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February 5, 2015

Technology Corner: Investing in our infrastructure


Winter in Pittsburgh is a lesson in the value of sound infrastructure. We can handle an occasional pothole, but cratered streets, broken water lines and other symptoms of an aging infrastructure make us understandably frustrated.

“Aging” infrastructure in this region means components like roads and bridges that are 50 or even 100 years old. They still function, but at less than optimal levels, as anyone who has waited to go through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel can attest.

However technology infrastructure — particularly at a world-class research university — measures “aging” in months, not decades.

Pitt faculty and staff count on a strong and reliable IT infrastructure. Fortunately, the University has a history of investing in its IT infrastructure through strategic planning efforts overseen by the information technology steering committee (ITSC). These investments help to ensure a solid foundation for the research, scholarship, teaching, learning and business operations of today and of the future.


The out-of-sight component of IT infrastructure

The standard definition of technology infrastructure includes three components: hardware, software and network. Most people working at Pitt come in daily contact with all three.

You may think about whether your hardware or software is out of date or robust enough to handle current work demands. Companies like Apple, Microsoft and IBM promote their hardware and software, making it easy to get at least a general consumer’s understanding of the appeal of up-to-date products.

The network tends to be more inscrutable. But on the Pittsburgh campus alone we have roughly 2,000 miles of network cable. And we’re one of the first AAU universities to request and implement IPv6 (the latest version of Internet protocol) address space and services.

Remember daisy-chains and modems?

Departments used to daisy-chain computers to create a local Ethernet network, which might then connect to the Pitt network or the Internet. Pitt’s connection to the Internet in 2000 was a modest 50 megabits per second (see chart).


Many University offices on campus had Ethernet connections of 10 Mbps to PittNet (for the whole department or workgroup). Most work was done on an individual’s computer, then printed out and shared with colleagues. Memos were the standard means of communicating between departments.

As recently as 10 years ago, Pitt supported a pool of 800 modems to provide people with off-campus dial-up connections to the Pitt network and its Internet connection. Connection speeds for dial-ups started out at 300 bits per second and eventually increased to 56 kilobits per second.

Today, unless they know someone who’s using a modem handshake as a ringtone, many people have never even heard the sound of a modem trying to negotiate a connection.

Network infrastructure investment

Fifteen years ago, the University began investing in infrastructure for a time when networked operations would be the default means of conducting business and when research, scholarship and teaching would rely on this strong network infrastructure.

For instance, we have:

  • completely upgraded the core network infrastructure — twice;
  • continued over time to replace all network access devices from hubs to first- and then third-generation switches on the Pittsburgh campus;
  • implemented network authentication (protocol 802.1x) for student residences and public areas for a common mechanism between wired and wireless;
  • built a campus-wide wireless network infrastructure with 802.11b (11 megabits per second), upgraded to support 802.11a,g,n (50-100 megabits per second) and currently are upgrading to support 802.11ac (1 gigabit per second);
  • regularly invested in increased bandwidth to the Internet to stay ahead of user demand;
  • implemented high-speed connections to research networks such as Internet2, NLR and ESNet;
  • placed every department and unit behind network firewalls to enhance PittNet security;
  • upgraded the PittNet border routers that provide connections to commodity Internet and research networks, and
  • upgraded the speed of the network connections to the regional campuses.

In just the past three years, the University has invested almost $34 million in network infrastructure upgrades.

Network dependence and the need for redundancy

In 2015, the University’s network is not a convenience, but a necessity. On a daily basis, Pitt uses the network for student financial transactions, student coursework, payroll, electronic grant submissions, email communications with research colleagues and collaborators around the world, research data transfers and much more.

If the network were to go down today, it would be like hitting the brakes on the University; therefore, we continue to make significant investments in both the infrastructure and redundancy. All key areas of the Pitt network today have some level of redundancy.

For example, we have two connections to the Internet, and there are core network routers in almost every major building on the Pittsburgh campus that are connected to at least two other core buildings on campus. Two diverse network paths have been established from the Network Operations Center (NOC) to campus. And because it houses the servers that provide enterprise and departmental services, the NOC has even greater redundancy built in.

Future network investment

Network investments continue with new acquisitions, maintenance and upgrades. CSSD soon will finish a $5.6 million project to replace nearly 5,000 wireless access points approaching end-of-life, for instance, and we are upgrading the cyberinfrastructure for research computing through a recently awarded $500,000 NSF grant.

Network hardware with new features is being released ever more quickly. CSSD continues to invest resources in network infrastructure and its security and user-based features to ensure that University faculty, staff and students have the foundation they need for innovative leaps in research, scholarship and education.

Joe Kinney is an enterprise architect in CSSD, helping to make the most effective and strategic use of the University’s IT assets.

Filed under: Also,Volume 47 Issue 11