The Need for Data

Expanding bandwidth highways on college campuses.

by Collette Boothe / January 8, 2009

He's a cartoon blue jay in a white cowboy hat charged with rounding up bandwidth bandits. His name is Sheriff UD, and he's the mascot for the University of Delaware's Code of the Web, or "Rules of Commu-net-ty Conduct on the Wild Wild Web."

Universities and community colleges are looking for effective -- and creative -- ways to minimize bandwidth consumption on their campuses while still providing students with the technology necessary to keep research and instruction up-to-date.

Residential colleges

Community colleges and universities face the challenge of providing enough bandwidth to run the applications required for myriad instructional and administrative uses. Universities must also contend with residential dorms, where a significant amount of computer use is recreational. Peer-to-peer file sharing applications used to download copyrighted music and video files use significant bandwidth.

According to Richard Gordon, information resource consultant for the University of Delaware, the school launched a major education campaign on responsible computing to address the issue of students misusing the network. Earning one of the earliest classifications of a "most-wired campus," technology has always been a part of the UD environment.

UD's Code of the Web deals with serious computing issues in a light-hearted way. Regarding non-educational computer use, the Code explains: "Ordinarily the Internet runs faster than the Pony Express, but just a couple of bandwidth bandits can hog-tie the whole durn commu-net-ty by downloading large files like movies, music, and software, or by turnin' their computers into servers that stampede the 'net by sendin' those files or other useless information back out over the wires."

Gordon said the code is an effective way to monitor student use. It has resulted in fewer copyright infringement complaints and freed valuable bandwidth for education-related uses. Incoming students are required to take a test and agree to be a responsible user of the university's computer systems, network and the Internet.

"What works best is trying to get students to learn to be responsible rather than imposing restrictions," Gordon said. "Not to stick on blocked ports, but get them to understand what they are doing and what the consequences are. It is a more mature way of dealing with the problem."

Community colleges

Community colleges have unique needs for large amounts of bandwidth to effectively run their networks. Since they aren't residential campuses, applications involving peer-to-peer file sharing are not as much of an issue. However, community colleges rely on applications such as interactive video for instructional use and collaboration with satellite locations. Also, online learning is becoming a more popular option because it saves students time and money.

"As it gets more difficult to commute, whether it is cost of gas or time lost, a lot of students are turning to online learning as a viable option," said Mike Scroggins, chief information officer for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges Data Center. "We are also creating more online student services for students to take advantage of, much like university campuses. Students can go through the admissions process, register for classes, buy books and access schedules and potentially never set foot on campus."

Faculty are also turning to online computer applications to enhance their instructional approach. There is an increase in instructional technologies such as course management systems and digital libraries. As collections and databases are added to the network, more students are taking advantage of online resources over traditional hardcover books.

Community college campuses serve a broader population than university campuses. Scroggins said that, in addition to general education, their classes include adult basic skills, improved basic skills, English as a Second Language and GED prep.

"Even in those areas," Scroggins said, "there is technology involved that assists instruction or requires online tutoring."

Not only is the number of applications increasing on college networks, but so is the volume of people using them. Administration has an increasing presence on school networks as they take advantage of applications that streamline their jobs.

"Our administrative systems are used in a hosted environment, so as more features are added, a greater amount of bandwidth is needed to compensate," Scroggins said. "Colleagues, such as registrars and financial aid directors, all have common interests and challenges so they tend to collaborate with each other. We are seeing growth in technology around collaboration."

Meeting the need

Since high-bandwidth demands are the norm for college networks, the issue often looms larger than what a single institution can address. In the state of Washington, the legislature became involved to ensure schools and universities could deliver a state-of-the-art education. In 1996, the K-20 Education Network was launched to provide a single, cost-effective solution to meet the diverse video and data needs of the state's entire educational community.

One of the services provided by the K-20 Education Network is high-bandwidth access. According to the organization's Web site, "This technology enables greater usage of evolving applications such as streaming video, webcasting and video-to-the-desktop, with much lower per-megabit cost than T1 connections."

Tom Carroll, systems manager for the K-20 Education Network, explained the value of having a shared, centrally managed solution that serves all sectors of the educational community. He said school districts, universities and colleges have equal access at the same cost, including underserved rural areas where traditional learning resources fall short and the cost of connectivity would otherwise be much higher.

The future

Investing in more bandwidth seems to be the trend as applications drive the demand. Indiana University is one of the largest universities in the country, and to maintain its reputation for sophisticated information technology and advanced networking capabilities, it requires large amounts of bandwidth. IU students demonstrated their bandwidth savvy when they won the Supercomputing Bandwidth Challenge in November 2007.

The annual bandwidth competition invites teams of technologists from the nation's most elite supercomputing facilities to push the limits of modern computer networks. To win this competition, IU's team -- led by Steve Simms -- achieved a peak transfer rate of 18.21 Gbps out of a possible maximum of 20 Gbps. The team ran several cutting-edge computer applications, demonstrating the ability to simultaneously support many applications from the sciences and humanities that could be used in the college environment.

Some of these applications included:

  • Modeling and analysis of the amyloid peptide, which is thought to be the cause of Alzheimer's disease;
  • Digital preservation of ancient Sanskrit manuscripts; and
  • Simulations of a high-energy physics reaction between basic particles of matter.

Even though these applications are above and beyond the range of activity taking place on most traditional college and university networks, the capability is out there, and it may become the norm.

"The digitization and democratization of access to data are happening simultaneously," said Craig Stewart, associate dean for Research and Technologies at Indiana University.

Stewart said he believes this sort of data management and analysis requirements are becoming ubiquitous in research, making this type of "super bandwidth" essential for traditional colleges and universities in the future.

"As data are increasingly 'born digital,' and as devices are increasingly network attached, we are facing a tidal wave of data, most of which will be important to analyze in real time," Stewart said. "For example, networks of sensors that detect inclement weather or storm surges in oceans or motion in bridges will be producing tens to hundreds of gigabytes per second, and analyzing such data in real time is essential to protect life and limb."

*This story is from Converge magazine's Mixed & Mashed 2008 special issue.