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February 8, 2007

Network upgrades aid regionals

Network upgrades have resolved computer problems at Pitt-Bradford and are set to increase bandwidth (capacity) at Pitt’s other regional campuses.

UPB got its bandwidth upgrade last month; the other regionals are set to have theirs within the next month or so, said Jinx Walton, director of Pitt’s Computing Services and Systems Development.

UPB got an exponential increase in its bandwidth, expanding from three to 45 megabits in early January, Walton said. Pitt-Titusville is scheduled for a tenfold increase to 45 megabits and the Johnstown and Greensburg campuses both are scheduled to increase from 75 megabits to 100.

In addition, off-campus locations including the Lexington Avenue and Thomas Boulevard facilities and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine are having their bandwidth increased.

Noting that computer and Internet usage are continuing to rise, Walton said, “It’s easy to consume as much bandwidth as we have.”

The upgrades at UPJ, UPT and UPG will keep those campuses ahead of the curve with regard to bandwidth consumption, Walton said.

“Bradford was prioritized because that was the one place where we saw bandwidth constraints,” Walton said. In addition, CSSD worked with UPB to optimize its web and email applications to increase speed online.

“We’re all happy campers now,” said Bill Kline, who heads UPB’s computing, telecommunications and media services. Kline said UPB computer users “all have commented on the fact that everything seems to be moving much faster.”

Before the upgrade, UPB users would find web sites timing out, or the system moving at a snail’s pace. Problems had been multiplying over the course of the past year, he said.

UPB is a big user of CourseWeb and Blackboard; in addition, the campus has gone paperless for its communication — memos that once were sent on paper now are delivered electronically via email, Kline said. Adding to the strain on the system’s capacity is that more devices have been connected to it — even vending machines are equipped to accept student ID cards for payment.

In addition, there is plenty of media-streaming as students entertain themselves with music and video they find online. “It’s cold here and there’s not a lot going on in winter,” Kline noted.

But students’ downloading isn’t all fun and games. Some professors are assigning students to view video clips online. “Now you have 40 students in the dorm all at once trying to download the video,” Kline said. “You didn’t have this a year ago.”

Record freshman enrollment for the fall term only added to the growing problem.

UPB computer users were left frustrated and waiting, particularly during the hours between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. when students typically were going online to check CourseWeb, view their email and do homework.

The situation was especially problematic, Kline said, for faculty who use technology in their classrooms. “Professors got used to streaming video,” he said, noting that UPB classrooms are equipped to show video using a computer equipped with a projection system.

The slow network made that unreliable with professors at times finding that they could use the visuals in one class, but were unable to connect during another class period. “It was very sporadic,” Kline said.

The congested computer system also affected staffers, some of whom rearranged their schedules to try to escape the computer traffic jam.

To avoid the slowdowns, “people would come in at 8 a.m. to try to get that stuff done before 10,” Kline said.

Kline said his own computer on campus was painfully slow. He recalled that, before the upgrade, searching for a price quote on a computer hardware web site he frequented might have taken 10 minutes. Now it takes about 25 seconds, he said.

“Previously my cable modem at home was much faster,” he said. “Now that’s reversed.”

Part of the upgrade is equipment that prioritizes data traffic: academic and business-related data go first. “The priority drops for others,” he said.

One of the big questions Kline has been fielding lately is how long the improvements will last. “I’m hoping several years,” he said.

Unlike Bradford, bandwidth has not been an issue at Titusville, said Lori Brown, the campus’s director of computing and telecommunications. Typically if UPT’s bandwidth was exceeded, it was due to some anomaly such as a virus or hacking.

“We had our network shaped so students had part and faculty had part of the bandwidth,” she said. “If students decided to go over (the limit), they were the only ones whose access slowed down.”

Problems on the student side led to new policies in 2005 that have worked out well, she said. Students are told to keep their file-sharing turned off to avoid slowing the system.

In addition, students are limited to using no more than 1 gigabite in 24 hours. (That’s the equivalent of downloading about 250 songs, for example.)

First-time offenders receive a warning. Repeat offenders lose their port for a week, and so on, in a progressive scale of sanctions.

“The restrictions have helped,” Brown said.

UPJ also has a policy on computer usage. “In our discussions of how to allocate bandwidth, we wanted the academic mission to always come first,” said Richard Ulsh, president of the UPJ faculty. “But we wanted some gaming activity for students, as long as it’s ethical and legal, because they enjoy it and we think it’s important that they should have that. After all, they pay a $236 network fee per semester.”

The campus policy is to have only 1 percent of computer activity devoted to leisure use at any time, although the guideline is relaxed after midnight, he said.

J. Jeffrey Sernell, assistant vice president for information technology at UPJ, said the campus has hardware in place that ensures the academic mission gets preference on the network by partitioning the bandwidth between academic-oriented activity and leisure use.

The anticipated upgrade at UPJ is “not so much to increase performance now, but to maintain it in preparation for greater reliability down the road when we do further upgrades,” he said.

“We’re in pretty good shape and have had only a few small complaints of the occasional outage,” he said.

Likewise, Bill Martin, director of computing services and telecommunications at UPG, said, “Things have been going pretty well at our campus, especially regarding faculty and staff. We’ve had very few complaints. We’ve had a few oddball incidents like network connectivity going out unexpectedly, but these have been rare, maybe a half-dozen during the fall.”

The bandwidth at UPG is segmented to ensure faculty and staff have sufficient bandwidth for their needs.

“With the students it’s been a somewhat bigger problem,” he said, adding that the upgrade is expected to take care of any problems.

Walton said educating users — students in particular — about their impact on the network is important.

She noted that when file-sharing programs seek data, they search for the closest, fastest location. “That’s typically a network,” she said, adding that the University’s system is an attractive target.

Programs such as Love Your Computer week (Feb. 12-16) aim to inform students about how they can help keep the system running smoothly. Shutting off the port when it’s not in use, rather than allowing file-sharing programs to run constantly, is one way to keep those programs from consuming bandwidth, she said.

The goal is to keep far enough ahead so bandwidth doesn’t become an issue. On the Pittsburgh campus, “we feel we’re in good shape with bandwidth,” Walton said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow & Peter Hart

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