A Digital Network Architecture Providing a Collaborative Education Experience to Enable the Leaders of the Future
Education is vital to the future of our world. In fact, education is the future of our world. Many of the students we see at Lahti University of Applied Sciences will be the leaders of tomorrow. They’ll make incredible contributions to Finland—and the planet. With so much at stake, IT needs to play our part as the enablers of the educational process.
What sets apart from other schools is our integrative pedagogy. It aims to prepare our students for the environments of their future working lives. The philosophy is about building a learning environment that is true to working environments. In the applied sciences, we believe this means an emphasis on collaboration. In the networking technology study program specifically, we focus on retaining our best students to push a culture of innovation. That’s what the networking program is about: producing new solutions.
A few years ago, the Finnish government changed the university legislation and Lahti UAS deciced to separate from the teaching consortium and lower-level schools it was previously attached to. Part of the rationale was that it would create a new funding possibilities for the university, with the possibility of collecting donations from private companies. At the same time we started to design new campus building for the university.
An exciting opportunity came with this change: Where previously the university’s various programs were spread across four locations in Lahti city, the new Lahti UAS would get a new building to house all its study areas under one roof sharing rooms and university services. This had the potential for a big impact. All the different sciences would come together to the same campus, increasing cooperation between these disciplines. We asked ourselves: Could the design of the building itself further push the cross-pollination between the sciences?
This change also meant we would also build a new network, because the old network would stay with the teaching consortium. First, we would separate the server environments, and then we would have two years to build a totally new network, with new devices, from scratch. Seeing the potential to make immense change, I decided to leave teaching of network technologies to join the network team as ICT manager.
The project posed a challenge, of course, but it also presented an incredible opportunity. Keep in mind that the construction of the new network and building were happening simultaneously. Could the new network and new building work in tandem to maximize cooperation at the university? We certainly hoped so. We had two years to lay the foundation to achieve that goal.
Decision Time: Do We Take the Great Tech Leap?
We needed to conduct an RFP for this kind of project, because we receive government funding. So a year ago, we released our requirements for the first bidding competition, to decide on our wireless network provider. Wireless network needed to be fast, reliable and support accurate positioning of users and devices so that we could create new services based on location information. There were two big competing bids: and Aruba. In the end, Cisco won this portion because they offered the most compelling solution from an operational, management, and customer experience perspective. Knowing Cisco would be our partner, it was now time to consider the local area network solutions.
It was around this time that Cisco began to advertise their Software-Defined Access network solution in Finland. By this point, we were less than a year from when we would begin using this network in our new building. Based on that timeline, we would have no beta testing, no alpha. We would have to go live with the network we chose.
So the decision became: Are we brave enough to take the leap with this modern technology? We had no previous experience with it, but with this route, we wouldn’t have to support old devices. The other option was to continue using the old technology we knew so well.
On the one hand, the tried-and-true technology is the safer bet. You know exactly what you are getting and, if a short timeline is of a concern, there is no learning curve to set up that network. But on the other hand: Is it future-proof? Meaning, did it offer the best-in-class learning experience?
At Lahti UAS, we push our students to consider innovative solutions for the future. We needed to take our own advice. This mindset had to inform our decision in selecting a wireless and wired infrastructure. We saw how Cisco’s solution wasn’t just for today, but something we could build on to produce something truly innovative tomorrow. Yes, there might be a learning curve to the technology, but this was a rare chance to think about future-proofing the network and its integration with an entirely new building. In the end, this is why we chose Cisco.
Cisco understood the strict timeline we were under. We were one of their
first customers for this Intent-Based Network built on Cisco Digital Network Architecture combined with the Catalyst 9000 Series Switches in Finland, maybe even in Europe, so they gave our order higher priority. That supportive attitude carried through to getting the network up and running.
From “Old School” to Breaking Barriers
Let’s take a step back and talk about the university’s philosophy for this new building, since that influenced what we wanted to achieve with the network.
The old buildings that housed our programs were the type of educational structures you likely know well. They held traditional classrooms, where the students mostly worked, and then there were separate workspaces for teachers. This setup strictly reinforced a distinction between teacher and student and, as a result, students and teachers did not naturally mix in daily basis.
