• United States
Contributing Writer

Colleges expand VPN capacity, conferencing to answer COVID-19

News Analysis
Apr 03, 20206 mins
NetworkingRemote AccessVPN

With colleges finishing semesters via remote learning, IT departments are growing their remote-access networks and trying to help students overcome access-network challenges.

Colleges that moved from on-campus classrooms to remote learning due to COVID-19 had to quickly upgrade networks to support new VPN connections for remote access. Fortunately, many online-learning platforms rely on cloud-based applications that don’t put additional strain on campus networks.

For example, The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., added extra VPN user licenses for students and staff now working from home. It also ramped up its VPN-server capacity, according to Dr. Ellen J. Keohane, the college’s CIO. “We’re definitely seeing higher demand on that.”

To accommodate remote learning, the school is using cloud-based services including Google Meet, Panapto (for video recording), and Zoom for videoconferencing. The college bought an upgrade to Zoom Enterprise, which adds classroom features such as breakouts and “raise hand”. It also integrates with Google email and calendars, Keohane said.

She said technology companies have been helpful. “I’m very happy to see some of the technology vendors stepping up to offer free services, such as Google adding Meet Premium to G Suite for Education customers, which allows recording of Google Meet conferencing sessions,” said Keohane. “I suppose it’s in their interest long-term, but not having to spend the extra money for the services at this time is really helpful.”

A larger challenge is working with students to get them Chromebooks or other computers. The school is also scrambling to get enough wireless hot-spot devices that use WAN services such as 4G for Internet access. They can be used to connect students who don’t have broadband internet access at home.

Students who do have home broadband may still have trouble connecting to two-way video and classroom services that require high bandwidth. “Families may need to coordinate who is working online and for what content, giving priority to synchronous school work,” said Keohane.

A recent upgrade helps USC

The IT staff at the University of Southern California found itself in luck when students were sent home to finiish off the semester. “The complete re-architecting and replacement of our network that finished in January was capable of supporting the increased demand,” said Douglas Shook, the CIO at USC. “We are fortunate that we invested in our networks prior to COVID-19.”

Shook said the school had signed enterprise licenses for Zoom and Slack in the fall, and that resource was in place for remote learning when the outbreak occurred.

The one upgrade the school needed: VPN server capacity, primarily to meet the demands of faculty and staff who are working from home, he said.

Students now take classes online are using a hybrid approach: the Blackboard app for course materials and Zoom for live, interactive lectures. The school overestimated the need for Blackboard by several times and quadrupled the number of VPN ports to support the demand.

“We prepared for our first online-only classes in less than one week,” Shook said. “We are continuing to add capacity, documentation, support, help desk capacity, etc., on an ongoing basis.”

The school said it will provide details soon on guidelines for technology assistance for people working from home.

A survey of students before they were sent home found that some had weak internet connections at home, so the school is working on recommendations to address that, including wireless hotspots.

USC also invested in online test-taking software, and spent time creating online training, documentation and help-desk support, Shook said. “The technology upgrades were one aspect,” he said. “The human change management and support probably has been equally challenging.”

VPN upgrades at San Jose State

San Jose State University and its 40,000 students and staffers benefitted from a network upgrade already underway that allowed it to adapt quickly to online-learning demands. It took the IT staff about four to five days to upgrade VPNs and add licenses for online-learning platforms.

“There was no way we would have been able to do this if we hadn’t started this process three years ago and hadn’t looked at the technologies we would need to enable work from anywhere,” said Bob Lim, the university’s CIO and vice president of IT. “When we were given the green light to move forward online, we did it almost without any hiccups.”

Like many other schools, San Jose State upgraded its VPN access. The team installed a new Cisco firewall appliance, boosting the university’s remote-access VPN supports to 10,000 concurrent connections to AnyConnect VPN clients. Shai Silberman, the school’s network services manager, said the number of connections was chosen to support the work-from-anywhere scenarios, not as a specific response to the coronavirus situation. While the previous average was between 70 and 100 concurrent sessions, the team saw an uptick to about 500 due to the new work-at-home requirements for staffers.

While many students do not need the VPN access for regular online classroom learning or videoconferencing, the school is investigating the need for students in labs to be able to access their work remotely. Some areas of the school, such as medical facilities, also need the additional secure access due to HIPAA regulations.

In addition, Lim said the goal of the VPN upgrade was to make sure employees and students have the same network experience, whether they’re on the VPN or on the campus network.

 “[The 10,000 connections are] way beyond what we need, but the reality is we don’t know how long this will sustain,” said Silberman. “We are investigating how we extend the laboratory experiences out to people’s homes, and that will be dependent on VPN as well.”

Silbmeran said staff members who had been working as campus call center agents and other roles now work at home, and that requires secure remote access.

Lim said a big focus for the team was to make sure their network would be ready for the future, which will change teaching and learning methods as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

For example, he said many people feel that support systems need to be situated on campus, but in reality with secure VPNs those tasks can be handled farther away. “For many organizations, campus buildings are very important,” Lim said. “We’re looking at moving non-essential areas or areas that don’t deal with students on a regular basis, moving them out further so the campus can be more student-focused in terms of teaching and learning.”

Other areas that the IT team has dealt with in recent weeks include:

  • Training staffers, teachers and students on using the online tools, which includes programs like Zoom and the Canvas by Instructure classroom learning management system.
  • Transferring desktop phone numbers over to cell phones for staffers.
  • Assisting students with equipment needs such as Chromebooks, webcams, microphones and other computers for secure access.
Contributing Writer

The first gadget Keith Shaw ever wanted was the Merlin, a red plastic toy that beeped and played Tic-Tac-Toe and various other games. A child of the '70s and teenager of the '80s, Shaw has been a fan of computers, technology and video games right from the start. He won an award in 8th grade for programming a game on the school's only computer, and saved his allowance to buy an Atari 2600.

Shaw has a bachelor's degree in newspaper journalism from Syracuse University and has worked at a variety of newspapers in New York, Florida and Massachusetts, as well as Computerworld and Network World. He won an award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for a 2003 article on anti-spam testing, and a Gold Award in their 2010 Digital Awards Competition for the "ABCs of IT" video series.

Shaw is also the co-creator of, the crunchiest site on the InterWeb, which has taste-tested and reviewed more than 4,000 varieties of snack foods.

More from this author