Building the future

Booming student registration forced the Sharjah Institute of Technology to reevaluate its network infrastructure to meet user demand. Sherief Younis reports.

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By  Sherief Younis Published  April 15, 2007

|~|200-MAN-1.jpg|~|Khougali: We liked the fact that the solution didn’t require specialist IT knowledge when it came to troubleshooting and supporting the network. Most of the solution is a graphical interface.|~|The Sharjah Institute of Technology (SIT) opened in September 2003 to provide students with the knowledge and practical skills required to satisfy the needs of the UAE job market. Now accepting Emirati nationals exclusively free of charge, the institute has seen its student base blossom over the past four years with the number of attendees escalating five fold to 1,000 students. However, this growth also highlighted problems with its existing IT infrastructure and the institute suffered from recurring downtime as a result of the network’s inability to cope with the increased user load. “We have grown from 200 users to almost 1,000 users since 2003 and because of this growth, problems with our IT network began to arise,” explains Khalid Khougali, head of information technology, telecommunications and business at SIT. “Here at the institute, we start at eight in the morning and work through until two thirty in the afternoon. During that time we have classes going on but at eight o’clock you have 1,000 users logging on and then again at nine o’clock they log in again. Of course that’s a substantial amount of traffic and that gave us a problem. “We needed a reliable network to service this demand, but the old system used to go down at least twice a day,” he says. With the network crashing regularly and the system’s busy environment failing to deliver, the teaching of classes was compromised. SIT turned to its various vendors for a solution. It wanted consistent, reliable network access for its students, but found that conflict between vendors made a suitable conclusion unlikely. “We noticed one of the problems was the flat network. It was supposed to be segmented, but according to our devices it wasn’t working that way. We had a mixed environment with a number of different components from various vendors – the problem we had was that all these suppliers were blaming the other products in the network and that didn’t help us. "The nature of the institute means that all the classes are practical, so students need ready access to a computer. In the end we presented our assessment to the vendors and we outlined our requirements for the project,” Khougali says. The vendors’ inability to address the problem lead the institute to take drastic action. SIT decided to streamline its network and migrate everything to a single vendor system. Once it had decided to go the single vendor route, it then embarked on a rigorous selection process where all the existing vendors were given the opportunity to propose a complete solution to the institute. “We decided last year to get rid of all these conflicting components and only work with one vendor. We migrated everything to a single vendor and that has made troubleshooting so much easier; whereas before we had almost every vendor you could name operating within our infrastructure. We invited all the vendors, told them the problem and they had to propose their solution for it,” he continues. After deliberating on the various vendor proposals SIT decided on the Nortel IP solution because it specifically catered for the institute’s academic requirements. “We went with Nortel because it provided us with an academic solution, which was ideal for us because you cannot compare our environment with a business background or even a university. Our environment is quite unique,” he stresses. SIT migrated its entire network to Nortel in July 2006 and Khougali is quick to point out that the institute has enjoyed optimum uptime ever since. With the new network taking just under a month to implement, despite having to install additional cabling, he believes the project management was the foundation for the new system’s ongoing success. “This project came out very smoothly because there was extensive study and assessment on the part of the supplier. There were various proposals and phases and the project management was fantastic. We tested the system over the summer with no users, but even with the users it has delivered, and the network hasn’t gone down once,” he says.||**|||~||~||~|“We also liked the fact that the solution didn’t require specialist IT knowledge when it came to troubleshooting or supporting the network. Most of the solution is a graphical interface so it doesn’t require any programming, and we have been able to maintain the network after a little bit of training. Other solutions we looked at required us to employ people with high qualifications which is additional expense so we decided to go for the Nortel solution because it was cost effective and met our immediate requirements,” he says. According to Khougali, SIT benefited significantly from increased system stability, and security across the network was enhanced. With the emphasis on creating and maintaining a robust mobile environment for students, combating the spread of viruses was a challenge under the old system. Although the usual security measures were in place under the old system, the time spent fixing outbreaks has been significantly reduced as a result of the new system. “From a security point of view, we used to have problems with viruses even though we had proxies, and firewalls. If a user plugged in a USB stick and it had a virus, the virus would spread quickly - it used to consume most of the ICT department's time that could’ve been better spent. The benefit of this solution is that any infected machine is immediately confined to a quarantine zone so there has been a vast reduction in time spent fixing security problems,” he says. Khougali believes that streamlining the entire network has had a comprehensively positive impact across all the institute’s operations and that the new system has not only enabled SIT to deliver upon its mobile environment objective, but has created a platform to expand its services further. “What we liked about the Nortel solution was that nothing was redundant, so from a return on investment perspective, everything is utilised and balanced. The solution has transformed the environment completely; everything from teaching to the administrative process has been improved. We have been able to make a range of new applications and services available to the users as a result of the improved security and this is something we couldn’t do before,” says Khougali. “We now have a mobile environment for our students where they can go anywhere at any time and access information and resources. From an educational perspective the solution enables us to provide better services to students and staff, and this has made the institute a lot more competitive,” he concludes.||**||

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