Piloting the Future of Academic Connectivity with Cisco DNA Center


The field of IT is dynamic. It’s ever-evolving. We’ve seen significant shifts over the past several years in communications technology, and this change has been accelerated by the rise in adoption of personal devices for use at work and in education. It’s always a challenge to keep pace, but this is particularly true for those of us who work in the field of education.

This new technology environment adds a layer of complexity to the lives of IT professionals, like myself, which means we now need to seek out new opportunities to help our academic communities succeed in our ever-connected society.

The Dynamic Field of IT

I've been working in IT at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid for 20 years. I studied telecommunications in university, which is how I made the natural transition into the field of IT after graduation. When I finished my degree and arrived at the university, the IT ecosystem was vastly different than it is today. The network at the time was very small and I’ve seen it grow and evolve over the past two decades. 

Today, we have 30,000 students and a staff of 8,000, comprised of administrators, teachers, and researchers. Yet we only employ five people to work in the network operations center. It’s such a small team that we had to think creatively and look for new opportunities to automate much of our operations. 

Automation is a necessity because there’s a huge demand on our school’s systems. Our university not only gives network connectivity to the academic community, but to the research community as well, including nine centers that belong to the Spanish National Research Council.

The Hallmarks of Our IT Future

The opportunities to automate aren’t always obvious, but as we began construction on a new building on campus, we took it as a chance to try something different. Much of the existing IT infrastructure in the older buildings around campus was becoming outdated, causing inconsistencies and unnecessary complexities for both users and our IT. 

Don’t cling to old technologies if you want to step into the future of #IT and networking. #CiscoGateway

There was no automation from a center console. When a problem arose, we had to search switch-by-switch to seek out, analyze, and then repair it. Since everyone has their own personal devices, this complicates troubleshooting and leads to security problems. Our systems kept us stuck in the past.

That’s when we decided to implement Cisco DNA Center in our new university building. It required more resources up front, such as time, energy, and financial investment, but we knew we save in the long run.

It became quite clear that this new building, and the Cisco technology we equipped it with, had all the hallmarks of our future. It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. 

Making the Switch: A New Vision, Realised

To kick things off, our Cisco account manager introduced us to the customer success (CS) team. We had Webex meetings and they even came to the university for three days to help us to deploy our pilot program, assimilating the system into the existing university and building networks. The Cisco CS team gave us information about best practices for an adoption plan and even helped us write one that would interconnect the new building with our production network. 

We interconnected wireless access points and set up IP phones as well. While we’re still in the pilot environment stage, we hope to move it to a production environment by January 2019.

One of the key differences we’ve seen between the old system and the new DNA Center is the way we manage the new network, which is more centralized. Instead of accessing 500 individual switches, we use the central console to automate our processes. As the number of devices accessing the network has grown exponentially, manual switch management simply wouldn’t be scalable. The automation is going to give more stability to our network as we move from a level two protocol to a level three protocol in the DNA Center.

Network automation means big problems can be solved by small teams. #CiscoGateway

With the DNA Center centralized console, applying security politics to end users is very easy. It also let us be more proactive. As DNA Center has a huge and global vision of what is happening in the network, it helps us to detect complex failures, which are otherwise difficult to detect and fix. Foresight like this allows us to provide a much more reliable IT experience for our end users. 

That end-to-end visibility into the network virtually guarantees that our small team will deal with fewer incidents. Using a web console, extensive knowledge isn’t required to operate the network, so almost any IT team member can support where it’s necessary. 

Securing the Future: Automation, Security, and Simplicity

Automation and security go hand-in-hand with our new solution. The old way, working switch-by-switch, is no longer feasible as the network has grown in size. Manual security becomes time-consuming and, ultimately, an insecure approach. Automation is not a choice—It’s a security necessity.

Automation is not a choice for large networks. It’s a security necessity. #CiscoGateway

On the other hand, our users need mobility and flexibility. As consumers, we are used to wireless mobility, so our university network should offer students the ability to move around campus and access the network. This creates a seamless, flexible experience for our students to carry on with their studies without interruption or the need to remember several different ways to access the network. 

This will be the biggest impact on the user experience—we’re bringing a simplicity to their ability to connect. This affects students, researchers, and teachers alike. While administrative staff have their own separate network for security reasons, this will be something that will continue to change as we move out of the pilot phase.

The next step of the pilot project is to ensure IT understands how everything works below the surface, below the automation, in case we ever experience any issues. Despite the convenience and necessity of the automation, we still need to understand how it all works to be able to pinpoint the problem if something goes wrong. We’re running simulations and training our IT staff to be able to troubleshoot.

We received the full benefit of the DNA Center by upgrading our switches to the latest version. Upgrading our hardware was an initial investment, but it will help us save time in deploying the network, and hours in managing the network. It will help our small team stay on top of large responsibilities. 

Keeping Pace with the Future of Connectivity

With Cisco’s help, our team has created a new space in this building, which helps the university keep pace as the future of connectivity unfolds. With DNA Center, we embrace automation as one of the next steps in our IT journey.

IT has revolutionized knowledge sharing. I love being part of the IT team that help researchers, teachers, and students achieve their goals. Our work is the very foundation of their work and I feel proud to be a part of that story.