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2011 Merit Member Conference Surpasses Attendance Record

ANN ARBOR – For the third consecutive year, the Merit Member Conference established a new record for attendance, hosting 315 technology professionals and IT leaders over two days in Ann Arbor. Since the initial conference in 1999, the Merit Member Conference has steadily grown to become one of the premier events related to networking and advanced technologies.

This year’s event featured national speakers and over 30 breakout sessions, covering network research, virtualization, security, data centers and many other significant topics.

Featured Speakers

“GENI: Inventing Networks of the Future”
Chip Elliott, GENI Project

The Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) project is providing network researchers with a virtual laboratory for exploring new Internet configurations on a large scale. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, GENI pushes network experimentation to new limits.
Chip Elliott from the GENI Project
Chip Elliott said GENI is creating huge new opportunities for leading-edge research and rapid innovation. Network researchers can request slices of the GENI network and then pursue new methods of network programming and configuration. Network slices can use resources across the United States and install software into firewalls, routers, clouds and more within the GENI network to create new breakthroughs in networking.

“GENI is a test bed that real people can tune in and try out,” Elliott said.

GENI provides the basic infrastructure, giving researchers the ability to do repeatable experiments or “in the wild” testing. GENI has partnered with Internet2 and National Lambda Rail, and 14 university campuses are participating in the project. Commercial organizations have contributed equipment to the project to help researchers pursue future Internets in a real-world environment.

The next GENI engineering conference will be held in July 2011, and network researchers from U.S. universities are welcome to attend.

“No-Tech Hacking”
Johnny Long, Hackers for Humanity

Johnny Long
Is the person looking over your shoulder or taking a photo doing something that could later harm you or your organization? Public places offer ample opportunities for hackers or “bad guys” to gather personal or organizational information, according to Johnny Long.

Individuals should be aware of their surroundings when using a laptop or mobile device in an airport, mall or other public location. “Little things that appear insignificant could be important,” according to Johnny Long.

By “shoulder surfing” and taking photos of a person using a laptop computer, a hacker can often gather valuable nuggets of information, especially if a person’s email program, desktop, or web browser toolbar is visible. In a series of shoulder-surfing photos, Long demonstrated how easy it can be for an experienced hacker to glean significant details from photographs.

Personnel badges can assist with identifying people in an organization, but in the wrong hands a name badge could be used to gain unauthorized access to places within an organization, according to Long. People who wear them outside of work could provide a hacker with an opportunity to photograph a badge, which could later be used to produce a forged identification. Long described how a hacker or criminal could try to gain entrance into a building with a forged ID.

Dumpster diving, hotel network hacking, and parking-lot surveillance were other hacker information gathering methods that Long described during his presentation.

“Hackers never sleep,” he said. To protect yourself or your organization from a hacker, Long said a person should not be afraid to report if a suspicious person to either campus security or the police. “My advice to you is to never allow this in your building.”

To close, Long described his efforts to help needy children in Africa.

“Living with Disruption: News from the Frontlines”
James Hilton, University of Virginia

James Hilton speaks at the Merit Member Conference
Managing change and recognizing the fundamental forces behind change were the primary subjects of James Hilton’s featured presentation on the second day of the Merit Member Conference.

“Change is emergent,” noted Hilton. “It’s not planned out in some linear form.”

Organizations can be proactive by identifying and adjusting to new opportunities as they emerge. By instilling a discipline of “fine tuning as you go” and refining plans, an organization can better deal with emerging conditions, according to Hilton. He described how many years ago people could see where the railroad was building its infrastructure and then build their houses nearby to be close to the railroad.

Fundamental forces of change can drastically impact an industry, and Hilton described how unbundling and commoditization have significantly changed the music and steel industries.

For many years, the music industry had relied on bundling popular songs with less popular songs on albums. When iTunes and other online retailers began selling individual songs, many consumers changed their buying habits and began to purchase only the songs that they liked. The new buying practice broke the bundling model that the music industry had used for decades and forced the industry to adapt to the changing marketplace.

In a different example, Hilton described how commoditization has altered the steel industry. Commoditization is when a producer standardizes a process to create a cheaper, lesser-quality product to gain market share. In the 1970s, the Japanese began to create mini steel mills to produce low-end, cheap steel. As the mini steel mills gained more market share, producers in the United States changed their strategy and began to sell less low-quality steel, instead focusing on the more expensive premium steel market. The new strategy kept U.S. steel mills in business, but when the mini steel mills in Japan began to produce higher-grade steel, the commoditization of steel completely changed the marketplace. The American steel industry was forced to adapt to the new market conditions.

Hilton noted that for-profit education organizations, such as the University of Phoenix, are commoditizing educational curriculum by standardizing lectures, textbooks, and testing. Learning through discovery and individual instructors are not important in commoditized education since each class and the related tests and homework assignments are the same, no matter where it is taught. Hilton said that the commoditization of education may pose a threat for non-profit universities and colleges in the future.

