Oxford University manages booming student data demand with Dell SonicWall network tools

ComputerworldUK speaks to Simon Mortimore, computing manager at Oxford University's Exeter College

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Oxford University’s Exeter College is using Dell’s SonicWall firewall and network management tools to facilitate a significant increase in traffic on its network, balancing the growing data demands of both students and researchers.

The SonicWall NSA and Analyzer tools have given the 700-year old college much more flexiblility in assigning bandwidth at a granular level, ensuring better access to university services, according to Exeter College's computing manager, Simon Mortimore.

“[In the past] we were imposing lots of rules and putting hard limits on the bandwidth. [This meant that] people were having trouble getting online and then having trouble receiving the service they need,” he told ComputerworldUK at Dell’s Innovation Day event in Copenhagen. 

“Now we are able to analyse what traffic is going through and make much more tailored judgements. We have been able to say 'yes' to people rather than 'no'."

While the college supports around 750 IT users, it provides connectivity to a large number of people throughout the entire university, which has 40,000 students and academics. “Because of our location within within the city, other students come and use our libraries and resources, our wireless systems saw 23,000 unique devices last week,” Mortimore said.

He said demand on its network has grown at a huge rate in recent years, in part due to increased online media consumption, while each student has three devices registered on the network, on average. 

"It is ridiculous...this year's growth is averaging about 70 percent growth on last year, and last year was about 40 percent, and the year before 20 percent,” he said.

There are also requirements to provide more services to students online.

“Our learning style is quite traditional - it is very much about face to face teaching, but our students are also very active in working together and increasingly our teaching materials are all hosted online, and there is an expectation that there will be a certain amount of video conferencing,” he said.

The SonicWall tools have enabled the college to balance the needs of students with those of researchers, which are often required to upload large datasets, Mortimore said.

“We have a multi-pronged approach where we use IAM [identity access management] to identify who is connecting, put them in an appropriate silo and then within those different siloed networks we have the prioritisation, so the students all have a base level of connectivity, but the academics go into another category where they can highly prioritise their uplinks into the virtual learning environment," Mortimore said.

“So, for example, a student can only consume at a rate of one person to the VLE [virtual learning environment], but an academic could upload a huge amount of information much faster, and we identify them according how they have logged into the network.”

The firewall tools also provides a more targeted approach to security, Mortimore said.

“One of the things that is very critical to us is the ‘in-steam’ antivirus protection,” he said. “We do quite a lot of that at main gateway out to the internet, but we are [now] able to do antivirus inspection as the traffic transfers between a client machine and the servers. 

“So it helps to secure what would have been just one trusted network, and actually see what is gong on between the servers and clients because we have put the SonicWall rule in there." 

He added: “It gives us a lot of visibility as to what sort of traffic happening, what threats are picked up, and provides us with more security.”

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