Q&A: How one college syncs up across IT groups

Pushing QoS beyond the bits and bytes level

Interview with Kuljit Dharni, director of architecture & development, at Babdon College in Massachusetts.

With the emergence of such technologies as VoIP, server virtualization and wireless networking, the lines between network, systems and applications groups keep getting blurrier. Network World Editor Bob Brown recently conducted separate interviews with three members of the 38-person IT team at Babson College, a business school for 3,300 students based in Wellesley, Mass., to gain insight into the perspectives of members from different departments and to learn how they are coordinating their efforts to manage a 9,000-port network (plus 300 wireless access points) across roughly 60 buildings. Here's his discussion with Kuljit Dharni, director of architecture & development.

How do you coordinate interaction among your network, applications and systems teams?

On the formal end we have a full team meeting on a biweekly basis, and a full list of all current projects are published prior to this meeting. Additionally, I hold one-on-one's with my direct reports on a biweekly basis. On an informal basis, I talk with pretty much every team member daily -- this may be just a hello or a quick chat about a current project of theirs.

Where is the interaction most natural, and where do you need to work hardest to make it happen?

The informal talks are the most natural. I love to talk tech, and people are happy to talk about their current projects to demonstrate "cool" things. The formal group meetings are a 50-50 affair: Half the people like them, and half can't stand them. Additionally, not everything that comes out of a casual meeting gets documented -- many times there is no need, but some projects need my input, and if I approach someone out of the formal project context, good discussions/solutions tend to get forgotten 'til sometime in the future (i.e., at app review/testing time).

How do you see the roles of your network, applications and systems teams changing in the light of new technologies and business requirements?

The biggest issue we face is that of our customers demanding more-complex software in a short time horizon -- both in terms of the notice given to us as well as the time to complete the projects. Since the teams (server/app/network) manage all aspects of the life cycle (definition/creation/testing/implementation and support), we often feel rushed and overwhelmed. To manage this, the teams are approaching the projects in a more flexible manner -- i.e., through an iterative process vs. let's define everything and build it in one go. We are also attempting to layer more formal processes for support and project request. This is tough in a college environment, since people do not toe to the bottom line.

Industry pundits increasingly tend to dismiss core network technologies, such as switching and routing , as mere plumbing. But is designing a network really a no-brainer these days?

Yes, it's plumbing, but you still need good plumbers. It is true that these services are now "dismissed" as dial-tone, but the lack of a well-designed infrastructure hurts. The approach we take to network design is to define the business problem to solve and then through an iterative process come up with potentials. These potentials are fleshed out, and I make the pick based on a few criteria -- namely, how well does it serve the initial purpose, how complex is it (i.e., how will we support it) and what will it cost (initial and ongoing). The other thing we do is to continually keep reviewing technologies to make sure we have the best solution for us -- sometimes this is based on feature and functions, sometimes purely on cost.

You've mentioned that you want to emphasize a certain for users that goes beyond the sort of Layer 2 and 3 QoS that we sometimes hear network-product companies discuss. What do you mean?

The QoS that I find relevant is not at the bits and bytes level, it is all about the "perceived performance" from the users' perspective. This is not to say we take all user comments of "the network/application is slow" at face value, but we do try to find patterns in these comments and investigate the causes that lead to the comments. If there is one standard measurement in computing, it is that happy users don't complain. Therefore, we take all complaints seriously. Setting arbitrary performance levels at the network layer is not useful to me, the entire experience of the user has to be taken into account. This usually means we look at the application on down when researching performance/quality of service issues.

In short, the line between the network vs. servers vs. application is so fuzzy you have to take a macro view toward QoS, no matter what your job role is. I expect everyone within my organization to look at the user experience first and then their statistics to support/refute the claim.

You have a background in disaster recovery and continuity services with Comdisco. How do you exploit that experience?

I have a healthy paranoia of things going wrong. I try to bring my experience to bear in terms of balancing the need/cost of recovery solutions. I.e., anyone can throw money at a problem (especially recovery), but how do you do it cost effectively and how do you prioritize?

How do you cope with the budget constraints of running a college IT department?

Pretty much all of my comments mentioned the need to be cost effective. I continually try to challenge my team to present solutions that do more than one thing -- i.e., how do we maximize our investment? E.g., we purchased a product from Acronis for making DR images of critical servers (that was issue No. 1 -- identify critical servers, not all servers). Using it in the mode it was intended for is great (i.e., server recovery), but how about using it as an image tool to create server replicas for testing, or how about using it to do a P to V move? Another example is that we tested HBAs, accelerator cards and built-in NICs for use with vs. just taking the HBA route (per everyone's suggestion). The result: We use the built-in NIC, our testing (and now experience) shows no loss in performance (I/O or CPU) using the server NIC's from Intel.

What one technology has you most excited these days?

In my position, I find it difficult to be excited by any one technology, but will limit my answer to two:

* Virtualization, in conjunction with iSCSI. We adopted this dual architecture over the summer of '06 and have been thrilled with the performance, flexibility and relative low cost. This environment has allowed us to scale our operations while cutting back on the number of physical hardware. As of February, we're running 29 virtual servers on four physical dual-processor machines. The conservative estimate is to scale to 80 virtual machines on the same hardware. With the redundant iSCSI array from EqualLogic, we are able to have all hard disk for the virtuals on the SAN (including boot volumes). Therefore, we fully leverage our VMware ESX environment with automatic failover and load balancing.

* On the application side, I am excited about the ready availability of enterprise applications that are "user focused," i.e., social-networking capabilities, wikis and blogs, etc. While these technologies are not exactly new, they are underutilized on the enterprise level, including at colleges and universities. The interest I have is not to replicate MySpace, but to truly create a useful and engaging experience for our students and faculty.

Name a technology you think is overhyped or underrated?

I would count as an overhyped technology. Don't get me wrong, I believe in the intent of SOA, it's just that it's the latest in a long list of terms for an obvious application architecture. Anyone trained in computing science in the last 20 years should have been thinking about and building applications that were loosely coupled and supported the business rather than IT. However, if it finally has people thinking about architecting scalable solutions it will have been worth the pain.

What one technology do you wish never existed or that you could have back?

The administrative side of me wishes P2P had never been invented. From a technology viewpoint I love it, so simple, so clever. From the administrative side, especially in a college setting, it has been frustrating to keep P2P under control, i.e., managing use of our bandwidth, complying with intellectual-property issues, etc. Basically, it makes us in IT into the bad guys in the eyes of the students, when all we're trying to do is a) preserve a good computing experience for all of our clients and b) stay within the confines of the legal system as well as the rules of the college.


< Return to introduction

Learn more about this topic

NAC gear lightens IT load at community college

02/23/07

College PC FAQ

01/30/07

Bradford Networks launches NAC appliance

01/24/07

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Related:

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.