Brief Highlights of Breakout Sessions

“The Fine Art of Negotiation”
Theresa Rowe, Oakland University

During one of the most popular breakout sessions during the conference, Teresa Rowe provided attendees a basic understanding of negotiating tactics.

The goals of negotiation are to create a win-win situation for both parties, set a course of action, and to come to a mutual agreement. For the parties involved in a negotiation, it is important to know what your parameters are prior to beginning the process. Determine the best case scenario and worst case scenario that could be achieved through the negotiation, and if you are faced with choosing an option that is worse than the worst case scenario, it’s best to walk away. A negotiator must protect himself from a detrimental outcome.

Rowe provided a quick overview of the types of negotiation: traditional/positional, information-based, interest-based and creative negotiation.

“Managing User Roles Within a Complex IT Environment”
Steven Tharp, Davenport University

In 1999, Davenport University merged their 22 trees of user information into a single university-wide directory as part of the move from a mainframe system to SCT/Banner. With over 100,000 accounts, user management is major challenge. Davenport has segmented users into eight business roles (student, alumni, staff, etc.) to provide access to several campus resources, including email and Active Directory. Steven Tharp demonstrated how he has been using beta software to verify user access to campus resources by testing many different scenarios (such as a student graduates, an employee who is also an alumnus leaves for a different job, a student is hired for work-study, and others).

“Virtual Desktop Deployment at Mott Community College”
Randy Schapel and Marc Smith, Mott Community College

Mott Community College has over 3,000 computers on multiple campuses, and only six help desk staff to support it all. To simplify desktop maintenance, they investigated ways to implement virtual desktops. After thorough consideration of Citrix and VMware, they ended up choosing VMware.

After implementing the new virtual desktops system, they have found that it is important to buy lots of disk space. It is also important to consider the number of computer user groups when setting up the virtual desktop environment. They also recommended paying close attention to PC management after the implementation.

Randy Schapel said Merit’s high-capacity, low-latency network is ideal for implementing virtualization.

“Lessons Learned in a Centralized Approach to Digital Signage: Technology, Content, Support and Politics, too!”
Patrick J. Gossman and David Fleig, Wayne State University

Patrick Gossman described Wayne State University’s planning and implementation of digital signage at its campus locations. “We wanted to do this because it looks cool,” Gossman said.

The project became a little more complex than expected, and many parts of the university were involved, including the president’s office, marketing, and facilities. WSU’s image and branding were central goals to the project, but individual units within the University were allowed to have input on the signage content in their buildings if they contributed funds for the project. Following an RFP (Request for Proposals) process for the software and hardware, the project created over 40 digital signs in 25 campus buildings.

Informal polls have found that the weather and time are favorite elements of WSU’s signage. Campus news, events and instructor features are the most common content for the signs, but individual units have requested specialized content, such as a live stream of CNN for WSU’s School of Business. Gossman said, “Content is the biggest (part of the signage). Where are you going to get it, and who is going to produce it?”

David Fleig provided technical details about WSU’s signage process. The University used virtualization and a TCP/IP environment to create a centralized sign management system. Flat-panel displays, small-factor player computers, software and wall mounts were the equipment used for the project, with the average sign costing about $7500. Signs use MPEG-4, 720p high-definition streams for content. The small-factor computers are networked back to the central location and are connected locally to the displays, mounted behind the screens.

One issue with the small-factor computers is that they produce a lot of heat, and if they are not properly ventilated, they can overheat and fry the internal hard-drive. Fleig recommended having spare equipment on-hand to quickly resolve a hardware failure.

“Higher Education Application Tracker (HEAT)”
Randy Jobski, Lansing Community College

To help higher education institutions share information and expertise related to computer applications, Lansing Community College created the Higher Education Application Tracker (HEAT). The web tool is a free service for community colleges, private colleges, and universities. Currently, nine institutions are using HEAT, and any higher education institution may join.

“Connecting to REACH-3MC and Merit’s 10G Backbone with ADVA Optical Networking”
Brian Savory, ADVA Optical Networking and Elwood Downing, Merit Network

ADVA was selected as the round I optical hardware provider for the REACH-3MC project through an RFP process. The advantage that ADVA can provide is low or high-bandwidth connectivity to Merit services or a storage area network. The ADVA equipment is smart technology, which means it can learn and understand Merit’s network and lead to less maintenance.

On the REACH-3MC backbone, Merit Network will be able to provision 40 waves at 10 Gbps, which can easily be upgraded to 80 Gbps if needed. “For the first time since MiLR, Merit will have its own optical transport system on its backbone,” Elwood Downing said. “The network will provide instantaneous capacity for Members.”

