Magnus Bjornsson, CEO at Men&Mice

Network management is key to maintaining online higher education 

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the biggest disruption to global higher education in the modern era. Like every other facet of UK society, universities had to rapidly adjust to a world in which close physical proximity became dangerous, making traditional lectures impossible.

At the beginning of the pandemic, UK higher education institutions had to abruptly shift to online learning formats to guarantee some form of educational continuity for their students. This process was not easy, with universities confronted with the challenge of how to provide comprehensive learning within the limits of a purely online learning environment.

Given the rapid pace of events during the opening stages of the pandemic, universities could be forgiven for any technological teething issues. However, the UK is now over a year into pandemic restrictions and, with partial online teaching set to continue for many universities into the 2021 autumn term, students will expect their education be delivered as seamlessly as possible.

The onus is on universities to support the COVID generation of students as best they can, and so they must manage their complex IT infrastructures as efficiently as possible to avoid hampering class time with brownouts and outages.

The increasingly complex network infrastructure of universities

Even before the increased network demands of the pandemic, digital transformation was driving an increasing complexity of university networks.

After all, educational institutions are now powered by dynamic and multi-layered network environments. On-campus mobile connectable devices keep proliferating, while teaching practices, educational resources and administration continue to migrate to collaborative online platforms and virtual learning environments.

Needless to say, COVID-19 triggered a huge increase in online educational activity. As the world shifted online, university networks have borne through a heavy increase in traffic. Further exacerbating university network strain are the security and optimisation needs from a flood of personal devices (BYOD) being connected to the network, an increased reliance on the internet of things (IoT) and a steady migration of data and services to the cloud. All of these trends have been greatly accelerated by the pandemic.

The matter of guaranteeing network stability is one of effective IP address management (IPAM), which for education institutions is a complicated task. On any given university network, you are likely to find a range of different Unix/Linux or Windows devices, as well as any array of public or private cloud services. This infrastructure is supported by multiple servers that must be monitored by IT teams if uptime is to be guaranteed – this is no small feat.

Without a unified overview or centralised access control, this diverse network topology poses increasingly complex challenges, threatening IP infrastructure stability and network uptime upon which online education is fundamentally supported.

Managing university network infrastructure

In supporting university networks in the face of rapid digital transformation, the heavy lifting falls upon the unseen dynamics of network connectivity – this is the interplay between domain name systems (DNS), dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) and IPAM. Collectively, managing this networking infrastructure is known as DDI.

Through DDI, network infrastructure data can be consolidated into a single pane of glass – a term used in IT management that describes the highly valued quality of unifying data and interfaces from several sources in a single view. This enables IT teams to maintain centralised network overview and control so that they can deal with issues in the IT environment before they result in disruption to online education. This brings much needed stability to highly dynamic education infrastructures that need to meet increased network strain.

There is no telling when in-person university classes and courses will resume. Indeed, it is likely that an increasing digitalisation of learning outside of the traditional class format may now become a norm even beyond the pandemic. This being the case, universities have a duty to their students to optimise their networks and prevent downtime which may impact their studies. After all, prospective new students, who are now well-used to online learning, will take note of which universities will best guarantee their educations.

Magnus Bjornsson, CEO at Men&Mice

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