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Advanced network supports new learning model at Northampton Uni

The University of Northampton is preparing to open a new campus at a cost of £330m, and has turned to Cisco to supply an intelligent, secure network to support its innovative learning model

The University of Northampton is kitting out its brand new £330m Waterside campus – due to open to students in September 2018 – with a digital, intelligent and highly secure network from Cisco, using advanced networking techniques to support the changing needs of students and staff, and introduce new ways of learning.

The Active Blended Learning model, as implemented at Northampton, is in essence a move away from the traditional broadcast style of learning, delivered to large groups in a lecture theatre, to a mode of teaching that places the emphasis on collaborative learning.

In this teaching environment, students no longer sit passively absorbing information in lectures, but actively engage with the course, interacting with course content in smaller peer-group environments, with tutors facilitating on problems and challenges related to the subject.

The blended part of the model is about bringing together online and face-to-face learning, with students setting the context for the active part of the course in their own time using online, multimedia elements, often though not always on their own devices.

Rob Palfreman, head of IT services at the university, explains: “Most universities to date have delivered teaching in a very standard way. Our view, and one that is widely held across the sector, is that in many cases, that is not as effective as it needs to be.

“Given our raison d’être is education, it is important for us to provide our core service in the best way possible, so we have baked into our strategy this new way of teaching.”

Active Blended Learning is not unique to the University of Northampton by any means, but according to Palfreman, it is currently the only university in the UK to have adopted it as its default teaching methodology. This has proven to be extremely taxing on the university’s existing infrastructure.

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On top of that, the university was facing the same challenges faced by any other tertiary institution – an influx of young people born in the late 1990s with very demanding requirements around their devices, and in Northampton’s case, they were often having to work in IT labs that, save for occasional PC upgrades, were basically unchanged in setup and function since they were toddlers.

“We had traditional networks, a Wi-Fi system designed for coverage – not performance – and a legacy datacentre infrastructure with some legacy applications needing to be run there. We had virtualised our datacentre servers and refreshed our access points [APs], but generally speaking, the infrastructure in the university didn’t serve students particularly well,” says Palfreman.

Additionally, with its traditional leather and shoemaking industries a shadow of their former selves, Northampton Borough Council is steering through a number of regeneration projects in an attempt to reposition the town with the future digital economy in mind. The University of Northampton – which is a relatively new institution formed from the merger of a number of technical colleges – is core to this, and both town and gown are working together on Northampton’s reinvention.

“We’re looking to create a university town with a future-focused element, which is to be a digital leader in UK higher education,” says Palfreman.

“This is a new build on a brownfield site with a clear strategy from the organisation – we wanted to continue with our social impact agenda and provide a supportive environment for students, not just to give them a degree but the skills they need to transition from higher education into the workplace.”

Starting from scratch

The move to the Waterside regeneration site has proven to be the ideal opportunity to start from scratch and design an ICT environment that would help fulfil all these goals.

“I went to market with a set of requirements around these new ways of working, teaching and learning that we had already researched and validated our thinking on, but generally speaking it was an open book in terms of whom we might choose. I did want, however, to be sure we did the datacentre through to the edge under one roof, if possible,” says Palfreman.

While there was some Cisco equipment on site, the university’s old network incorporated hardware from many other suppliers, while security was likewise a “patchwork quilt” of products, the datacentre contained mostly HPE kit, and other supporting technologies seemed to have been acquired on an ad hoc basis.

“At a strategic level I wanted to consolidate and simplify interactions and integration, and also to consolidate our suppliers,” says Palfreman.

Top to toe Cisco

For Palfreman, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the Cisco network build was the need to – at long last – offer all the university’s students the ability to work anywhere with any device, securely and flexibly, and access all their coursework resources, including those that they would have traditionally had to use a university workstation to get at.

“Changing how we manage the network to support that was something that through research, when we looked at software-defined networking (SDN), we recognised it to be the way forward. Enabling mobility without compromising on security was what we wanted, Cisco was ahead of the game there and the rest fell into place,” he says.

In the end, he chose an advanced end-to-end Cisco network – the foundations of which network comprise Cisco’s Catalyst 9000 switching technology, which lays the groundwork for advanced network management and security capabilities that will let the IT team keep up with the dynamic threat landscape and deal with the complexity brought about by pervasive usage of mobility and public cloud services by network users, as well as allowing for more internet of things (IoT) applications to be used.

The all-important wireless network will use its Aironet wireless APs to keep up with skyrocketing student and staff demands for bandwidth. The Wi-Fi service is set to cover all indoor and outdoor spaces across the Waterside campus, and will in future be used by the IT team to develop new location-based services for students – such as helping them find free workspace.

In the background, the university is implementing software-defined access to improve the IT team’s ability to design, provision and manage network services, automating business intent to reduce manual errors and maintain a consistent experience for users.

On the network management and security side, it will be using DNA Center and DNA Centre Assurance to provide command and control capabilities through single-pane-of-glass management while cutting the time and money the IT department spends on troubleshooting by improving visibility of users, devices and apps.

Meanwhile, encrypted traffic analytics will exploit machine learning techniques to deliver deeper insight into threats lurking in encrypted traffic and Cisco’s Stealthwatch will deliver real-time analytics across network flows traversing the campus to combat anonymous traffic. Additionally, Cisco Application-Centric Infrastructure (ACI) will provide robust firewalling and micro-segmentation of datacentre workloads across the university’s two main sites – this will include automation of hypervisor virtual networking.

Intent-based networks a future goal

Ultimately, the network elements selected by the University of Northampton could potentially help it move towards  the current “holy grail” of network management – true automation in the shape of what Cisco and others now refer to as intent-based networking (IBN), a network that is able to learn, adapt and evolve.

For Palfreman, IBN is indeed a possible goal, but one that he currently sees as more of a theoretical element. He sees the SDA and DNA Center pieces as the most critical parts for now thanks to their capabilities around network policy setting and general management.

“The IBN element is, for us, exploratory, and what we are doing with Cisco is creating an innovation function to work with them on an ongoing basis to solve traditional university challenges over, for example, student engagement, or analytical capabilities to assist students in accessing our services,” he says.

“We have yet to properly explore [IBN] but to be able to optimise the service using context will undoubtedly have benefits. We’ll continue to explore it – the university wants to be a showcase and a live production environment that’ll let us do that,” he concludes.

In any case, come September 2018, when 13,000 students arrive on the university’s new campus, 3,000 of them freshers, the new services will be put to the ultimate test of readiness.

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