December, 2018 CIO Update

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As we prepare for the Spring semester, I wish everyone a peaceful and enjoyable holiday season and happy new year.  I am particularly thankful for the Technology Services team members who are here working or are on call over the break supporting our colleagues in the Health Systems and research areas as well as making sure our infrastructure and services are running for anyone who needs them.  One of the most critical services we offer is wireless connectivity.  For this month’s entry, I would like to highlight a substantial change to how wireless is provided at VCU.

Last month, VCU began a 12-month project to migrate our wireless systems to a cloud-based model.  Network Services, in conjunction with Cisco-Meraki Networks, will move the complex backend controlling servers, applications, and logical functions to the Cloud. This will reduce the hardware and software footprint on premise while at the same time expand our ability to use Big Data techniques to provide a better customer experience.

VCU’s wireless network currently supports more than 42,000 users over four thousand wireless access points (APs), with dedicated routers, firewalls, wireless control equipment and miles of network cabling to the Monroe Park and MCV campuses in classrooms, student common areas, residence halls, administrative buildings and external open areas like Monroe Park. This represents expansive complexity, and the system requires us maintain stability while ensuring data privacy. Currently, we have two full-time network engineers whose full-time job is deployment to new locations, upgrade of equipment, as well as the maintenance of the multiple routers, servers, monitoring equipment, configuration and software versions. To ensure future flexible growth and provide a deeper analytical treatment of data for a more preemptive remediation of customer issues, we made the decision to remove the on premise multi-layer backend systems and virtualize the wireless infrastructure in the Cloud.

A virtualized network infrastructure uses simplified hardware components, like the APs, physically located on campus, while housing the logical and computational functions on Cloud based servers and applications. Control of the hardware is done via encrypted “command-and-control” traffic from the Cloud-based servers while at the same time user traffic is only sent over the local VCU network and not via the Cloud. The result is a hybrid design allowing for flexible deployment to any environment that has a basic Internet connection while at the same time extending security and privacy policy to all VCU supported devices.

The initial benefit from the deployment of the Cisco-Meraki solution will be the elimination of often time-consuming and complicated on-site support, which will provide more time to be spent on improving and enhancing customer experience. The secondary benefit will be a faster time to deployment for wireless connections as the APs are true “plug-n-play” since they do not need any hands-on adjustments – only a connection to the Internet. The future benefit of having the control data in the Cloud is that this becomes the default single location to provide big data analytics for use in interactive network maps, location services, deep monitoring and historical usage patterns for future planning.

It is anticipated that the project will take 12 months using support from the vendor-supplied installation team. The access point replacement will be done in three phases: first, academic and student spaces; second, all residence halls; finally, administrative locations. Prior to the start of the rollout a building priority list will be posted on the TS Network Services website showing the scheduled impact to buildings.  In addition, our IT Support Center and building managers will have direct access to all information to ensure up-to-date scheduling.  

To ensure that the new wireless network will perform at the utmost quality, all of the legacy access points are being removed and replaced with the newest Cisco-Meraki access-point models.  This process will be transparent except for those attached to the AP at the moment that it is being replaced. At that time, users will reassociate to the next nearest access point.  Our pilot project, which went successfully and without issue, was implementing this technology at Cabell Library, which has been on the system for more than three months.

By the Fall of 2019, VCU will be benefiting from a Cloud based virtual wireless infrastructure with faster provisioning, service, support, and greater visibility of usage. As this new infrastructure platform joins the other large Cloud deployments we have in email and learning systems, we can anticipate more functionality from leveraging the integration of future virtualized network technologies.

Warmest wishes for the holiday season and Happy New Year!


About This Entry

Published on Thursday, December 20, 2018, at 6:40 pm by alhenson in the Technology Services: From the CIO blog.
Categories: Uncategorized

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