Come fall, school bells ring throughout college campuses across the United States, but as excited students move into the dorms and make new friends, employees of the information systems (IS) departments are pulling out their hair trying to manage the dramatic increase in network traffic.
Last year, Napster was the bandwidth hog of choice and this year movie downloads added to music downloads are flooding campus networks. Many college campuses outright denied their students the ability to use the popular peer-to-peer computing programs used to collect these files; Wagner was not one of them. We allowed our students to have fun with these programs while maintaining high levels of productivity at the same time.
Wagner College sits on a hilltop overlooking Manhattan, the Atlantic Ocean and New York Harbor in the borough of Staten Island. Founded in 1883, the liberal arts campus community of close to 2,500 students and faculty take part in over 30 academic programs and four graduate departments. Wagner is ranked by US News and World Report in the "top tier" of northern universities, continuing its tradition of academic excellence into the next century.
Unable to Phone Home
But as students awoke on September 11 and looked out their dorm windows they saw the world change before their eyes. Many students saw the planes hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and others were pulling back the drapes in their rooms to see smoke and flames.
Many of our initial instincts were to pick up the phone and call family, friends and loved ones - so did the millions of residents in the Manhattan area. As the phone lines were jammed, the IS department on campus called an emergency meeting to discuss alternative means of communication.
Bandwidth management is something that many companies or organizations overlook in planning a comprehensive security network solution because it does not become a priority until it is too late. Users are not aware of any congestion until web pages show up slowly, and downloads that take seconds would not be complete for minutes.
As part of our security implementation, we installed FloodGate-1 from Check Point Software Technologies. FloodGate-1 optimizes the performance of business critical applications by controlling, prioritizing and improving the efficiency of TCP/IP traffic. The product allowed the staff to set policies for limited bandwidth resources that matched the needs of the college and students.
On the morning of September 11 as the IS staff met to discuss how to allow the students and faculty to communicate with family members in the area and nationally, the bandwidth light went on. We decided to reprioritize the network traffic and give the highest priority to email and instant messaging programs.
Under normal circumstances we allow our computer labs and libraries the highest priority so that students can focus on meeting academic needs and requirements. This day was different. We had all of our technical organizations working together to solve a crucial communication problem.
While the IS staff was reconfiguring the traffic, the web team was posting a special note on the homepage to alert parents and family on how to communicate with faculty and students. They strongly encouraged to email and instant message their loved ones. Wagner was able to have more than 1,000 computers all running at the same time with FloodGate-1. While many around them were struggling with busy phone lines, the tech savvy staff at Wagner was finding a simple solution to a communication problem.
We were able to calm the nerves of loved ones who knew they had students or friends in that area. It was a small positive piece that we could contribute to a disastrous situation. Things have now slowly returned back to normal on campus and in the area, but without a bandwidth solution already installed the situation could have been a lot worse.
Today we are back to our normal bandwidth headaches. We are able to monitor students that were causing traffic jams on the network. We have more than 1,000 students using their computers in the dorms, and with the rise of peer file sharing, students in our computer labs and library were experiencing slower response time to our computer labs and library resources. FloodGate-1 allowed us to target the heavy users and create policy rules for them.
We wanted the students to have fun using the programs and be able to gain the files that they were downloading. So instead of completely blocking access to peer-to-peer traffic, Wagner chose to simply prioritize more important traffic destined for the labs and library. Once the needs of critical traffic had been met, students can have free access to any remaining bandwidth. By letting the students continue to use these programs we are hoping that they will become excited about technology.
The students were using programs like Napster to download music and it was giving us a bandwidth headache. While some were downloading music others were not able to access critical information from the library or computer labs. This problem is common to many college campuses across the nation and many are solving this problem by installing bandwidth management programs similar to the one we installed. We knew there had to be products out there to help us.
We just feel very lucky to have a program installed prior to September 11 and do our part to provide the students and faculty with a sense of security.
Andy Druda is the network and communications manager at Wagner College located on Staten Island in New York.