Futureproofing lies behind Cardiff university’s backbone network choice – User Case Study

Every IT executive is painfully aware that product lifecycles get shorter every year and the pressure to upgrade technology at ever more regular intervals is intensifying – just at a time when budgets are increasingly tight and there is an unprecedented need to justify every dollar spent. It is surprising, therefore, to realize how many enterprise IT suppliers are still cloaking their future product plans in secrecy. Their customers need, more than ever before, to ensure that the products they buy today are upgradeable, have a credible roadmap and will not become obsolete before the organization has seen a cent of ROI. Yet one of the must common complaints we hear from CIOs is of an attitude from the vendors of “don’t worry your head about all that, we’ll sort it out when the time comes, trust us”. Which all harks back to a far more innocent mainframe age when users lacked the knowledge – and had not yet learned the cynicism born of countless failed projects – to do anything but trust their suppliers.

Nowadays, IT executives have far greater knowledge and will not be palmed off with vague promises. Suppliers that cannot come up with a detailed roadmap to which they are prepared to commit will find themselves losing customers rapidly. This future proofing was the deciding factor for Cardiff University, part of the University of Wales, one of the UK’s leading and largest academic institutions, in choosing the supplier for its new 10Gbit backbone network.

And there is no more demanding customer than a major university. Their IT departments are not just supporting an end user community but, frequently, computer science faculties engaged in research that would make many IT suppliers go starry-eyed. They have high levels of expertise in the technologies they are commissioning and are very used to working with major vendors on academic-commercial projects – so are not easily intimidated; plus they are dependent on grants of public money, every cent of which has to be justified, and so are used to eking every ounce of value from their investments in a way that is only just now becoming routine in commercial organizations.

Cardiff is a good example. It is building a high speed network not just to support its population of over 25,000 students, researchers and staff (5,000 of these on a separate campus of the University of Wales College of Medicine, with which Cardiff University is merging), but also to underpin its eScience Centre, which runs hugely data intensive and ground breaking projects in the areas of visualization and grid computing.

Cardiff went through a full tendering process, as required by EC law, with an initial 62 bids quickly reduced to 12 and then to three that went through detailed evaluation. The key criteria, according to Tom Weirsma, network team leader at Cardiff, were “security, resilience, bandwidth and, especially important, the roadmap. We get a grant, and that’s it for five years. There’s no going back asking for more money to upgrade after three years.”

While the three finalists could deliver on the technological criteria, Weirsma said that only one was “prepared to have an open book on the future and commit to implement new technologies as they become available”. That supplier was Foundry Networks, one of a group of router/switch makers targeting the enterprise and trying to steal some of Cisco’s traditional turf, which won the Cardiff contract in partnership with network integrator Pervasive Networks, which will provide services and support.

“The roadmap handles all the protocol variants we were looking at, especially Sockets and 802.1 Ix, all tied in with a 40Gbit backbone,” said Weirsma. “We don’t want to be frozen in time.” He also feels he has had a good measure of control of the project rather than being “told what I want by the vendor. We do have the technical expertise in a university to specify exactly what we want and we wanted to make it clear what we wanted and have that promised to us, not have the vendor telling us what we need.”

The project is a joint one between University of Cardiff, the largest college within the University of Wales, and the University of Wales College of Medicine, with which it is merging, and highlights two important trends for the institution – increasing cooperation in order to achieve efficiencies and best practise in IT; and a strong drive to make the university a European leader in hi-tech research and capabilities. A leading edge network is essential to both aims.

Weirsma’s project, which began to roll out in May, started by implementing eight BigIron 15000 10Gbit Ethernet Layer 3 switches and 35 FastIron Layer 2/3 switches. In phase two the university will install Foundry’s new BigIron MG8 backbone devices. These are designed to be ready for upgrade to 40Gbit as more capacity is required and Foundry expects Cardiff to be one of the first sites in Europe to deploy the full Terathon 40Gbit platform. The cost of the full upgrade to 40Gbit is included in the contract.

Key applications for all this bandwidth, apart from the usual email and communication needs of such a huge user population, include high speed access to the UK’S education and research network, SuperJanet, and exchange of research data with collaborative partners in other universities around the world, something that increases annually. There will also be support for voice, data and video networking in all student accommodation as well as academic facilities and Weirsma has to support elements like the increasing use of multicast videoconferencing, which is more demanding on the network than traditional conferencing using dedicated links.

Research projects frequently have extremely data intensive requirements. The Welsh e-Science Centre, for instance, is hosted at Cardiff University and needs applications such as virtual reality visualization for medical and biotech projects and specializes in simulation of bioterrorist attacks. Such tasks can generate many gigabytes of data per second.

