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Building Community & Sharing Knowledge at the 2007 Merit Member Conference

ANN ARBOR – With the theme “Connecting Organizations, Building Community” for its annual Merit Member Conference, Merit Network brought individuals from education, government, libraries and other non-profits together for two days of informative presentations, instructive sessions, and interactive roundtable discussions.

Kenneth C. Green of the Campus Computing Project delivered the keynote address, which canvassed information technology in higher education. Green noted that expectations regarding information technology have changed over the last three decades and that perceptions of new technological developments have gone from “cute to compelling” and from “great aspirations to accountability.”

“We live in an era of evidence, where proof of technology’s impact must be given to stakeholders,” Green said.

Students from the web generation, who have had experience with technology all their lives, are now arriving on college campuses with the expectation that technology will be available. In addition, higher education institutions are facing greater pressure to provide “the much promised productivity bang for all the IT bucks.”

Green presented results from the 2006 Campus Computing Project’s survey of chief information officers at higher educational institutions. According to the results, the most critical IT issues in higher education today are network and data security, instructional integration, and upgrading/replacing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).

Other survey findings included:

  • Most educational institutions have created acceptable use policies.
  • Some educational institutions are still lagging in creating network security plans.
  • Wireless networks are available on an increasing number of campuses.
  • Learning management systems are becoming more prevalent at institutions.

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IPTV and Video Over the Internet

With the rapid rise of YouTube and video over IP, video distribution over the Internet poses the next great challenge for networks, according to William B. Norton of Equinix, Inc. Norton delivered a thought-provoking presentation which demonstrated how cost and bandwidth usage across a network can vary based on the video delivery method.

Norton compared four modes of video distribution: Transit, Content Distribution Network, Peering, and Peer-To-Peer Network (P2P). He concluded that a Content Distribution Network would be the most expensive mode for large distributions with an estimated transit fee of over $2 million and a cost of $.24 per video downloaded. P2P, on the other hand, would be the cheapest type of distribution with estimated transit fees of $5,000 and a cost per video downloaded at $.0018.

Norton concluded that P2P was the most cost-effective model for widespread video distribution, but issues such as router capacity and backbone capacity could create bottlenecks as more and more videos are distributed over the Internet.

Another hot topic of conversation at the Merit Member Conference was IPTV and the challenges of delivering live TV over a network. Several presentations gave attendees a better understanding of the opportunities and difficulties involved with delivering IPTV to an educational institution.

Laurence Kirchmeier from Merit Network announced that Merit would be collaborating with Pradip Patel from the University of Michigan and Dr. Sugih Jamin from Zattoo to investigate IPTV further by testing Zattoo, an IPTV content provider, over its backbone network. He also said that Merit was interested in offering Michigan universities that have their own TV stations the opportunity to deliver their station’s content over IPTV as part of the test.

Sakai and Community Source

On Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Charles Severance, Executive Director of the Sakai Foundation, described how universities around the world are collaborating to create exciting new software products. Severance detailed how community source software offerings, such as Sakai, have created a new approach to creating enterprise applications.

Community source software relies on volunteers to collaborate on software development. Severance said Sakai has 53 volunteer developers from around the world who meet regularly to propose changes and to implement new ideas. Community source development produces applications that are tailored to suit many users and organizations while still enabling individual organizations to customize the software for their needs.

Severance said the major benefits of community source are that organizations own the source code, can submit customizations for future software versions, and can choose whether or not to upgrade the software on their own timetable. Previously, organizations have either been forced to develop their own software or have been tied to corporate software providers who dictate upgrade schedules and stop supporting legacy versions of a product when future versions become available.

Severance described how community source offerings, like Sakai and Kuali, have thrived in a development environment where universities are willing to pool their financial resources toward the creation of enterprise software applications. For a relatively low investment, universities can utilize software that would have taken a significantly greater amount of money if they created it themselves, according to Severance.
Low-Cost, Open Source Offerings

Low-cost software was also the subject of two very popular breakout sessions on the first day of the Merit Member Conference.

Eric Grandstaff from North Central Michigan College compared low- and high-cost media production software and offered tips on inexpensive recording devices and streaming servers.

Later, Pete Hoffswell from Davenport University demonstrated how a remote network could be managed using the Network Security Toolkit, a simple menu-driven piece of open source software.

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From Security to Videoconferencing with Nature

New this year were roundtable discussions, which occurred on both days and offered attendees opportunities to interact with presenters. The new forum allowed for in-depth questions and explanations and also provided additional opportunities for Merit’s members to collaborate and share ideas.

The conference also provided an opportunity for individuals from Merit’s Member organizations to demonstrate and describe their recent projects:

  • Nathan Labadie of Wayne State University talked about how the university has increased their network security since 2000 by adding firewalls, anomaly detection, and other measures.
     
  • Gregory Lozeau and Joel Fletcher from Western Michigan University (WMU) gave a synopsis of how WMU implemented a new identity management solution and the impact it had across the university’s computer systems.
     
  • Mitchell Planck and Chris Cassell from IAS.NET detailed how they created a rider tracking system for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority using wireless networking and dedicated computer systems.
     
  • Paul Groll from the State of Michigan, Andrew Mutch from Waterford Public Library, and Eli Neiburger from the Ann Arbor District Library shared their experiences with wireless networks in a public setting.
     
  • Dennis Buckmaster of St. Clair Regional Educational Service Center led a demonstration of the K12 organization’s videoconferencing program at the Pine River Nature Center, which utilizes various kinds of wireless technology to bring nature into the classroom.
     
  • Pete Hoffswell from Davenport University demonstrated how the university is using a wiki to maintain its network operations documentation.
     
  • Steve Glowacki of Oakland University (OU) talked about evolving backup technologies and OU’s disaster recovery strategies.
Closing Addresses

To close the event, Dr. Patrick Gossman from Wayne State University and Donald Welch from Merit Network provided addresses that gave a glimpse at current and future opportunities in networking.

Gossman addressed the possibilities of WiMAX, a wireless technology that he called “WiFi on steroids.” He described how the licensed wave spectrum between 2.5 Ghz and 2.7 Ghz has evolved from a frequency used for educational TV to a new mode of transmitting mobile data. Manufacturers are developing new products to utilize WiMAX, and Gossman said possible opportunities for the new wireless technology could include “always on” wireless connectivity for students on campus and municipal networks in rural areas.

To conclude, Donald Welch described Merit Network’s mission and recapped the organization’s accomplishments over the past year, which included new fiber projects and new research grants for the DARPA Control Plane and other research projects. Welch said Merit is facilitating opportunities for collaboration in Michigan, including geographic community fiber connections in Alpena, Hillsdale, and Petoskey.