The new fiber infrastructure will enable Merit to offer the Merit Transport Service, which will be a point-to-point connection at a flat rate (not billed by bandwidth). The service can be beneficial for Merit Members with multiple locations or satellite sites.

“Need More Data Center Space? Think Twice About a Brick-and-Mortar Solution”
Dick Boyd, University of Michigan

The University of Michigan has several data centers in the Ann Arbor area, and to satisfy the growing demand for computing capacity, IT management began investigating ways to add data center space for research activities. It was determined that a brick-and-mortar solution would be too expensive and take too long to complete, so they began to consider high-density modular data center options, which are about the size of a railroad car or large shipping container. After comparing several choices, they determined that a modular data center could create the additional Tier 1 capacity needed while providing greater efficiency at a lower cost.

“Not Just Your Internet Service Provider – MeritTransport and Merit RADb”
Manish Karir and Larry Blunk, Merit Network

Later this year, Merit Network will be debuting its MeritTransport Service, according to Larry Blunk. The new service will provide point-to-point connectivity at 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps. MeritTransport can be used for remote campus interconnects or provide backhaul for Internet service providers and mobile providers.

Manish Karir provided an overview of Merit RADb and its new capabilities. Thousands of organizations that operate networks have registered their routing policies in Merit RADb to facilitate the operation of the Internet, including Internet service providers, universities, and business enterprises.

In early 2011, Merit RADb was upgraded to offer powerful management and diagnostic tools. Merit RADb’s user portal provides various consistency checks to ensure registered routing objects are correct and alerts members to Internet routing changes that might affect the visibility and reachability of their networks.

“Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI): Panel Discussion”
Jim Moran and Derek Harkness, Merit Network; Craig Chapman, Data Strategy; Randy Schapel, Mott Community College; Jim Lofquist, Macomb Community College

Jim Moran moderated a panel discussion on Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, which also served as an open forum for audience members to ask questions. Among the topics discussed were: use cases, design and implementation process, and complete desktop vs. the virtualization of a single application.

Currently, VDI solutions work best for general information applications such as word processing and email. For large, bit-intensive apps like specialized, three-dimensional CAD drawing software, the VDI technology just isn’t there yet—though Chapman was quick to point out that it will be within a year or so. Two dimensional applications like Adobe software can work well on an optimized VDI.

A common theme was the idea of experimentation and failure, all the panelists emphasized that to create the ideal VDI solution for your organization (whether it be education or for-profit enterprise), you must experiment and be prepared to make changes along the way. That is the only way to reach an ideal solution.

Finally, panelists encouraged audience members to:

Do what works best in YOUR unique environment.
Make sure you’re delivering the best experience for end users.
Collaborate with users, upper management and IT staff.
If there is something you want, build support in your end users, they will drive the demand to make it happen.
Embrace your community.

“Geographical Communities: Making a Difference”
Elwood Downing and Jim Lundberg, Merit Network; David Zenz, Hillsdale College; Eric Macy, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities (BPU); Vicky Kropp and Mark Grunder, Alpena Community College

Merit Network’s Elwood Downing moderated a panel discussion with individuals from organizations in Alpena, Escanaba and Hillsdale. Organizations in each of the communities have collaborated on the creation of local fiber-ring networks, improving network connectivity and lowering costs.

David Zenz and Eric Macy described how organizations in Hillsdale collaborated to create an intra-city fiber ring. In December 2007, the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities (BPU), Hillsdale College, Hillsdale County ISD and Merit Network finalized a partnership that created the Hillsdale Community Network. The local fiber ring was completed in October 2008, connecting three organizations and a technology park in Hillsdale. The local network ring was connected by fiber to Merit’s backbone network in 2009. The network ring has been very successful, and others in the community have seen the benefits of the collaboration. Jackson Community College, South Central Michigan Works, and Hillsdale County have joined the partnership and attached to the network.

Jim Lundberg, who recently retired from Bay de Noc Community College, said that organizations in Escanaba have come together with the goal of getting more affordable high-speed bandwidth in the area. The geographic community in Escanaba is a loosely configured consortium that includes Bay de Noc Community College, Delta Schoolcraft ISD, Escanaba Public Library, the City of Escanaba, Delta County and others.

Vicky Kropp and Mark Grunder discussed how the Alpena Regional Fiber Consortium (ARFC) was formed and how it has benefited organizations in Alpena. ARFC was formed in 2006 and currently has 14 main members with over 40 connected sites. The consortium has allowed participants to improve their network connectivity, as well as share knowledge and resources.

Grunder mentioned that the geographic communities in Alpena and Hillsdale are discussing ways to work together—sharing networking expertise and economic development practices.

