Network to receive facelift this summer

This summer the Office of Information Technology (OIT) plans on upgrading the network infrastructure for campus dormitories, thereby increasing connection speeds and putting an end to the congestion that has caused frequent service outages throughout the year.

At present, students in a given dorm share a single network connection from their rooms to the core of the Williams network, where there is access to e-mail, campus resources and the wider Internet. If one user begins a data transfer that uses all of the available bandwidth for the shared connection, for instance, downloading large media files, then other users are prevented from using the connection at all.

Due to the prevalence of file-sharing on campus, bandwidth clogging of this sort is fairly common and the result is perceived outages of Internet access for users whose connection is shared by someone in the middle of an intensive download. Applications which require a constant connection to the Internet, AOL Instant Messenger being the most popular, are particularly effected, as even a momentary loss of access will cause a disconnection of the service.

All that will change when routing switches are installed this summer. A routing switch is a piece of network hardware that facilitates the sharing of a network connection by multiple computers. From the perspective of an individual computer, it appears that there is a dedicated connection running from that computer directly to the heart of the network; other computers using the same physical connection do not affect performance at all. And with the switching technology being implemented, each user’s connection will run ten times faster than the current connection being shared by an entire dorm.

“This summer [the switches] will be our largest single capital investment,” said Mark Berman, director of networks and systems at OIT. “Next fall, we will be a completely switched network and everyone will have their own individual pipe into the core of the network and the problem will be gone.” The entire project will cost approximately half-a-million dollars.

But Berman also pointed out that the upgrades would not effect the performance of the College’s connection to the Internet. Williams currently maintains a twelve megabit per second (mbps) microwave Internet connection which is consistently saturated, again primarily by file-sharing.

“We could increase that link up to 45mbps [four times faster] basically with a phone call, but our next bill would be a bit different,” Berman said, explaining that as long as file-sharing was the only application in need of greater bandwidth, the budget constraints made it unlikely that Williams would be willing to pay for an increase.

Several other options exist for increasing bandwidth for the Williams user, the most well-known of which is “Internet 2.” Internet 2 is a consortium of colleges and universities that have constructed a network infrastructure completely separate from the commercial Internet, for use in academic research. Because the network is free from the massive traffic associated with today’s world wide web, connection speeds on Internet 2 tend to be significantly faster.

Williams has repeatedly considered joining Internet 2, but Berman said, “it’s not just a budget question, it’s also a ‘why’ question. We are again in the process of looking into what faculty research might use Internet 2, with the help of two faculty members from the Information Technology Committee (ITC).” As long as there is no pressing research need, there appears to be no point in joining. Because Internet 2 is separate from the commercial Internet, the faster connection speeds would not affect typical student activities like web surfing or file sharing.

A different idea is building a direct connection to the Five Colleges (Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, UMass-Amherst and Hampshire), where they are in the middle of a multi-million dollar project to install a fiber-optic network for their consortium. Although Berman was reluctant to discuss the likelihood of Williams establishing such a connection, he acknowledged that Williams and the Five Colleges “have been talking.”

If such a project were undertaken, Williams would eventually have a gigabit-per-second link (one hundred times faster than the current network speed) to the combined resources of the Five College consortium, including their Internet 2 connection. Williams users could download 20 songs from UMass students every second, set up videoconference calls with counterparts at Smith or receive a broadcast-quality video feed of Williams-Amherst sporting events.

In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, Internet bandwidth will be, as Berman describes it, OIT’s “worst choke point.” The new e-mail server which was installed last summer is exactly on par with that which serves UC-Berkeley’s 10,000 student campus, and with the advent of the switched network this summer the Williams local network will be as good as anyone’s. But as file-sharing has been the cause of widespread problems on the local network this year, and it will likely continue to pose an obstacle to optimal Internet access in years to come. According to Berman, “without file sharing you’d be very happy.”

Following the transition to a switched network, the next big change for the College’s technology infrastructure will be the advent of wireless access. Already in widespread use, from corporate offices to city neighborhoods to McDonald’s, wireless access allows laptop computers to connect to networks (and thus the Internet) without actually “plugging in.”

At Williams, a wireless network will take the form of a bubble surrounding the campus, within which laptop users will have access to all the same resources regardless of whether their computers have a cable running to the wall. The sofas at Goodrich, the tables in the Snack Bar and the steps of Chapin would all become places one could sit and surf the Internet or check e-mail.

Although the technology needed for a wireless bubble is readily available, OIT has postponed the installation of the necessary hardware due to security concerns. Once wireless access becomes available to Williams students, it would also become available to anyone else in the area. Preventing such access is crucial both because unauthorized users can wreak havoc inside the College’s network and because the College is legally obligated to restrict access to many of its resources. For instance, the software which it provides to students through academic licensing.

The right solution to the wireless security problem must also take usability into account. “We want to do it in a way that’s relatively secure and also relatively easy for people to use,” Berman said. “We want people to be able to buy an Apple iBook or a Dell laptop that comes with wireless built-in and have that work, regardless of what the electronics are.”

Berman believes that OIT has identified the best technology to resolve these difficulties: a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN would allow open access to the College’s wireless network but require users to provide an additional password to connect to the internal Williams network. Implementing a VPN would have the added benefit of allowing students and faculty to access the internal Williams network from anywhere on the Internet, using the same password.

From home or on vacation, a Williams network user could run software which would create a connection to Williams and give the user access to network resources such as files on other computers, and even the applications which the College makes available to users on campus.

“Ideally we would like people to have one piece of software set up one way and whether they’re on the wireless network or connecting from home they’d establish their connection and it would work the same way,” Berman said. “We could release one or the other [home access or wireless access] right now but it would cause major problems for the one we didn’t release.”

But OIT is presently running a pilot program to test their implementation of an integrated system, and Berman said students will likely see the technology made available sometime in the next year or two.