Additionally, each building, located in different parts of the city, held a different area of study, so a nursing student would likely never wander into the design building. Even if that nursing student was curious about what the design students were learning, they couldn’t glean much from wandering the design building’s halls, because the classrooms were closed and different studies were located in different buildings. We also thought of these classrooms as being specific to a discipline: A design room is for design students only, and so on. It’s hard to build cooperation in that kind of environment.
The university envisioned that our new building could break down all these barriers that impeded cooperation, collaboration, and innovation. So instead of having different workspaces that separate student from teacher, or faculty from another, we built a variety of workspaces based on how people use that space. For instance, one room might be assigned for quiet working, while another is for meetings, and another for collaborative work. Students and teachers share these rooms.
Bringing all these disciplines under one roof means we also no longer distinguish between types of classrooms. Technical students and social and healthcare students and design students and business students are all in the same building, sharing the same rooms and facilities. The corridors are lined with windows into the classrooms, so just by walking the corridors you get insight into other disciplines. For example the engineering students and design students can see the technologies the nursing students use in the simulation environment or in the classrooms.
The idea is that this type of environment will break down divisions between disciplines. Students will naturally meet, be able to choose studies from another discipline and it will be much easier to create projects if there are designers and engineers working on the same thing. This also facilitates collaboration between staff and students. Our new setup is much closer to an incubator model. The Intent-Based Network is making this possible.
A Flexible, Seamless, Stable Network, with Cisco Support
To reinforce these values of the physical environment, our new network had to embody several qualities. It had to be flexible, to allow for different types of connections across the network, whether for a teacher, student, or visitor. It had to be seamless, accommodating the free movement of users across the building, depending on what workspace they wanted to use that day. Cisco Digital Network Architecture is constantly learning about the behavior of its users.
And like all good networks, it had to be stable, with redundant connections and backups if it went down. In my opinion, the hallmark of a great network is that users never know when something goes wrong.
This is what we call a tolerant network: flexible, seamless, and stable.
My advice to any ICT managers beginning a similar transformation is to ensure you can rely on good support engineers, otherwise you will be in big trouble. The quality of customer support will determine your success with software-defined networking. It’s not like a traditional network where you know exactly how the device configuration works. When you add AI to the network, you need that support to find the right fix.
Thankfully, I’m very happy with the support we’ve seen from Cisco. We had a weekly session with a Cisco Customer Success Specialist to discuss progress with the network and any problems we ran into. Cisco’s specialist would give us instructions or even take it to the developers to solve. We’ve seen six software versions already, because they are developing heavily at the moment. It’s significantly more mature than when we first started.
Building for a Sustainable Future, Without Limitations
To build a network like we did, you need to be forward-thinking. The software, DNA Center Assurance dashboard, is quite new, and new to us, but we are already looking ahead to how we can build on the benefits of automation, AI, and scalability. By next summer, we will already see several applications that would not have been possible if we had chosen a different network
Because I had never been part of a project of this scale before, it was interesting for me to learn how much of a building’s systems are tied to a network. For example, the ventilation and cooling systems are all connected to the network and interact with each other. So right there we have the opportunity to take those systems and see how we can further automate them as well as tie them into the campus building environment service. For example, if the carbon monoxide sensors tell us a room is empty, the system can automatically turn off the lights and adjust the ventilation. That’s just environmentally friendly. Plus we can also feed this IoT related information into our room reservation system. In addition to this, Cisco Digital Network Architecture helps us segmenting our network.
Cisco’s newest model of wireless access points, the Aironet 4800 Access Points, supports location services much better, meaning we know with high accuracy— based on Cisco Connected Mobile Experiences (CMX)—where individuals are in the building based on their device. In a sprawling campus that allows for flexible movement between workspaces, people who are new to the building can easily get lost. We are creating a mobile app using location-based services to solve this.
A few years ago, the Finnish government changed the university legislation and Lahti UAS decided to separate from the teaching consortium and lower-level schools it was previously attached to. Part of the rationale was that it would create a new funding possibilities for the university, with the possibility of collecting donations from private companies. At the same time we started to design new campus building for the university.
Lahti UAS’s new building attempts to remove any impediments to cooperation, because we know our future depends on this. Cisco has ensured our network gives our students the same freedom as they strive for new solutions to the world’s problems. In IT, our main goal is to support our users but we want to do more than that. We want to create new possibilities and feed the imagination of our users to do things better and easier than before.