Dartmouth: Wireless IP grows up

Dartmouth logo

The Concours Group runs a semi-monthly teleconference series called the CIO Staff Meeting, where IT management groups can call in and participate in presentation on various topics of interest. One of my rather pleasant duties is to participate in some of these teleconferences, as moderator and “chief inquisitor”.
Brad NobletYesterday, our guest was Brad Noblet, Director of Computing Technical Services at Dartmouth College. Over the last three years, he has been responsible for implementing a complete renewal of the network services at the college, replacing three old networks (telephony, data and audio/video) with one unified IP infrastructure, both fixed and wireless.

This network is impressive and has provided some rather dramatic benefits: Operational costs have decreased more than 40% (less duplication of personnel and equipment, all changes done in software, new services are just new applications) and a number of new services and applications. The network is comparatively large (10,000 users over 1 square mile,) in a semi-rural setting, with some outliers (such as a boathouse, so you can take your laptop on a sculler…). Some more numbers: 22K ports of 10/100/1G, a fiber core with 1G but with a 10G option for grid computing, and a complete wireless overlay (that is, all services on the fixed network are also available wirelessly.) Everything is IP – which, incidentally, simplifies things a lot but would probably not be an option in a European setting, where everybody has GSM phones and companies tend to build their wireless voice options off commercially provided GSM and GPRS networks.
IP and wireless gives flexibility – you can build telephone extensions anywhere in the world, provide complete network in new buildings even before they are finished, and provide a number of new services. One example is net-connected laundries, so students can check to see whether washers and dryers are available and reserve them off the net. Should result in better-smelling dorms.
The new applications developed are also interesting – they are experimenting with instant voice messengers from Vocera, both for students and for staff, especially maintenance people and security. These terminals provide wireless IP voice communication, and use voice recognition so that you can have both hands free while talking and dialing. Another interesting option is the virtual “smart classroom”, where, since every student has to have a laptop, the teacher can project things onto student computers without using a projector or other specialized and expensive equipment. The college is experimenting with virtual attendants – help systems that use the wireless system to determine context based on time and place in addition to the users rights and roles. For instance, a student at a lab could use this to ask what equipment is currently available and how to use it.
Security is, of course, the one question everyone asks with wireless. This is achieved by locking applications from totally open – if you are a guest at Dartmouth, you can use your laptop to surf and check email, but with limited bandwidth consumption – to shielded application areas with VPN tunneling from terminal to application. Reliability is maintained mostly by redundancy of nodes and connections.
The Dartmouth case is a great example of forward-looking IT management. It helps, of course, that the user base is diverse (meaning that you have to support everything) and competent (thus driving demand for infrastructure services). The decision to go all IP was also helped along by the fact that the three legacy networks were all going into technical obsolescence at roughly the same time, and that the availability of good Internet and interpersonal communication facilities is a competitive edge in recruiting students and faculty.
Nevertheless, it is an impressive piece of technical and organizational management. Well done!