade. We’d have to replace our core, our periphery, our edge devices. So if we had looked at the situation and determined that we couldn’t do an upgrade with the Extreme platform, we would have had to swap it out,” says Manhal Abdulqader, UAE University’s manager of enterprise networks. Given the financial constraints of the University the decision was made to go for the best value. “It wasn’t a matter of just looking at which switch cost more, it was a question of overall cost of ownership,” adds Abdulqader. John Collins, director of enterprise applications and integration, has only been at the university for six months, having originally come over as a consultant, before being persuaded to stay on. He is positive about the establishment’s new approach. “Part of what we were trying to accomplish was simplifying matters, and in a mixed vendor environment, it becomes much more complex.” Another component of the upgrade is moving to layer three, to support new and more advanced services. “Things that require diffserv (differentiated services), things that require quality of service, things that allow us to put a priority on certain applications,” he says. “That was really a key as we need to be able to do that at the edge.” The Extreme upgrades are being deployed incrementally, starting with the core and moving sequentially to the edge, where layer three routing equipment is needed. “Extreme has two flavours of layer three routing, one is just basic that allows you to turn on the systems but then it can get more complicated. We don’t need those complexities, we need to be able to turn on the bits that enable us to have voice over IP as the near highest priority and let the other applications run free. We can do that with basic routing at the edge. It increases the cost, but you have to do it to support these applications.” Dobe continues: “We’ve got several components to the network: core switches, edge devices, wireless and we also have VoIP to name a few. There are a number of different pieces to this.” He believes mixing and matching vendors within these components is not an intelligent approach: “I don’t believe it’s a wise solution to put all your eggs in one basket. But I do want to mix and match with our edge devices, but then again I’m not necessarily going to have the same partner on edge switches as I am for my VoIP, or for my wireless.” A similar approach is taken on the server side, explains Dobe. “We’ll never have only one operating system, but we need to move to a situation with only a couple rather than a couple of dozen,” he says. Aside from the technical issues, such a tactic also suits the University’s facilities and structure. “Many organisations have multi vendor approaches, but they also have deep staffs, which we don’t,”says Collins. “We do not have the money to have a lot of staff, so we need to make it easier on them, and one of the ways to do this is to centralise the architecture.” Using the system being replaced, anyone wanting to enter a command on the switch of a router has to know four different vendors’ command line interface. “Again, if you have a dozen staff this is a lot easier, but we don’t, have that luxury” continues Collins. Despite simplifying the system, Dobe praises the abilities of the university’s staff. “Half a dozen people manage one of the biggest networks in the region.” Dobe is pleased with the closer ties to Extreme. “We’re focusing on quality rather than quantity in our relationships. In the past we’ve tried to have relationships with everyone, and that spreads us way too thin. We need to have certain key partners who we work with very closely. We’ve certainly become much closer with Extreme Networks as a result of this upgrade.” In October, Collins even went to the US to participate in Extreme’s advisory council, while Dobe met with the supplier’s CEO for two hours over the summer to discuss ideas. “Try getting two hours with John Chambers,” he quips. “The truth is that we have a lot of Cisco stuff deployed here in the hostels for wireless. We may end up with a totally Cisco wireless structure. Or VoIP.” But for the core and the edge, he says it is not a responsible move to adopt this kind of multi-vendor approach. Looking at interoperability concerns, Collins seems to think it is somewhat inevitable. “We’ve had tremendous interoperability issues, especially in the wireless area. I guess this is away from the upgrade but it’s a nightmare.” Typically in networking, interoperability is not a problem when you’re layer three, says Collins. “It’s when you become sophisticated, and you’re trying to do other services and you’re trying to do security and you’re trying to do diffserv, that interoperability really comes into play. As we’re trying to deploy VoIP, or 802.1x communications at the edge, this is where you need the same vendor. For example, if I turn on diffserv on Extreme equipment and expect it to pass to Cisco, that’s not necessarily the case.” From this installed platform, the UAE University has ambitious plans for the sorts of services it will be able to offer its students and teachers. It is also preparing for increased amounts of users. “One of the reasons that we need to upgrade is that we’re moving into an environment where we need to support a new ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system. The network prior to this upgrade was probably not going to support this effectively. We are going to have a lot more users and we’re going to have a lot more packages that are available to the users,” says Collins. For any application you need to start with the foundation, which Collins explains is communications. “The communications had to be improved first. This wasn’t the driver necessarily, because it needed to be upgraded for a multitude of other reasons: other services, because of its age, because we’re trying to have a solidified architecture.” The university can solve some of these problems by doing things on the network such as caching or increasing bandwidth. “But those things don’t give you priorities if you want quality of service, don’t support things like VoIP or video-streaming, don’t allow you to give priority to faculty or staff, don’t allow you to give priority to an application. The new network equipment will allow this.” One of the main focuses for the team is video streaming and the issues that surround it. Dobe says that it is currently being used in a very isolated, small environment. “But we expect this to expand quickly, and that’s another reason we’re trying to prepare the network.” Video streaming will be used by the university to offer remote classes. “We conduct a class in one building, and stream it to a class in another. The professor comes to a studio or small classroom, gives the class and then people in another building or campus can see it,” says Dobe, adding that a further component will allow classes to be recorded for future playback. As the network becomes more sophisticated, video will be embedded in the university’s blackboard system, the teaching tool used by the students in the faculty. “So now, on the course curriculum, you can store video streaming that’s either a class or a lecture and the student can playing back when they need to. For example, when the finals are coming and they want to rehearse something, hear it again, or if they miss something.” The teaching staff can also benefit from the new offerings video streaming will bring. “They can get a clip from some newscaster in Europe, or get some technical documentation, or even something from Discovery or National Geographic. The instructor can actually embed that in the curriculum and blackboard, and the students can then replay it back individually.” Currently in testing, but a component of video streaming that Collins describes as ‘significant and important,’ is multi-tasking, enabling students sitting in their dormitories to watch a class being conducted. “Now this is going to take some doing on our part,” says Collins. The reason is not that multi-tasking is difficult or sophisticated, but that the university’s hostels and dormitories are wireless. “This will make it extremely difficult. We’ll have to have some priority system for wireless for the video streaming in the hostels, if and when we allow that.” Multi-tasking on the hardware side isn’t a concern, but the wireless issues called for the upgrade. “This is another reason we had to do something with edge switches. The old switches were not going to support this system as we needed it,” comments Dobe. Collins suggests that the university may even ‘lead the pack’ with this technology: “Certainly regionally, and maybe even internationally, because multi-task with wireless and video is tough if you have the number of users we have. I could do it with 30 access points in this room, but if I had five points and I’m trying to serve 30, 40, 50 people, it’s a lot more difficult.” But once installed, the team won’t be able to sit back and watch the upgrade perform the duties it has been set out to do, they’ll have further plans to make. “Our future movements will be shaped by our new campus project,” says Collins. A campus ‘masterplan’ is currently underway to build a brand new facility, starting with a new college of IT in early 2006. “There’s a tender on the street for this now and we’ve started getting responses already,” says Dobe. Collins thinks the new IT college is an excellent opportunity for a multitude of vendors to become involved and stake their claim in the university. “The tender is fairly complex, is fairly broad technically and the building is almost complete. It’s brand new — it’s really a greenfieldproject.” The tender is specifically calling for VoIP as opposed to PBX. “As such, the college of IT is pushing us to be technically savvy and advanced for the voice network,” says Collins. With the UAE University wholly committed to ongoing network upgrades, vendors will be queuing up to take part in the next round of projects.||**||

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