Hybrid fiber network updates 19th-century campus to 21st-century hub

Jan. 1, 1996

Hybrid fiber network updates 19th-century campus to 21st-century hub

A small New Jersey college preserves the classic appearance of its buildings while gaining the latest voice, video and data communications architecture by installing a fiber-optic backbone system

evans john

at&t Network Systems

After a careful study of its antiquated, copper-based, internal communications system, Bloomfield College, established in the 1860s as a small, private school in a New Jersey suburb, has accelerated into advanced digital communications by installing a campus-wide, fiber-optics-based network. Students, faculty and staff can now communicate by computers, facsimiles, telephones and video devices throughout the campus and on a worldwide basis.

Ten thousand feet of multimode fiber connect all 17 of the college`s administrative and academic buildings. Hardware and software configurations are underway, and the college expects to be linked to a unified, high-speed local area network and eventually to points on the wide area network.

Students returning from spring break will find that they have real-time access to most of the college`s information resources, as well as to high-speed, multimedia modem links out to dozens of other schools on the statewide university network. Access to the college library`s contents is planned to be available both on- and off-campus. Internet access is scheduled to be incorporated next.

This massive communications upgrade began in a modest way three years ago, via a small local area network that linked 15 workstations. The college`s directors and board of trustees realized that a more ambitious system was needed to provide students with a competitive educational advantage.

According to Carole Carmody, Bloomfield`s director of information technology, the college was far behind most institutions in students` communications capabilities. Consequently, instead of playing catch-up, the college decided to leapfrog to the most versatile and affordable communications system available.

Old buildings, new solutions

After considering several options and seeking advice from other colleges where similar fiber-optic networks had been installed, Bloomfield College selected an AT&T Systimax structured cabling system. The installed, campus-wide fiber-optic backbone uses multimode fiber. All of the horizontal runs within the buildings consist of Category 5 unshielded, twisted-pair copper wire and associated components.

The communications system consists of remote hubs tied together around a multigigabit enterprise hub and a multiprotocol router from Bay Networks. The network design, the hybrid fiber/copper-cable installation and the turnkey project management were provided by AT&T Network Systems.

Retrofitting a century-old campus was no simple task. Bloomfield College was founded in 1868, four years before Bell`s first telephone and nine years before Edison`s electric lightbulb. The thick plaster walls in some buildings were ill-suited for emplacing raceways. Similarly, solid stone floors ruled out short, point-to-point horizontal cabling routes. Moreover, the town of Bloomfield prohibited underground cable routing. Consequently, aerial-cable connections had to be made among the campus buildings.

Further environmental restrictions mandated creative installation solutions to accomplish internal cable placement while preserving the structural beauty of the college`s Gothic buildings. Therefore, architectural plans were scrutinized to identify the most unobtrusive cabling routes. Where no routes could be established, coring and hidden cable troughs were installed in the buildings, followed by extensive restoration. In fact, one building is registered with the New Jersey Historical Society. To cable this building, special planning and intricate installation work were necessary.

Dual installations

To minimize disruption of college operation, the installation job was divided into two phases. Wiring runs through building interiors were done during the summer recess, and backbone cabling work was delayed until last fall. This delay enabled the local telephone company to install new poles and reposition existing facilities on other telephone poles. The task of installing cabling facilities in each building was also time-consuming. Minimizing structural modifications and disturbances while meeting design and security guidelines was the main goal.

Although the cabling installation was completed last November, the communications system will not be fully implemented until this March, according to Jim Seitz, the college`s network administrator. The main file server and operating system software were slated to be installed during Christmas break. The system applications will take another two months to install, configure and test.

The completed hybrid fiber/copper network stems from a main hub in Knox Hall, the college`s administration building. From there, fiber-optic cable runs--some containing as many as 264 strands--branch out to 16 buildings. A Compaq Pro-signia server in Knox Hall and a Novell operating system are used to connect 250 workstations. The overall network is slated for division into eight subnetworks.

Light unites

The reason why a small, independent, liberal arts college with fewer than 2300 students decided to install an advanced hybrid fiber/copper network is closely tied to the school`s 127-year-old heritage of helping poor and working-class students achieve in a fast-changing world. Two-thirds of Bloomfield students are classified as minorities, nearly half must work full-time and many are the first in their families to attend college.

Unlike many colleges, Bloomfield does not require students to purchase their own computers. To fill this gap, the college has been steadily acquiring personal computers for student use. Computer usefulness was limited, though, by an inadequate communications network. Until the new networked system was installed, only 20% of the college`s 250 computers were linked to small stand-alone local area networks.

Carmody has great expectations from the new network. For example, campus-wide e-mail will allow students immediate access to faculty, and computer conferencing facilities will let student groups collaborate on projects. Furthermore, an extensive library catalog system to be introduced this spring will permit students to conduct research, check references and download data to any personal computer on campus.

To provide students access to a wider range of educational opportunities, an interactive multimedia classroom is being designed. This classroom will allow interactive video conferences with 39 other colleges and universities linked to the New Jersey Intercampus Network.

The college`s educational reach will extend even further with a laboratory network and an Internet gateway, both planned for installation next year. Networked computers will be installed in the school`s two residence halls, affording students after-hours access to campus resources.

In operation

The structured cabling system will enable access to current and planned educational resources for many years to come, according to Seitz. Because every building is connected with a minimum of 24 fiber strands--only two of which are expected to handle all the existing educational applications--it will be easy to upgrade, reconfigure or expand the system and the electronics, or to integrate new systems whenever it becomes necessary.

After installation, the system will be based on a 10-megabit-per-second Ethernet protocol. However, that performance level can be increased by an order of magnitude without adding any new wiring, contends Seitz. For example, the backbone network could be upgraded to accommodate either a fiber distributed data interface network at 100 Mbits/sec or an asynchronous transfer mode network at 155 Mbits/sec. Student demands are anticipated to increase for even higher-bandwidth applications such as interactive video. u

Evans John is a network design engineer at AT&T Network Systems, Chief Information Officer organization, in Berkeley Heights, NJ.

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