New solution dramatically improves network performance at Washington College

Alcatel-Lucent’s OmniSwitch network switches eliminate authentication bottlenecks with built-in security feature

Like most modern institutions, Washington College increasingly requires reliable, high-performance computer network access. That’s why the 1,400-student Chestertown, Maryland, institution needed to address a significant networking bottleneck. “By late 2012, the traditional network access control (NAC) device responsible for authenticating users had become a serious choke point,” recalls Cal Coursey, interim CIO. “Not only was it obsolete, but also all network traffic went through the device. As a result, heavy traffic would knock users off the network and even randomly lock out certain computers.”

College officials determined Alcatel-Lucent’s inherent Access Guardian was the best fit. “The other solution we considered was similar to the previous setup,” Coursey says. “It centralized authentication to a single hardware device located in the data center. On the other hand, Access Guardian is a decentralized, distributed solution.” Indeed, the software-based Access Guardian resides in OmniSwitch network switches, which manage the movement of PC and mobile computing traffic from end user devices onto the network at the source. “Switches are located at the edge of the network, in closets throughout campus buildings,” explains Coursey. “That way, if a switch failed, it would only affect local users rather than the entire community.”

Another plus for Access Guardian was its compatibility with other Washington College systems. “Our wired network has been based on Alcatel-Lucent since 2004,” says Coursey. Adopting the inherent Access Guardian in the OmniSwitch required a quarter of the college’s networking switches – which had already reached end-of-life – with the newer models. “We purchased 125 Alcatel-Lucent OmniSwitch 6850E-P48’s and P24’s. They include Power over Ethernet (PoE) capability, which enables us to plug in wireless access points from our partner Aruba Networks into the switches and power them with the wired network.” After a two-month pilot, the new solution was rolled out in August 2013. “Alcatel-Lucent provided a top-level engineer for on-site training,” says Coursey. “Also, when we had a configuration issues that couldn’t be resolved by remote technical support, the engineer provided information that usually fixed the problem in less than a day.”

Implementation proceeded without end user disruption. “The only thing people noticed was the new login screen,” Coursey says. “Since students were away for the summer, there was no learning impact.” Today, the network’s nearly 2,000 users enjoy performance improvements of 100 to 200 percent, “depending upon the age of a building’s wiring,” reports Coursey. “Also, the new system is so reliable, our help desk no longer gets complaints from people who are locked out while they’re trying to teach a class or can’t get on in the first place. Before, we received calls every day.” With improved performance and reliability, professors have quickly moved to increase utilization of streaming media. “In the past, streaming from the internet could be slow,” says Coursey. “Now, professors are able to use resources that were previously inaccessible.” Other benefits include savings on technology licensing and personnel costs.

“Because Access Guardian is integrated into the operating system on the OmniSwitches, the only investment was the switch cost,” Coursey explains. “With the other solution, there was an ongoing maintenance fee.” Additionally, Washington has eliminated chores related to troubleshooting the old NAC, allowing them to focus on meeting the BYOD demands of a modern college campus. “Now our two-and-a-half FTE networking engineers are focusing on more mission-critical projects,” says Coursey. “Overall,” he adds, “our partnership with Alcatel-Lucent has been very positive. “Compared with competing solutions, we have a reliable, secure, high-performance network that’s also cost-effective.”

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