Published April 30, 2015
If you work or study at UB, log into the HUB Student Center or even just step inside a building on campus, then you rely on UB’s data communications networks. These networks control the climate and lighting inside every building; they power the phones and a host of other crucial, everyday services we take for granted. But despite their ubiquity, most of us never give the networks a second thought.
When I mention this to Mark Deuell, Director of Network and Classroom Services (NCS), part of UB Information Technology, he smiles knowingly. "That’s the thing about networks," he said. "They just work." He pauses, his smile widening. "Or…"
Or they don’t. Then people take notice, and it’s the threat that keeps Mark and his team of network engineers on their toes. In his nearly 30 years working with UB’s networks, Mark has seen their complexity and importance grow exponentially. This means that keeping the networks up and running is an around-the-clock task.
Today, networks are crucial infrastructure. Mark likens them to the roads we travel every day. "The data is like the traffic," he said. "There are different kinds of traffic, there’s congestion and breakdowns, rerouting...we have to be able to manage that the same way vehicle traffic is managed."
As with roads, UB’s network infrastructure occasionally needs costly upgrades and repairs. And that’s becoming more complicated as the network grows in size and complexity.
"Today’s network switches and routers don’t just move bytes in one direction or the other," Mark said. "They’re sophisticated computers in their own right...which means we’re not only concerned with keeping the hardware working, but also the software."
While, according to Mark, the physical failure of electronics is easy to plan for ("Just buy two of everything," he said), software is another matter. Vendor provided updates can often produce unpredictable results, and although the UBIT team has systems in place to roll back software changes in the event of a problem, bugs are still an inevitability of working with such a complex system.
Mark mentions a bug that affected South Campus’ networks toward the end of 2014. Fortunately, Mark told UBIT News, "The routers were still under a vendor support contract, and the company provided a patch for our problem right away."
What concerns Mark is that previous state funding for infrastructure maintenance, which provided a substantial portion of the budget needed to keep the networks up to date, has been re-appropriated in recent years. Without these dedicated funds, there is a higher risk that some parts of the network could eventually become obsolete, and will no longer be supported by providers.
Particularly troublesome are the switches that fan out connections to individual buildings from the network backbone; those switches are already 12 years old and will no longer be supported by the vendor starting in 2016.
UB’s Wi-Fi network has long needed an upgrade, with frequent feedback from the campus community that UB’s Wi-Fi can be spotty and unreliable. Over the next three years, these problems will be addressed through the UB Wi-Fi Boost project, however, as UBIT doubles the number of access points and upgrade UB’s networks to the latest and fastest Wi-Fi standard.
Despite the challenges ahead, Mark has confidence in the capabilities of his team.
When I ask how UBIT will continue to manage the networks in the coming years, Mark replies, "We’re lucky to have highly skilled, dedicated people in our organization. There really are no better engineers. Ours are first class."
It's the kind of team needed to keep UB’s ever more complex networks up and running, whatever the challenges.