As well as visualization, the eScience Centre provides two other specialist and IT-intensive resources, grid computing facilities for sharing IT resources, and the ‘Access Grid’, an international multimedia conferencing service that can present data in many formats including interactive 3D videographics to scientists around the world.

Alex Hardisty, manager of the eScience Centre, said the network upgrade is essential to support planned expansion of some of the applications and services, which may generate terabytes of data per second. “The new network is the only way we are going to be able to run expanded applications cohesively,” he said. “AccessGrid video feeds, for example, are only limited by the bandwidth and processing power available. When we have a 40Gbit capable network in place, the quality of collaborative video visualization in Cardiff University will be world class.”

Against this background of usage, Weirsma’s criteria of security, resilience and bandwidth are clearly critical. On the resilience front, he believes that the network, when fully implemented next year, will provide 99.999% availability, compared to 96% from the legacy installation. Most backbone providers can guarantee this these days, but he does pick out one aspect of Foundry’s offering as having caught his eye on the resilience front, It’s sFlow network monitoring software not only checks performance, but also tracks traffic so that the cost can be charged out to different university departments according to their actual usage.

He feels the new network will enable the University to take a more professional approach to security and resilience. “We’ve moved on from the good old fashioned university approach of just having fun and playing with networks,” he joked. The new architecture builds in considerable redundancy with eight core locations linked in a mesh with failover capabilities.

Return on investment is the other factor that all university IT executives must now consider carefully. The improved performance of the new network, which means a more efficient institution and a greater ability to be involved in world leading research projects, is critical, even if hard to quantify in financial terms as a commercial organization would. However, Cardiff’s leadership in grids is important to it in attracting interest and project funding from industry. “IBM, Sun and the others all make overtures to us so there is a commercial aspect to the ROI on being able to support new applications,” Weirsma said.

However, he says he sees his chief ROI being “absolute silence from the users” – in other words, a network that is performing perfectly. The network design’s improved resilience will also save on maintenance costs and on work lost through downtime.

The other key factor is not having to spend any further money above that allocated for the five-year project – unless the university itself expands, in which case network expansion to cope with that will be separately funded.

Apart from the 40Gbit upgradeability, there are other technologies that may come into play within the five-year contract period, and which are provided for in the roadmap. One is wireless, an area where Foundry recently launched products, and in which its switches will support third party wireless structures. One demand on the new network was the ability to support the burgeoning numbers of mobile students and staff working from laptops and PDAs and IP phones are also in the roadmap. “I can see each student wanting five IP addresses soon,” said Weirsma.

He is also interested in wireless Lans in some areas of the campuses. This has begun with the roll-out of 110 access points at the University Hospital of Wales over the summer. Weirsma is cautious about Wi-Fi though. “Wireless is a sexed up technology like New Labor,” he said. “I see it as a Lan extension, not a Lan replacement. We will support it but it is not yet a high bandwidth technology, it’s a value add. And it is inherently insecure – the industry has introduced the technology before the problems have been ironed out.” So he will keep tabs on wireless technologies without actively encouraging them for now – “users don’t realize the drawbacks.” He will also keep an eye on Foundry’s wireless products, since “a single hardware source is good for me as a network manager”, though no strategic decisions will be made for some time.

So what of 100Gbit, which backbone vendors are already trying to push as the next route to boosting their revenue streams? “1 don’t see the need for 100Gbit within the period of our fiveyear plan,” said Weirsma. “Who has a PC that can handle 1Gbit to the desktop yet? Even saturation of the 10Gbit link isn’t a day to day issue yet. That is an inordinate amount of data.”

Given the eScience Centre projects and the scale and demands of its user population, Cardiff may reach that ceiling before many commercial organizations. However, until 2008, it is confident that its existing roadmap will continue to support its academic and IT objectives.


Cardiff University was founded in 1883 and now has 20,000 students and researchers from round the world. In a recent government assessment of the quality of university research, Cardiff was placed seventh in a list of 106 institutions, and is now focusing on bringing its performance in teaching into line with its research in order to be a flagship higher education body.

Cardiff is home to one of the UK’s eight state-funded e-Science Centres, which are charged with ensuring that UK research projects have access to leading edge IT infrastructures. It also believes it has an important role in putting Wales on the economic map, and its Innovation Network is designed to support technology transfer between the university and Welsh industry. It is estimated that this activity, through licensing technology to established companies or spinning out start-ups, generates [pouns sterling]20m a year for the regional economy.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Rethink Research Associates

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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