Company: Cabletron (now Enterasys)Customer: Queen’s UniversitySubmitted by: MCC InternationalDate: June 2000To move the network seamlessly from a proprietary to a standards-based backbone without impacting on the University’s business and academic functions, and to enable a high performance infrastructure that will cope with increasingly mission-critical applications dependent on low latency and minimised packet loss.”Our business and academic users require the network to be reliable and resilient,” says Queen’s University head of networking, Joe Burns. “It has to perform and be usable for data-intensive applications, giving students instantaneous, transparent access to electronically-stored documentation. And as our administration moves to an e-commerce model, staff need constant access to a full range of enrolment and financial applications, on-line ordering and reconciliation.
“Supported by Cabletron and its regional partner Compaq Computer Ireland, the University has established an infrastructure that is already meeting these requirements. Now, Burns looks beyond the improved response times and more efficient use of bandwidth, to a future of flexible, highly manageable networking that will deliver multi-media applications to the University’s students and staff across a variety of local and remote locations.”The University now needs to take advantage of the increased flexibility, management, performance and resilience of the network,” he says. “They are essential elements in guaranteeing business continuity and the competitive advantages created by new technologies and applications.”
With more than 14,000 full-time and 8,000 part-time students and five faculties (science, engineering, humanities, health, and legal, social and economic), Belfast-based Queen’s is the largest University in Northern Ireland.
Committed to the promotion of IT as an academic tool, the University encourages Computer-Based Learning (CBL). Queen’s aims to provide a minimum of one computer for every five students. There are seven open access computing centres for students, currently supporting some 7,000 seats, and an outreach centre 45 miles away at Armagh, where students can attend remote lectures.Access to academic resources, communications and assignment submissions are increasingly dependent on the IT infrastructure, which also provides the backbone for the University’s business and administrative activities and centralised data storage. In the future, distance learning facilities will allow the University to increase its remit, delivering academic resources to a wider community beyond its currently franchised courses.
The University has invested some £70,000 per quarter in its IT infrastructure over the last few years.
In 1998, however, the limitations of its software router-based architecture were exposed when traffic across the backbone rose steeply as on-line registration was deployed and students were given access to on-line storage in the form of their own server-held home directories.As traffic increased, it became clear that bandwidth allocation had to be more tightly managed to avoid adverse effects on the performance of the University’s business systems, and to guarantee a consistent quality of service. This could only be achieved through the availability of more sophisticated monitoring and capacity planning tools and the deployment of high performance, managed switches.”Our business is education. All aspects – teaching, learning and research – now depend on the network, as does our administration,” says Burns. “All the workstations are physically remote from the servers.
Everything is done on-line. Basically, we had reached the stage where we were at the mercy of old technology, and we needed to move ahead in order to assure the continuity and prosperity of our services.”There were a number of specific problems to address. Firstly, local access speed to the network backbone was limited to10Mbps. Performance difficulties were also likely to arise with the legacy software routers as new applications demanded lower latency and packet loss.
And system downtime had to be kept to a minimum.In addition, Burns and his team wanted to establish processes to control bandwidth utilisation, enabling them to constrain individual users from flooding the network with non-mission-critical traffic and maintaining a high quality of service on the backbone for enterprise applications. The legacy routers provided inadequate management tools to allow metering, fault identification, user accounting, trend monitoring and capacity planning.Finally, the backbone didn’t provide the reassurance of fault-tolerant capability and hot-swappable internal components that modern switches deliver, or the ability to distribute new operating software from the central site.
Burns and his team issued an open invitation to tender based on the University’s requirements. The successful solution would need to provide standards-based distributed Layer 3 switching, using Gigabit Ethernet uplinks and delivering low latency at the heart of the network.
It would also have to tie in with the University’s centralised server farm policy.”We had waited a long time for Layer 3 to become stable and for technology to be affordable,” says Burns. “This project wasn’t just about a transmission upgrade for the network. We also needed the solution to be Layer 4-aware as we anticipate more and more bandwidth-heavy applications.”Queen’s was also looking for a secure solution with the ability to provide sophisticated access control to help in the prioritisation of network traffic without impacting on performance. It had to be highly reliable – the performance of the legacy network had deteriorated under the data explosion and packets were being lost – and manageable, as well as configurable.
And it had to provide a platform for network accounting and converged applications, such as video conferencing, in the future.”Basically, the challenge was to help us move from our previous, proprietary packet-based network to standard-based switching without at any point impacting on our business functions or requiring us to take down the legacy backbone,” says Burns.
Cabletron was far from being an unknown quantity at Queen’s. In fact, it had been supplying the University with strategic networking products since 1991, although the legacy network was primarily based around Cisco routers.
“As far as this project was concerned, Cabletron met all our mandatory requirements,” says Burns. “We wouldn’t have achieved the same performance from the alternative proposals.””It was also the most cost-effective proposal. In addition, we wanted to ensure that our investment would be protected for a minimum of three years. That was no longer the case with our legacy network.
Our existing equipment was ageing and maintenance was becoming a major problem.”
The new network backbone, costing around £100,000, was installed in December 1999, with users being transferred seamlessly from the legacy infrastructure, and no disruption to the University’s business.The size of the task could hardly be under-estimated. The network links 150 buildings. Cabletron’s architecture was based on five SmartSwitch Router 8600s, branching out to 30 SmartSwitch 6000s and offering a total of 2900 switched Ethernet ports: an infrastructure ripe to deliver the benefits of new technology, from IP telephony to video-conferencing and multi-media applications in the near future.”We rose to the challenge and managed the cross-over with minimal impact,” says Burns.
“Then, we were able to let it settle down before embarking on the next step which involves deploying switched Ethernet to the desktops.”This element of the project has been prioritised so that those users who rely most heavily on the network can be the first to benefit. They have been delighted with the improved response times and higher performance.”Now, we can start considering traffic analysis, accounting and policy management, and ways in which we can capitalise on the amount of information that is being automatically gathered about the network,” says Burns. “With a packet-based network, it was difficult to see who was talking to what, and how the bandwidth was consumed.
The ability to measure these aspects and see what constitutes normal and abnormal usage will be one of the major long term benefits of the implementation.”Ultimately, as part of its commitment to CBL, Queen’s University aims to expand its market beyond its franchised courses, delivering academic resources to a wider body of students via a distance learning strategy. It is also considering the possibility of giving staff and students remote and home access to the network. With a backbone that’s now fit for the demands of the new millennium, the impact of a greater variety of traffic, a vastly increased user base and a host of new applications will be absorbed with room to spare.