“Rodeo in the China Shop: Renovating a Production Server Room”
Joel Fletcher and Steve Thomas, Western Michigan University

Western Michigan University’s data center that is adjacent to the campus library was designed during the late 1980s and was completed in 1991. Joel Fletcher said that the design of the data center was changed to meet the architectural design of the library, which caused the layout of the data center to be less than ideal. The building was also originally designed for a mainframe computer, and after 20 years, the cooling systems, lighting and generator were inadequate to meet the current needs. When the air conditioning began to break down, WMU decided it was time to update the facilities.

WMU’s facilities development office solicited bids for the project, and the designated improvements would greatly improve the performance of the data center.

During construction, precautions were taken to ensure that adequate cooling was delivered to the data center when the old air-conditioning units were removed and replaced. Power work was done during off-hours, and most cutting/fabrication was done off-site. Security measures were also taken to protect the University’s systems and equipment. Five, 22-ton glycol dry cooler air-conditioning units and a new power distribution unit were installed. An under-floor, cable-management raceway system was built, and a new generator was added to cover air-conditioning. The server racks within the facility were standardized and realigned to be square with the floor tiles.

The new data center has worked well since its completion. The facilities management department estimated that WMU saved $3,000 in power costs during March and April.

“Dealing with Device Proliferation in your Wireless Networks”
Dave Mexicotte, Cisco Systems

The demand for wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi) is growing on college campuses. Wi-Fi is now mission critical, according to Dave Mexicotte, and smartphone adoption is growing at over 50 percent annually. Some recommendations that Mexicotte offered for improving wireless networks included:

Migrate to 802.11n to enhance network performance.
Configure the wireless network to provide reliable network access to wifi enabled devices.
Reduce coverage holes on campus.

“Alternative to Big Backup: Life Cycle Management, Object-Based Storage, and Self-Protecting Storage Systems”
Chris Robertson, Cambridge Computer

Chris Robertson described the benefits of an Object-Based Archival File System using tape and the ideal characteristics of a back-up system. A good back-up system has redundancy, offers replication capability, can be checked to ensure data integrity, and provides an appropriate long-term cost.

“Virtualization Journey and Looking into the Future”
Bob Good, VMware

Bob Good provided a basic introduction to cloud-computing terms and approaches. An organization that is considering the move to virtualization should do a self-assessment of its IT needs, including existing infrastructure and applications.

Good also offered a general overview of using VMware for virtualization.

“Always-On Learning: Is Your School Ready for the Digital Revolution?”
Brandon Williams, Motorola Solutions; Sam Kincaid, MapleNet Wireless

Mobile devices and laptops are becoming more common in K-12 and higher education settings. Brandon Williams covered the challenges of establishing, maintaining and supporting campus wireless networks.

Wireless networks with high-density environments can frustrate students and teachers, leading to more calls to support staff.

Real-time applications and video over a wireless network are sensitive to latency and delays.

Remote troubleshooting can be a challenge when fixing a wireless network.

Merit Advanced Networking Symposium

Faculty members and graduate students at Michigan universities were invited to present during the Merit Advanced Networking Symposium. Four presentations on the first day of the conference focused on academic research projects and cutting-edge applications:

“Energy and Spectrum Efficient Seamless Storage for Mobile Devices”
Z. Morley Mao, University of Michigan

Z. Morley Mao described the design of low-latency storage support for mobile devices, which uses the Lyapunov optimization framework to intelligently schedule data upload and pre-fetching.

“Integrating Health Care Education Through an Interdisciplinary Project”
Sharie Falan and Bernard Han, Western Michigan University

This presentation dealt with an interdisciplinary approach to health care education through partnerships with local hospitals and students from two WMU colleges.

“Writing Security Enhanced Linux Policies for your Applications”
Charles J. Antonelli, University of Michigan

Charles J. Antonelli provided an introduction to SELinux and showed attendees how to write effective policies.

“From Open-Loop Sensing to Closed-Loop, Real-Time Sensing and Control: Challenges to Wireless Networking”
Hongwei Zhang, Ph.D., Wayne State University

Wireless networking is often used for real-time sensoring related to mechanical equipment. This presentation offered a solution for addressing co-channel interference in wireless communication and enabling real-time routing in highly-dynamic settings.

Merit Awards

After lunch on the second day, Don Welch presented the 2011 Merit Awards, which recognize individuals and organizations that have provided leadership in technology and assisted the Merit community. The five winners were introduced during the ceremony, and each spoke briefly after receiving an award.

Merit Network’s Award for Innovation in Networking and Information Technology
Kurt DeMaagd, Michigan State University

Merit Network’s Award for Community Building
Joseph “J.C.” Morris, Michigan Works!

Meritorious Service Award
Patrick Gossman, Wayne State University
Mark Grunder, Alpena Community College
Angie Michelini, The Library Network

2012 Merit Member Conference

The next Merit Member Conference is tentatively scheduled to occur in May 2012 in the Ann Arbor area.