Connecting the future campus
Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University has put the focus on deploying new technology infrastructure, including one of the largest wifi networks in the gcc, to launch e-services to enhance learning and better serve students and faculty
Across the Gulf, the academic sector is growing rapidly as governments look to create enough capacity to educate their young citizens. The boom in new universities and expansion of existing facilities is also accompanied with a boom in the use of new technologies in education institutes, to ensure that students get the best possible education opportunities. In Saudi Arabia, the Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University is one of the leaders in this drive to deploy IT solutions.
With around 120,000 students and 13,000 faculty and staff, the university is one of the biggest in the Kingdom, with a main campus in Riyadh, another in Al-Ehsa and 66 institutes across the country, as well as facilities in Japan, Indonesia and Djibouti. Managing the ICT requirements of such a large facility is no small task, but because of the strategic value that Al-Imam University places on IT, five years ago the university created a deanship for information technology to oversee its IT plans.
Dr Waleed Al Jandal, Information Technology Dean, explained: “Technology is one of the main points in the university’s strategic plan. Improving the faculty and students’ tools that they want to use, it has to be done on the technology side. Technology is making life easy for the students and faculty.”
Along with the introduction of the deanship, Al-Imam University has undertaken a number of major projects to upgrade its IT infrastructure and to implement new services. The university has 18 colleges and institutes, and all of their requirements had to be collected and considered in the creation of the strategic plan for IT.
One of the first major projects undertaken as part of the plan was the upgrade of the data centre’s core switch, and the virtualisation of its servers. The university worked with BT Al Saudia for core switch upgrade, and many other projects, to ensure that the changeover went smoothly and didn’t cause any disruption.
The data centre was upgraded to a Tier 3 facility, with virtualisation of most of the servers. Al Jandal said that it was important to upgrade to a more reliable and resilient data centre to avoid issues that had been faced during peak periods, such as the start of the new academic year, when the large number of new students trying to access the system could cause bottlenecks and performance issues.
“We have moved most of our servers from physical to virtual. It solved most of the problems of bottlenecks. Moving to virtual helps us to be more flexible with resources, this is the main objective. In the past, sometimes the systems stopped for a couple of hours until we restart the servers — [peak demand] is one of the biggest problems that most universities have,” he said.
The data centre now hosts almost all of the university’s applications, and because of the level of performance, Al-Imam University is now considering offering data centre services for other universities, such as application hosting or disaster recovery site hosting, and also making virtual resources available for researchers in areas such as high performance computing.
The data centre upgrade is not the only project that Al-Imam University has undertaken to increase the resilience of its systems. Working with DCT as a consultant, the university has created both a network operation centre (NOC) and a security operations centre (SOC), to provide the latest generation and management of solutions.
Al Jandal said that in terms of security, the university has faced both external threats, such as DDoS attacks and malware, and internal threats. The SOC includes a full range of security solutions covering the perimeter of the network to the client. The centre has been built to, and certified for the ISO 27001 information security standard, and is also certified for the updated ISO 27001: 2013.
“Security is a very big issue. Since the security operations centre starting working, they stopped [DDoS] attacks more than three times in the past year,” he added.
The university has also taken a cutting edge approach to its network infrastructure, recently receiving an award from the national Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) for becoming the first university in Kingdom to deploy services using IPv6 — it is also only the second government organisation after the CITC itself to deploy IPv6 services.