From education to employment

Getting set for the new academic year: 6 Tips for a better university network

Patrick Hirscher, EMEA wireless market development manager at Zyxel.

How to get your IT network set for the new academic year

The education sector has significantly changed following advances in technology.

Today, universities are implementing completely new devices, approaches and tools to help enhance the educational process.

Around a decade ago, university campuses needed their IT networks primarily for education purposes.

Even that need was limited: while the computer studies department obviously required IT support, most lectures and seminars were still conducted on whiteboards (the old, unconnected type).

There’s now a higher demand made on university networks every day with a plethora of educational material online and in the cloud, interactive smart boards and students routinely bringing their own connected devices on campus.

However, advancements in technology have not been accompanied by dedicated network management resource within universities, which means IT responsibilities often fall to over-worked lecturers who lack relevant experience and knowledge.

The often-seen model (particularly common in primary schools) whereby the external network manager comes in once a week to fix things is often unfit for purpose. A week is a long time in IT and a lot can go wrong, with devices, security and networks alike during that time. Universities that have streamlined network management in the cloud can at least access the relevant data and make changes whenever they need to: those that have to wait for the off-site IT team to visit may be putting vital data, legal compliance and even their ability to teach at risk.

Demands on the network don’t only come from the lecture hall or seminar rooms, but from the libraries, admin office and elsewhere. Many software providers have turned their backs on downloadable files and now provide their services only on subscription and in a cloud-based format. That gives staff little choice but to connect if they want to write a letter, plan a lesson or collate exam results. The university network must now serve areas well beyond the lecture and seminar rooms.

This situation is causing headaches for many universities, which must now operate as modern concerns using very un-modern, often legacy networks and hardware. There is little money in universities to replace the hardware or to provide more of the on-site expert management that would relieve the burden on non-network savvy staff, but there are network management solutions in the cloud.

If universities choose their network partners carefully and leverage the latest in cloud-based network management, they stand to gain a great deal, both in terms of staff time recouped and cost savings. For example, by reducing the need for universities to store and back-up data on-premise, this frees up a large proportion of many universities’ IT budgets.

Why can’t university networks cope?

Networks in universities generally face three key challenges, which are:

  1. Bandwidth / availability
  2. Security
  3. Flexibility / responsivity and associated resource costs.

Bandwidth / availability is often a problem for university campuses because they may have as many users connecting simultaneously as a business, but few universities have optimised their networks (or even considered them) to the extent that a moderately-sized or even small business would. The result is often a very binary on/off network that cannot flex in response to patterns of use, and users who cannot get online when they need to. This situation also leads to wasted resource, since time, learning and power are all wasted when the network doesn’t respond promptly.

Security is a particular issue for universities. This is because university students will try to connect their own devices, with levels of cybersecurity ranging from zero upwards and possibly an interesting array of viruses and malware, to the shared network.

This situation is an inevitability of modern life and as unavoidable as it is dangerous, so universities have no choice but to ensure robust protection

The question is, how can universities ensure better protection, and how do they optimise networks to better serve the needs of a modern education?

6 Tips for a better university network

With summer approaching, public exams nearly over and the end of another academic year in sight, now is a good time for universities to look again at their network management and decide to make it work harder next year.

Here are some ideas that may help:

  1. Know your network traffic – university networks tend to experience peaks and troughs throughout the day, week and year. If the IT team knows exactly when these occur, they can provision accordingly and minimise wasted resource. Does the university’s network currently allow them to access this information quickly and easily? If not, it’s time to fix that.
  2. Centralised and remote management – there are many great things about cloud computing and this is one of them. Having centralised network management that can be remotely accessed means the universities IT team has no excuse for failing to manage traffic or fix glitches quickly. This facility can be used to create a truly bespoke educational experience, for example by maximising provision in one area (a specific classroom, for example) as needed.
  3. Security – a centralised management point combined with an understanding of network traffic makes security enforcement easier and more robust. Can your university remotely control the security of your network, and alter it in response to threats? Can your IT team see the threats, anomalous behaviours and/or changes in patterns of use? If not, why not?
  4. GDPR compliance – a better understanding of network traffic and centralised management tools make GDPR compliance much easier and, with the right system, straightforward to report to the relevant authorities. For busy universities, that can make a huge difference in terms of both time and peace of mind – and research shows that for most universities, that need is extremely urgent.
  5. Segmentation – can your university separate streams of network traffic, for example can your admin function use one section of the network and your students another? Segmentation of this type is better for security and efficiency alike.
  6. Energy efficiency – many universities are closed for extended periods, e.g. the summer holidays, and being able to power down the network during that time can reduce energy bills. Can your network do that, quickly and easily?

There is, unquestionably, a gap between what universities need to do with their networks and what they can achieve if they stick with the old familiar management styles. Bridging this gap is less a matter of resource than of attitude.

It’s crucial for universities to take a business-like approach to their networks, looking to the cloud for gold standard control, performance and resource management, the outcomes are likely to benefit staff at all levels, and all students, alike.

Patrick Hirscher, EMEA wireless market development manager at Zyxel

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