Mobility Motivation – Abu Dhabi University


he University made a strategic decision to introduce a multi-layered e-learning initiative which required all courses to exist in Blackboard in addition to recording and hosting recorded lectures using cutting edge technologies. Another critical requirement was to develop a mobile app to further enhance students’ experience at ADU. All of this made a high-capacity network with larger bandwidth mandatory to sustain the expected increase in demand for backbone infrastructure and Internet access speed.With so much depending on the network, the university’s IT team decided to go ahead with an infrastructure revamp. Though suggestions of an overhaul had already been mooted before then, the decisive requirements got the ball rolling right away.

Getting approval for the refresh strategy wasn’t difficult for Chilet’s team. Improving data centres to accommodate mobility had been part of ADU’s roadmap since its foundation ten year ago, complementing Chilet’s decision.


onetheless, concerns remained around a risk of technology failure. The plan was to reduce the risk by ensuring redundancy in both edge switches, core switches and firewalls. Another key concern was integration. A revamp of the wireless infrastructure to allow for high density and larger capacity necessitated an upgrade in bandwidth capacity so that students would be able to access the learning management system – Student Information System (SIS) and Office 365, over the wireless. The moment a student would step on campus, a mobile learning environment would be enabled.

Considering all specifications of the IP-network upgrade required, ADU released a detailed RFP inviting a large number of vendors. Based on strong customer references as well as a strong presence in the education sector EMW emerged as the standout candidate for the implementation.

That was when Chilet and his colleague Shabeer Mangattuparambil, IT Manager, ADU, realised the magnitude of the challenge. What lay ahead was a challenging reality – since ADU’s opening in 2004, the entire network infrastructure of the university was designed and built on Cisco network technologies, and had received small and incremental upgrades to cope with the growth.

“It was a big risk we took but we had confidence in EMW’s expertise,” Mangattuparambil says. “Had there been a technical fault, the university’s reputation would have suffered as we were now moving from a 100% Cisco infrastructure to Juniper’s. Then there was a risk of failing to map redundancy as the entire network of ADU was previously supported by only one core switch. All the updated systems had to be backed up this time as enabling redundancy played a key role in choosing EMW – in addition to pricing, technology support and partnership management.

”It took Chilet’s team three months to migrate a total of 34 Independent Distribution Frames (IDFs) from both campuses to the new core switches, additional cache appliances and firewalls. The university holds summer sessions, and this had to be considered in terms of timing.

Sections of the buildings that were not in session were migrated during the day, while those in session were migrated in the evenings and during weekends. “ADU’s IT team and EMW’s engineers often worked beyond midnight so day classes wouldn’t be disturbed,” said Chilet. “Initially, connectivity had to be maintained between Cisco and Juniper as the IDFs were shifted one by one. When patching, older cables had to be replaced with newer ones and the team had to get rid of the spaghetti accumulated in the network cabinets over nine years. As a result both campuses went live on Juniper in July.” Compared to before, a redundancy in the core switch assured the IT team of business continuity.

“Should any of the edge switches fail, it would be replaced within 8 hours by the EMW’s team; this goes to demonstrate their commitment to the project – the partner’s role doesn’t end once a piece of hardware is installed,” Mangattuparambil says. EMW also encouraged the university to sign back-to-back support contracts with Juniper and other technology partners providing firewalls including Palo Alto, IronPort and McAfee. EMW also holds a renewable Annual Maintenance Contract (AMC) with the university.

The next step for the IT team was to upgrade the network’s bandwidth speed as the base was already strengthened. Chilet’s team moved the ‘wired’ wireless network throughout both the campuses to a fiber optic cable network that increased bandwidth usage capacity from 10 GB to 40 GB. Juniper Packeteer Packet Shaper, was also installed by EMW, helping the university control bandwidth usage.

“Following the overhaul, the network speed was tested via direct uplinks as switch stacking was not implemented,” Chilet says. “Our strategy was to establish a direct home-run and redundant fiber optic network. Immediately after bringing the core switch online, we tested the uplinks so any system failure could be immediately identified. Cables from the redundant switch were colour keyed to make easy to identify backup fiber pairs of data centres.”

Today the success of the initiative is visible in numbers of users online on the university network. The network supports 7,000 users – 6,500 students and 500 faculty and admin staff. From the going live date, the IT team hasn’t received a single complaint in terms of connectivity. The students have access to all the e-services since as the university is BYOD friendly; the students are welcome to bring any device they want and access all the resources – they come in and connect without hassle, adds Chilet.

Being able to accommodate an easy access to the network is also a crucial performance benchmark for the IT team, who are currently monitoring the success of the upgraded wireless infrastructure. ClearPass Access Management, deployed by a partner, monitors all access points and keeps a BYOD-friendly infrastructure healthy. The upgraded infrastructure also supports a plethora of mission critical apps. These include a campus-wide ERP also used by ADU Holding Group companies, active directory multiple domain controllers, Sharepoint, MS Exchange, Qlik-view BI application and VDI. The university hosts 60 servers in a VMware virtual environment. Chilet expects the number of virtualised servers to grow into the future as a move to the cloud will be the next big step.

Currently both campuses are connected through Ankabut’s reliable network and virtual classrooms are anticipated to gain momentum. Pre-recorded lectures are already being broadcast from the college of engineering and college of IT, Chilet said. These will ultimately lead to live lectures run across campuses. As processes take shape, the IT team aims to bring in more governance over the next few years. Looking back, Chilet is confident of the current state of the infrastructure. “The university will soon launch a campus web application – EDI – that aims to enable access of classroom schedules, email, LMS, integrate smart alerts and other e-learning apps through a single sign-on portal which will also take advantage of the efficiency of the upgraded infrastructure,” Chilet says