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Updating NU technology is a never-ending struggle

By Derek Radtke
On April 3, 2012

For 22-year-old Andrew Daddio, technology is an important part of his everyday life, whether it is taking notes in a class, checking on stocks, or sending an email.

The senior business management major from Malden, Mass., is one of many students who take full advantage of the internet and mobile services provided at Norwich.

Daddio said that while most devices can be connected here, there are still the occasional problems.

"Whether I'm in my dorm room or an academic building there will be spots where I lose Wi-Fi connection entirely," he said.

The difficult job of keeping up with these services goes to the IT (Information Technology) department. The IT staff works hard trying to keep up with the technological demands of Norwich students, faculty, and staff, and also with changes in technology.

"This is a never-ending struggle, it is the inherent nature of the business," said Frank T. Vanecek, dean of the school of business and management and vice president for technology. "You're not going to get ahead, so to speak, because you're dealing with a technology that is constantly changing."

This "never-ending struggle" to keep up with technology affects not only the IT department but also the students, faculty, and staff here at Norwich.

Vanecek notes that, "IT needs to be constantly upgrading software, upgrading hardware, upgrading capabilities" to keep up with the demand.

A recent important upgrade to the Norwich network was the huge increase in bandwidth accomplished in January of 2011. But this was not the only recent upgrade, said Vanecek.

"The students a year ago were complaining about the wireless network - they (couldn't) put their devices on... saying that we didn't have a wireless network," Vanecek said.

He explained that when the wireless network was installed 10-15 years ago at Norwich, there were no mobile devices that needed to get on the network. Nowadays since the technology has advanced, students bring in multiple devices they expect to get on the network.

"iPhones, iPads, games, all that kind of stuff takes a heavy toll on the wireless network," Vanecek said. "Our response is, 'we have to upgrade the wireless network,' which is what we're doing."

In fall of 2011, IT opened up the new wireless network just for the students, so that they could get all of their wireless gear on the system. There are still more significant upgrades coming.

Daddio, for one, appreciates the effort. "I think that the IT department has done well given the expansion into offering Wi-Fi for different digital devices," said Daddio. "When I first came to Norwich it was nearly impossible to connect a video game console to the internet."

Daddio said that the wireless connection is the most important to him and that being able to access the internet away from his laptop is also a concern.

Norwich officials understand the need and made it a focus. "We made the decision to do the students first, the current network cannot handle all the students, faculty and staff using mobile devices," said Vanecek. "So what we have done is, we have prevented the faculty and staff from using mobile devices. The first step is to get all the students and their mobile devices active, and that's already done."

An upgrade for the wireless network that will allow all mobile devices on campus to work is coming soon, said Vanecek.

"We are in the process this summer of upgrading the wireless network to handle those mobile devices, so that by the fall we will be all set," he said. Vanecek said that if all the mobile devices on campus were allowed on the wireless network now, it would bring it down.

For the IT department, the wireless challenge is just one aspect of planning for Norwich's future needs. "When we upgrade it, does that mean our job is done? No, because technology is going to continue to change and we always have to be looking for the next technology that's coming out, he said.

Constant and rapid changes in technology often complicate the process of selecting projects that have an impact on the mission of the institution, said Joseph Morvan, director of information technology.

"They need to add value to what we have now and value to future initiatives," said Morvan. "Often this requires taking the time to think beyond the immediate and focus on what really matters in the long term.

Improvements in accessing learning resources and research, developing management information systems to support the Norwich community, and facilitating better communication, are also important aspects to IT and the university, Morvan explained.

"We believe we bring great value to the university and our faculty, staff and students by providing the vehicle through technology, to be successful in terms of academic achievement," Morvan said.

Vanecek added that the primary service IT provides is to keep the basic network infrastructure, both wired and mobile, working smoothly, so people can log on in the morning, get on the internet and do their job.

"We do provide a lot of other services, such as individual help, so if somebody has an individual problem with their computer with some software they're running, be it a student or a faculty or staff, the help desk is available to assist in getting peoples' situations resolved," Vanecek said.

