Back-to-school IT projects reshape campus life
The top back-to-school IT projects at 10 colleges and universities show a tidal wave of change in higher education. Many of the changes could presage broader shifts in enterprise and consumer technology.

Not surprisingly, wireless is fast becoming the default network connection for campus users, who typically own between two and four wireless-enabled mobile devices. At the same time, virtualization and growth in cloud-based services are centralizing and offloading IT functions. These changes, coupled with soaring video traffic, are triggering bandwidth upgrades at all levels.
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As students begin to populate campuses around the world, we’re tracking six major areas of technology change.

1. 802.11n and all-wireless access

802.11n Wi-Fi campus deployments are growing and increasingly eliminating wired wall jacks and switch ports. (See also: Is it time to cut the Ethernet access cable?)

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University of North Texas in Denton took the 11n plunge, replacing a “hodge-podge” of 11b and 11g access points with about 250-300 11n access points from Aruba Networks, says Joe Adamo, senior director of communications services at UNT.

Schools with 11n already deployed are seeing big changes. Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., recently renovated four dorms, offering only 11n wireless connectivity for students. “We’ve seen an abandonment of the wired infrastructure [by users],” says John Turner, Brandeis’ director of networks and systems. The estimated cost for rewiring the four buildings was $200,000. The final cost of the Aruba Networks WLAN deployment for the four buildings? Less than $80,000.

Morrisville State College in Morrisville, New York (site of the first large-scale 802.11n wireless LAN, built with Meru Networks gear) is likewise is making wireless the default network access in all new or rehabbed dorms and classrooms.

“That’s a huge shift in IT’s historical thinking,” says Jean Boland, the college’s vice president for administrative services and IT.

With its fully deployed, campus-wide 802.11n WLAN, based on equipment from Aruba Networks and Xirrus, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh this year deactivated all the 100Mbps wired jacks in all campus dorms, putting an end to the “one per pillow” access that has been a higher education standard for over a decade. Students can request that a wired jack be activated (and all requests will be granted).

“We’ll never get rid of the wired infrastructure in the residence halls,” says Dan McCarriar, CMU director, network and production services. “But if I can eliminate some switches, we can keep down infrastructure costs and realize some power savings.”

2. The rising tide of mobile devices

Many incoming freshmen students this year have more than one mobile device. Laptops plus smartphones (or a Wi-Fi-only device such as the Apple iPod touch), and in some cases wireless game controllers, are a typical combination. Apple’s iPad tablet is popping up on nearly every campus, heralding a new type of mobile device.

More campuses are trialing the use of these personal mobile devices, either as complements or even replacements for the decade-long focus on student laptop computing. Stanford University School of Medicine will hand out iPads to its 91 incoming first-year med students. George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, will give this year’s freshman class a choice¬† of either an iPad or a MacBook notebook. And Seton Hall University in Greensburg, Penn., will give freshman both an iPad and a 13-inch MacBook Pro.
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One of the pioneers in “mobile learning” is Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. This year’s 1,000 to 1,200 freshmen will be the third class to receive a choice of the latest iPhone — in this case the iPhone 4 — or the Wi-Fi-based iPod touch. (See also: iPhones go to front of the class at Texas university)

What’s distinct in ACU’s approach is that from the start, the hardware handout has been accompanied by a concerted effort to create both network and learning infrastructures to support extensive use of the devices by students. This year, the campus WLAN is being upgraded to 802.11n (the iPhone 4 supports 11n for the first time), with 1Gbps Ethernet links to the Alcatel-Lucent access points (which are rebranded from Aruba).

ACU has also re-architected its weekly first-year orientation classes, now dubbed Cornerstone, around the mobile platform.

“We wanted to create a central locus to immerse students in mobile learning, as we had been doing with faculty and staff,” says Arthur Brant, ACU’s director of enterprise infrastructure. Cornerstone classes will introduce students to the handsets, and to the university’s growing portfolio of home-grown and third-party mobile learning applications and online resources.

Duke University, Durham, N.C., has released version 2.0 of DukeMobile, a collection of mobile applications available for Apple iOS, Research in Motion BlackBerry, and other platforms. The new release offers an improved interactive map application, which now shows the user’s relative location, locations of printers on the campus-wide printing network, and guided walking tours of the campus. Students can access and search library card catalogs and chat with a librarian if they need help, plus view event details, news, a campus directory and other services.

3. Recentralizing IT through virtualization

In many schools, demand for high-performance computing and enormous storage capacity, coupled with the need to realize savings and efficiencies, is driving a recentralization of IT resources through virtualization. (See: Purdue University plans for post-PC era.)

University of Maryland at Baltimore is creating a common computing facility in a leased, 3,200-square-foot space just off the main campus.¬† It will house existing gear from jammed-up computer rooms on campus, and from school and departmental facilities (a hallmark of many schools). But it will also provide high-end data processing and storage to meet advanced computational and research needs, says Peter Murray, the institution’s CIO.