posted 2012-04-25 23:52:35

HunterNet: Past, Broken, and Future

Technically correct

Brandon W. Maister

Staff Writer

Those of us on HunterNet have had a rough time with it this year. Students and faculty have noticed a slower Internet, occasional “network timeout” errors on web pages, and sometimes a dramatic inability to even connect. What’s going on? Did Hunter’s information technology (IT) budget get slashed when they raised our tuition? Do they just not care about us? Or is there some third, rational option...

Let’s get some history out of the way: HunterNet is, in the scheme of a college that has been around for 140 years, very new. The Hunter Network started as a bunch of wired ethernet ports— those are the fat phone wires you still need to plug into your cable modem. It started moving to wireless in 2003 in the Brookdale dorms, around the same time as other large universities. After major upgrades in 2006, it was a generally usable network across all the Hunter dorms and campuses.

It took three years to go from a preliminary wireless in a single dorm to a full-blown, everybody-is-on-the-Internet experience. This is actually normal: Hunter has around 22,000 students, and creating a network capable of serving even 1,000 people at a campus as large as Hunter is a gigantic task.

There are two core aspects one must consider when creating a large network: providing physical access and making sure that security is reasonable. Security is often overlooked, especially by users of a system, but it is absolutely essential even when you can hope for no malicious users within the network. This is because, in addition to the viruses that e-mail your friends and family asking them to rescue a Nigerian Prince, many viruses will lay silent on your computer, spending all of their time trying to connect to computers and install themselves. This commonly involves trying to infect computers “nearby” in the Internet’s address-space because computers that have addresses close to each other are more likely to be on a local network with their guards down.

To counteract this almost all networks have some layer of security. But what does it mean to say that a “network has security”? A “network” in real life is just a connected collection of things, but a computer network is a collection of computers, and— luckily enough for the administrators— all of the users of a network are at the mercy of the network servers.

The administration essentially has complete control over how we can use the network— this is why we are forced to log in to ArubaNetwork’s security page before we can access the Internet. Additionally, they use this centralized power as a way to monitor all of the traffic that is going through the system. Exactly how this is done gets pretty high-tech, but the basic idea is that they can watch the way computers are behaving and prevent or stop suspicious activity.

Once we’ve got baseline security, we need infrastructure: the radio spectrum that wireless network operates on has a maximum range of about 150 feet. Instructional Computing and Information Technology (more commonly known as ICIT) is expanding coverage continuously— the library just received all-new access points, but the best coverage remains on the lower levels of all the buildings.

HunterNet had been operating at more-or-less sufficient capacity for five years, so why did it fall down in the fall? Dr. Franklin Steen, Chief Information Officer of Hunter and the guy in charge of ICIT, was kind enough to answer some questions for the Envoy. Apparently the main problem has simply been the fact that the number of students using HunterNet has doubled this year. Wait, what? The usage has doubled this year? That’s impressive, and a testament to the rapidly changing tech that students use.

According to Steen there are a max of 5,000 - 6,000 simultaneous wifi users daily, and that number is steadily growing. With that in mind IT has increased their capacity to allow up to 15,000 simultaneous connections within the last year, which will hopefully keep us going while we wait for the remainder of the 22,000 students attending Hunter get on board.

Until recently Hunter had too few Internet addresses for the number of students trying to connect, and thus we ran out of places to “put” computers in the network. The symptoms of that were the periods last semester when connecting to ArubaNetworks— the purple “log in to HunterNet page” that we all know and love— just didn’t happen. However, with the recent addition of several thousand new addresses, this shouldn’t happen any more.

But, HunterNet is still slow, if we’re capable of having nearly three times as many students logged in as are actually logged in, why is it still slow? Well, now we’re at the point where the actual pipe to the Internet is too narrow. In tech terms, there simply isn’t enough bandwidth.

To give you an idea of scale: most home Internet connections these days are marketed as operating at around 15 megabits (Mb)— which is around 1.2 megabytes (MB)— per second. Watching a YouTube video at 720p requires approximately 0.5MB for a smooth experience.

Hunter’s network connection is capable of transmitting 2,000 megabytes per second. Which is huge until you consider the fact that it is serving perhaps 3,000 times more people than the average home Internet connection. When you do the math that means that at peak usage hours, Hunter’s network is limiting each student to between 0.3 and 0.4 MB/s— very fast if you go by the standards of 1999.

The bad news is that the connection is provisioned by CUNY central, so we have to wait for them to give us faster Internet. The good news is that they have been working on it— tests on the optical fiber necessary to do the physical connecting is complete, and the equipment has been installed — in fact, Hunter ICIT has just learned that the network speed should double April 23rd. This means that by the time you read this the Internet at Hunter should be much faster!