He added that the other key things that IT provides is keeping external channels open, to allow the campus to "get out there" and send emails and get on the internet.

"In January of 2011, the size of our pipe (bandwidth) is what we would call '70 meg' (megabytes per second) and the students were complaining about it, too slow," he said.

Norwich spent $90,000 to upgrade the bandwidth from 70 to 200 megabytes per second, paying $50,000 for new equipment and then taking on an annual cost of $40,000 dollars to support the upgrade.

"I think it was eight-o-clock at night, we flipped the switch to turn the bandwidth to turn from 70meg to 200meg, and it worked fine," Vanecek said. "Then, 15 minutes later that 200meg bandwidth was maxed out, so it was at 100 percent usage for the rest of the night."

Vanecek said that IT can never rest, that the department must always be moving forward, trying to make things better. Students, faculty and staff demand "more and more and more access."

"I think that a lot of the issues that students had with IT have been largely minimized, if not erased entirely because of the bandwidth increase," Daddio agreed.

He added that the bandwidth increase was a big improvement, despite the issues that everyone experiences during peak hours and that the change in bandwidth has been noticed by students.

Vanecek said the school is now planning a bigger upgrade, noting that "200megs was used up almost instantly, and now we are in the process of budgeting the money to increase it from 200meg to 400meg sometime next year."

He said that Norwich chose to increase the bandwidth rather than preventing students from using certain applications, which he adds other schools are already doing with their students.

"Norwich University does not believe in doing that, we want our students to have access to anything that they want access to, but there are schools moving in that direction," Vanecek said.

The equipment at Norwich will be upgraded soon, due to the university's lease situation.

"We went into a five-year lease, five years ago for our entire network structure," said Vanecek. "We have just recently signed a new five-year leasing agreement to upgrade our entire network structure."

Leasing gives Norwich the opportunity to revisit the needs of the university and either purchase the existing equipment or refresh the equipment at the end of the lease, said Morvan.

This new upgrade is already underway and it will take the rest of the current semester, the entire summer and some of the 2012 fall semester to get the entire network redone, according to Vanecek.

"It's going to cost the university an extra $500,000 dollars per year, for the next five years, for all this new equipment," he said, but it is "going to allow for a lot of nice things."

The improvements will include student wireless, increase fiber paths to dorms to handle more bandwidth and various hardware and software improvements in labs on campus, said Morvan.

The improvements will also give the school two data centers, explained Vanecek, noting "currently we have one data center and it's in Jucket Hall, with backup equipment in Dewey Hall."

The second data center will be located in the basement of Dewey and both will be load-balanced, he said. The benefit of this is that if one data center goes down, the computer network is still up and running.

In the past, bandwidth was not the biggest concern to the IT department. Rather, it was the fear that a virus could infect the schools computers and cause havoc, Morvan explained.

The problems today are "nothing like the past, when one student brought a computer in the dorm and all the dorms would be off-line due to the spread of a virus," he said. Morvan said that the systems and operations team has worked very hard to keep that from happening over the last several years.

Recently the "influx of social networking tools has placed a burden on bandwidth demands, but we are addressing that in this year's budget process," Morvan said.

He added that the ever-increasing demands on IT service can often put the IT team in a tough situation, choosing between important tasks needing to be solved immediately and longer-term issues.

"We like to examine what viable solutions are in place now and compare them with the marketplace and make rational decisions based on the needs of our community moving forward," he said.

An important part of the IT department for students, faculty and staff alike is the help desk, said Vanecek. "I feel that how IT deals with student concerns depends on the amount of work they have at the time," Daddio said.

He adds that when the department is busy they aren't as helpful as they could be, but when they aren't as busy then the standards raise.

Jason Aldrich, head of the IT user services "has a mission and that mission, that goal is to try to do his best for every single student, faculty, and staff at this institution," he said. "He sincerely puts the satisfaction of the students, faculty, and staff No. 1."

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