Virtual Campuses and Campus-Wide Wi-Fi: An Educational Transformation at the University of Granada

CISCO

The world is a classroom. Thanks to computers and online course material, learning can take place anywhere you happen to be. The same can be said for libraries. Ebooks, electronic journals, and research databases are available from anywhere on the planet. Why not step outside and study in the sunshine? This is the basic concept behind the IT infrastructure renewal program here at the University of Granada (UGR).


Founded by Emperor Charles V in 1531, the University of Granada is one of the oldest universities in Europe. We operate a total of seven campuses; five in this city, and one each in the North African cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Some 80,000 students—including 5,000 international students—call UGR home. With 27 faculties and engineering schools, 124 departments, and thousands of published papers a year, we consistently rank in the top ten universities in Spain. Our Higher Technical School of Computer Science and Telecommunications Engineering is the best in Computer Science in Spain (according to the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities).


There’s a lot happening at our campuses, but university life doesn’t begin and end in the lecture hall or the lab. When we started to think about updating our IT infrastructure, we took a hard look at the way that education is evolving in the 21st century, and had to conclude that just as much learning takes place outside the classroom as inside. We built up our new network to reflect this reality.

Ubiquitous and Secure Access

Let me break down the numbers a little further. When you add staff, faculty, visiting scholars, and researchers from other institutions to our pool of students, you’re looking at a total of 85,000 network users. Our 7 campuses are home to 83 buildings on 2 continents, and there are 33,000 physical endpoints  and 300,000 wireless devices on our network. Our goal in updating our IT infrastructure was to create a single virtual campus that was transparent to all end users. We wanted a seamless experience that was available anytime, everywhere on site, and anywhere around the world.

Learning shouldn’t be confined to the classroom. Reach students everywhere with connected classrooms.


Our biggest concerns were capacity, availability, ubiquity, and security. We needed storage and speed for four very different types of users: students, teachers, researchers, and staff. Each has uniquely different needs when it comes to the way they use our network and computer services. Students need easy and reliable access to course materials, libraries, online journals, and databases; as well as information about campus facilities and activities. Researchers need all this, plus access to on-demand high-speed storage or high-performance computing. Teachers require all of the above, plus access to robust cloud-based classroom management applications. Then there’s everything else that is needed by support and administrative staff.


Our existing IT infrastructure was fast, stable, and secure, but it wasn’t designed for today’s data-intensive cloud-based applications or for ubiquitous computing. Our hardware partner was—and remains—Cisco. The company has always been there to assist us with all our technical questions and all our infrastructure needs.


One thing I’ve noticed is that Cisco is always ahead of the curve. Whenever we think up a new way to use our network infrastructure, Cisco has already deployed a similar solution and written a white paper about it. It makes our job a little easier knowing that Cisco is already on the road to where we’re going. This is especially important as we build capacity for our present and future needs.

Computing Indoors and Out

The first major change to our infrastructure was the creation of a single virtual campus. Using high-speed, high-capacity links, our five campuses in Granada and the two in Africa are now a single consolidated network that is transparent to users. Our students, faculty, and researchers can access libraries, electronic course materials, and research applications anytime from anywhere on campus—or around the world—on any desktop or mobile device.


This level of ease and transparency makes all the difference to today’s students, who grew up online. They make no distinction between the physical world and their virtual lives on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. You’ll see them interacting with their friends on these platforms whether they’re in the same room or halfway around the world.

Today’s students blend the digital and physical world. Don’t let your technology stand in their way.


Another way we’ve expanded our virtual campus to better serve our users is outdoor Wi-Fi. If you look carefully at the lampposts at our facilities, you’ll see that they don’t only house lights but also hold Wi-Fi antennas and routers. Why stay indoors on a sunny day for the sake of connectivity? Instead of lying in the grass or sitting at a picnic table playing with their phones, our students can pursue their academic goals by connecting to virtual classrooms and an entire world of educational resources that are available on and through UGR’s network.


If they’d rather stay indoors, our network also integrates geolocation capacities that help students and staff find the nearest available reading or conference room.

Securing the Cloud In-House

A third improvement has been the adoption of in-house cloud-based storage. Our researchers have to compile and process massive amounts of data, and the best way to share and stockpile it is on the cloud. However, as a public institution, we are subject to Spanish laws and, as a result, we cannot use external storage services like Dropbox or Google Drive. Thanks to Cisco’s Nexus 9000 switches and software-defined network services, our researchers can easily access UGR’s internal cloud anytime from anywhere inside or outside the university. To further facilitate research, users now have direct network access to the University’s Alhambra supercomputer cluster.


Research is a collaborative effort, and our scholars and experts are often working with colleagues at other universities around the world and in the private sector. This requires robust and flexible network security mechanisms that can recognize, manage, and authenticate different types of user accounts with varying access levels.


Thanks to Cisco, our 33,000 physicals endpoints and 300,000 wireless devices are secure. If there is a breach or a security concern, we can quarantine a user until the issue is resolved. We can also blacklist any IP address using comprehensive threat intelligence functionalities. Not only is security centralized, but it is also highly automated. As a result, we can often spot and neutralize a threat before it becomes a problem.

Consolidating Network Management

I’m very proud of what our team of network engineers have accomplished. We have created a seamless end-user experience, but Cisco has also helped us streamline network operations behind the scenes. Moving our backbone to Cisco Nexus 9000 switches and integrating SDN technology into our network has allowed us to also create a unified infrastructure from a management perspective.

Software-defined networking allows you to create a unified infrastructure for management.


Once again, it was a matter of our engineers thinking up a solution and then finding that Cisco had the tools to make it a reality. In this case, our team developed an in-house system called ODBM, which is short for Object Database Management system. It was meant to be the brains of our network infrastructure. Sure enough, we were able to integrate various APIs into ODBM and then connect it to our Cisco infrastructure, thus creating a centralized management platform.


Instead of having to jump from one app to another to handle a specific problem, we now have a centralized interface that allows us to troubleshoot, configure, and secure every element of our IT infrastructure. This centralized approach has allowed us to consolidate all our activities at two network management centers (named LUCIA and HERMES).

A Perfect Circle

Like our end users, our engineers now benefit from increased accessibility to the tools they need, more control, an improved UX, and robust security. It’s a perfect circle. The more we can improve the backend, the more we can offer on the front-end. In doing so, we are future-proofing our IT infrastructure.


We continue to expand our outdoor Wi-Fi coverage and our geolocation capacities, and we are constantly striving to improve network security. This is very much an on-going project. A few years from now, the online experience will be so seamless that attending classes at the University of Granada will be easier than getting out of bed in the morning.


Technology is changing very fast. It is up to my team of engineers to ensure that our IT infrastructure stays ahead of the curve, and that UGR is always on the cutting edge. Cisco is providing the foundation that helps us build the future of education.