Taking the Time to Get It Right: Managing Three Campus Networks from a Single Pane of Glass


As Jade Hochschule's system administrator, it is my job to ensure that today's students are given the same opportunities to learn, grow, and experiment as I had when I was enrolled here. Unfortunately, our physical network architecture made it impossible to provide an adequate level of service to learners.

Since my colleague moved on earlier last year, I've been single-handedly running our three campuses. With this much responsibility, I'm always on the lookout for tools that will help me streamline the way I manage our infrastructure.

Jade University of Applied Science is a regional school that operates three campuses at Wilhelmshaven, Oldenburg, and Elsfleth, and is named after the river that runs through these towns. It was founded in 2009 after the merger of two technical colleges and now offers bachelor's and master's level studies to 7,600 students in fields that include architecture, civil engineering, geoinformation, health technology, business, digital media, maritime studies, logistics, and IT management.

I grew up right here in Wilhelmshaven and completed my higher education at this very campus. That was back in 2003, six years before it became part of Jade Hochschule. I studied RF technology and mobile telephony. I even did an internship at Vodafone, but I veered into IT during my final year at university.

I didn't plan it this way. There was plenty of work in telecommunications at the time. German carriers were rolling out UMTS, and I could have moved to a bigger city to work for one of the major players. But I was offered a job here at home by my university and decided to stay in Lower Saxony. I was happy to start my career in these familiar surroundings.

I love learning, and school was a time to explore potential career paths, so making the switch was easy and I have never looked back.

Our On-Site IT Infrastructure Management Wasn’t Working

In the past, we managed the IT infrastructure at each campus on-site. If something went wrong or someone needed a setup at Elsfleth or Oldenburg, one of us had to drive 60 km, deal with the situation, and then drive back. That was a two-hour round trip, on top of any work time.

Provisioning and configuring your network remotely means you can say goodbye to travel time.

The situation was equally dire for our users. A student from Wilhelmshaven might have difficulties logging into the network at Oldenburg because the access points at our different locations weren't configured to accept the same user credentials, and there was no easy way to solve the problem.

To further compound these issues, each of our campuses used a separate internet access. But in early 2019, we switched to a single-supplier 10-gigabit dark fiber connection that linked our three locations and consolidated our networks. This improved architecture paved the way for a centralized network management solution. I had already deployed Cisco DNA Center at our Wilhelmshaven campus in 2018, but last year I started laying the groundwork to expand it to all three of our locations. 

Discovering DNA Center at Cisco Live

I first encountered DNA Center at Cisco Live Berlin one year earlier. I was looking for a single pane of glass solution that would allow me to manage all three campuses from one location. I also wanted a high level of automation because I don't have time to write thousands of scripts to set up hundreds of access points and thousands of user accounts.

Our infrastructure runs on Cisco products. It is the de-facto standard for German universities, and it allows us to talk to our colleagues at other educational institutions. It therefore made sense to go with a Cisco network management tool than to rely on a third-party utility. A sole-sourced solution is always the most effective and easy to use.

I went to Berlin looking for the best IT infrastructure management solution. One conversation led to another, and one of our colleagues at Cisco in Hamburg contacted me and asked if Jade would like to take part in an EFT (early field trial) of DNA Center.

Working with Cisco on a DNA Center Limited Trial

I was proud to accept this invitation. I used to tell my colleagues that we buy Cisco, we use Cisco, but we never talk to Cisco. Now, the company started calling us and asking what we needed. I felt special because one of the biggest companies on the planet was talking to our small, regional university in Northern Germany.

We followed best practices and set up a trial environment for 50 users in January 2018, just before the year's Cisco Live in Barcelona. We installed four switches and 50 Wi-Fi access points at one of our buildings and started testing and tweaking our setup. A few weeks later, over the February study break, we added and configured some more Cisco equipment.

Cisco had our back every step of the way and guided us through the installation and configuration process. We were assigned to a specialized team at Cisco Headquarters in San Jose. I spent a lot of time speaking with engineers as we ironed out the bugs, applied patches, and perfected our setup.

We spent six months getting the EFT right, and then added more switches and access points over the summer break. Next, we connected every building to Cisco DNA Center and extended the trial to the entire Wilhelmshaven campus.

Over the following school year, we continued to test the limits of this new environment and explored everything we could accomplish with our improved network management tools. I am happy to report that Cisco has surpassed all of my expectations.

The Benefits of Automation and Network Visibility

A key benefit of Cisco DNA Center is automation. I no longer have to run scripts every time I deploy a new device. I can install, configure, and update any access point or switch using one-click best practices. However, the biggest improvement is enhanced network visibility. Cisco DNA Center monitors all network activity at all times and also generates comprehensive logs that contain meaningful and actionable information.

For example, network activity at a specific location can vary wildly from one day to the next. A lecture hall may host 20 students today and 200 tomorrow. With Cisco DNA Center, I can see the change in traffic in real time. I can also go back and look at usage patterns over several days or weeks. Armed with both current and historical data, I can then add or reconfigure access points to meet future demand.

With access to current and historical network traffic, you can reconfigure your access points to meet future demands.

Here's another improvement. If someone calls me with a configuration or connection issue, I have the information I need at my fingertips and can correct the situation right away. Of course, this means that I have to re-educate users. In the past, it would take days to resolve their concerns, and so people wouldn't report them right away. Now, I have to tell our students and staff to contact me as soon as they can because I have the tools to deal with their problems immediately. 

Expanding Cisco DNA

In the next five months, we'll be rolling out Cisco DNA Center at a second campus. Our ultimate goal is to manage all three campuses from Wilhelmshaven, and to provide all our students and teachers with the consolidated IT infrastructure they need to further their educational and career goals.

Cisco DNA Center has simplified and automated many of my network management tasks, leaving me time to start thinking about the future. In the coming years, I'd like to expand the types of IT services we provide our students. Right now, we are limited to things like email and web access, but I want to start looking at cloud-based offerings and other solutions that can enhance their educational journeys and help them explore and reach their full potential.

In many ways, I have come full circle. I switched from mobile to IT, and now IT is mobile. When I started here, I was wiring desktop computers into our network.

These days, our students and staff are using Wi-Fi to connect their portable devices to our infrastructure. In fact, a few months back, I ditched the Ethernet cables in my office and now connect to the Jade Hochschule LAN wirelessly. That's what technological progress looks like. 

A System Administrator Is Always Learning

To conclude, I'd like to offer some advice to fellow system administrators who are thinking of switching to a centralized infrastructure management platform like Cisco DNA Center. Automation and visibility are nice to have, but if you don't look beneath the surface, and if you don't understand how things work, you won't be able to use these tools to their full potential.

Understand how automated processes work under the hood to gain their full potential.

It's one thing to press a button to create a new user account, but if you don't know how to write a script that accomplishes the same thing, you'll find yourself at a disadvantage. If you don't know how a switch works, you won't understand why you can't log in when it fails.

When you're troubleshooting, customizing, updating, or upgrading your infrastructure, you need to ask the right questions, even if your management platform automates almost everything. You may be able to see what's happening on your network in real time, but if you don't know why it's happening, you're out of luck.

As a system administrator, I am continuously learning. It is part of the job. I feel lucky that I am still exploring new technologies and new ideas 17 years after I graduated. As a former student, I also understand the challenges young learners face and am proud that I'm working with Cisco to help them acquire the knowledge that will transform the future.