How a Decades-Long Partnership Helped Transform Networking in Swedish Universities
People might not be aware of how far ahead the state of networking/infrastructure is in Sweden, so I’ll give you a taste. Today, Swedish universities run internet connections of at least 100 gigabytes per second. Those Long Range (LoRa) connections are powering IoT applications as well as EU megaprojects, like our university partnership with Amsterdam using low-effect radar to test antennae for detecting satellites in space. All that data is being exchanged at about 10 gigabytes per second.
I know in some parts of the world, people are happy to finally have 100 megabits at their house, but I helped my alma mater, Linnaeus University in southern Sweden, switch to a 100 megabit network back in 1996. Sweden has been so far ahead of everyone else, but it wasn’t always this way.
An Unconventional Start
I came into networking in an unconventional way. I started out, if you can believe it, working as a car mechanic and selling video games on the side. What drew me to both was the logical thinking involved. I’d always had a knack for mathematics and wanted to learn more, so I thought, “Is there a way I can combine all these interests?” I decided to enroll in a four-year program at the local university, which was then called Växjö University, studying logic, mathematics, and programming languages.
That program turned out to be difficult from the beginning—much harder than I expected it to be—and I struggled a bit. But when we started to learn networking and programming, something just clicked for me. I instantly fell in love with building networks.
In the middle of that four-year course, I got a job at the university rebuilding the school’s troubled network. I started out as a networking technician and got more and more responsibility from there, until I was one of the guys designing our new network. It’s pretty amazing to think about: I’m designing the network at the school where I’m a student. Since my university days, I’ve worked as a consultant at a pretty large consulting firm in Sweden, and today I’m a senior data center engineer, but I want to talk about that network.
In today’s IT world, 1996 likely sounds like ancient times to some people, but the decisions we made then in setting up the network laid a solid foundation for where we are today. It just goes to show the importance of long-term thinking in IT.
We Weren’t Always on the Cutting Edge
In 1996, the university used a combination of internet routers, and then for our LAN we had used Bay Networks and later Nortel Networks, but that LAN equipment was quite buggy.
When you have only four megabits per second, everything takes forever. We struggled a lot with the student network because, then as now, students want to use the free internet and they were filling up our connection. The impact was that nobody else could do anything. It got to the point where we had to limit the students’ internet access so they were only using it for things directly related to school. And come on, that’s no fun.
The slowness created problems for our researchers as well, especially for professors who needed the network to run simulations and calculations. For our mathematicians, it meant a day or two to run a single calculation. Granted, these are very complex calculations we’re talking about, but all the same, it created friction—a drag on what our researchers could do. As someone who was studying with these professors, the mathematicians’ challenges were near to my heart.
In addition to these internal issues, we had a challenge posed to us. Swedish University Network (SUNET) wanted all universities to upgrade their internet connections to 100 megabits per second. Part of the rationale behind this plan was that it would allow us to better collaborate between universities in the Swedish network and even partner with international universities. For all these reasons, upgrading our gear was paramount.
More Important Than the Hardware, Who Could We Trust for Support?
Cisco was the obvious first choice for LAN for a few reasons. First, we were already using plenty of Cisco hardware. We were using Cisco routers initially because that was part of SUNET, and as we started to think about this redesign we learned that other universities in SUNET were turning to Cisco to get 100 megabits. I also personally just loved Cisco from the beginning. Everything then was CLI, which I understood intuitively.
Our biggest reason, however, was our previous experience with the Technical Assistance Center, TAC, which is called today. They were the ones you called to get expert assistance, and none of the vendors at the time had that, or the other vendors said they had customer support but it was rubbish. Cisco always understood that when someone buys your hardware, you have to support them through the life of that product.
We had established a great working relationship with Cisco, and when we went to them for help with our new network, they went above and beyond what any other organization would provide. They made sure our team was prepared and had the right tools along the way. Looking back, I realize we had no real problems with implementing this, because we had help from the Cisco team. I’d say 99% of what we planned got implemented.
Some of this equipment was on the more expensive side at the time, but then when I think about all the times we previously had to replace some part of the older hardware because of a failing switch or hub, I think it actually wasn’t all that much more expensive to buy all new. In fact, in the long term, it probably worked out to be about the same. So we ended up with a massive improvement in hardware, costing the same in the long run.
Our Decisions Then Set Us up for Success Today
After all was said and done, I would say we saw an efficiency increase of about 70–75%. The reaction from those mathematicians I talked about earlier was ecstatic from the beginning, even before we did anything, with just the knowledge that this was coming. And how could they not be? Calculations went from taking two days to four hours.
As for our average user, we didn’t get the same response to the new speed, but that’s often the way in IT: People don’t notice it unless it’s broken. So the fact that most of our users considered our new network “business as usual,” meant the switch was a success.
The big picture is how the new network set up the school for where Linnaeus University is today. Think about it: Today we’re monitoring space! That would have been impossible to imagine back in the days when we were struggling to just keep up with the demands of our students.
You Can Think Big—with the Right Partner
Today, I feel some nostalgia for those days when we built that network. My colleagues and I had a lot of fun doing it, segmenting everything, replacing old computers too. When I think of the arguments we used to have with some professors who were mad that we wanted to give them a new computer! It was special.
One thing I realize in retrospect, though, is I think we should have had a project lead to manage this process. We were our own project managers and technicians at the same time, which is a really bad way to do it. At the same we were working on the project, we were also expected to do our regular, daily work of helping users with email and stuff like that. We ended up working a bunch of weekends on the network that way, because we didn’t have time during the week. That’s no way to run a project.
I have two pieces of advice for anyone looking to embark on this kind of project. One, you need a project manager, someone who can develop a well-defined schedule and then speak to higher-ups to allocate time.
Two, don’t be afraid to think big and long term. This project happened a while ago, but it set us up for the future. And finding Cisco all those years ago has meant there has been a reliable partner for the last two decades. Whenever you’re embarking on a major overhaul, make sure you’re picking the right solutions, support, and partners for years to come.