Over the past several years, new computer services have been a visible part of students' lives, from online lecture videos, to personalized web portals, to colorful iMacs.
This semester, however, the changes in the works will be less apparent, but equally significant to the future of information technology (IT) at Harvard.
Harvard Arts and Sciences Computing Services (HASCS) is currently revamping its network to allow for continued growth in Internet use and traffic--a change that will ultimately lead to faster connections, better security and roaming Ethernet access.
HASCS fell under increased scrutiny last December when students and faculty encountered slow responses from e-mail and telnet servers.
According to Rick Osterberg '96, HASCS database applications specialist, most of the slowdown was attributable to overloaded storage systems. Over winter break, a new system was installed.
"We feel that the speed of our storage systems is now sufficient," Osterberg says.
According to Osterberg, HASCS will next address the speed of the systems used everyday, the "fas" set of systems. Harvard received replacement systems about a week ago and is currently installing them in the Science Center.
"Once the machines are brought online, hopefully in the next two weeks, users should notice a speed increase on interactive login sessions (such as Pine), as well as speed in accessing POP mail with programs such as Eudora," Osterberg says, referring to two commonly-used e-mail programs.
Free to Roam
Harvard's plans to implement a "roaming" Ethernet system--with which users can connect their computers to any jack on the network--are expected to be completed by next fall.
Harvard currently requires students to individually register each connection in the beginning of the school year and file a request if they wish to switch jacks. Such requests typically take one or two days to process.
This precludes students from using their own computers in libraries and other common spaces.
Many other schools, such as Yale and MIT, already use roaming system, but Harvard Law School is the only school in the University that is currently configured for roaming access.
The rest of FAS awaits an overall system upgrade to a "switched network," which is currently being implemented.
"We hope to have full-fledged roaming ready for the fall term," says Director of FAS Computer Services Frank M. Steen says.
Steen adds that HASCS is considering smaller projects such as upgrading parts of the library this term, though he stresses that much work remains to be done.
According to Steen, "library access in the stacks should be available when the library rebuilding project is complete."
The system upgrade being performed should also ensure reliability in the face of increased Internet use at Harvard--roughly a doubling of network traffic each year, according to FAS Dean for Research and Information Technology Paul C. Martin.
"We have been able to keep up with demand by aggressive upgrades," Steen says.
Under the current "shared access network system," the more people the network hosts, the slower it runs.
With a switched network, each user is given personal bandwidth, so that each computer does not have access to all network traffic. According to Osterberg, this change will improve security in addition to speed.
"Switched networking is advantageous in that it eliminates any risks from this kind of network monitoring," he said last February, after an incident of "packet-sniffing" forced many students to change their network passwords.
The switched network will still have a maximum data capacity of 10 megabits per second (Mbps), below the 100 Mbps being used in many corporate systems.
"Fortunately, for almost all end-user purposes, switched 10 Mbps should be sufficient…switching to 100 Mbps everywhere would be massively expensive," Martin says.
Harvard's connection to the outside world is also being upgraded.
"Bandwidth use has been growing steadily over the past year… it's a steep climb," says Manager of Network Engineering and Planning Leo Donnelly.
With increasing demand for Internet access, streaming video, music and other media, peak traffic can hit the upper bounds of Harvard's connection.
As a result, Donnelly explains, UIS has been "monitoring closely" bandwidth demands. Several Internet service providers have been contacted to price an upgrade to a full OC-3 connection, a 155 Mbps connection.
Harvard's current connection, a DS-3, is at 90 Mbps.
"The process is well in the works," Donnelly says. At latest, the new connection would be implemented this summer.
One development students should not expect to see in the near future is that of wireless Ethernet--which would allow them to connect to the Harvard network without a physical connection to a data jack.
A test-bed has been established in Maxwell-Dworkin to evaluate the wireless technology, but according to Martin, "there is no plan for widespread deployment of wireless in the near future."
Finishing What Was Started
Last semester, students began to benefit from a number of visible changes in the information technology infrastructure.
One recent innovation was the introduction of the "My Harvard" web portal, which provide students with a calendar, links, and news headlines from The Crimson.
Eventually, these customizable pages will provide personalized information from departments, College administration and the registrar's office.
"I envision the [My Harvard] page as a true startup page…calendars, weather, schedules, newspapers, directories, menus and announcements are important features that should be available on our portal," Martin said.
Another visible change was the replacement of older e-mail kiosks in locations such as Loker Commons and the Science Center with faster, more colorful iMacs.
"The iMacs are an experiment to see how well they work as kiosks," Steen says.
According to Steen, roughly one-third of Harvard's 300 public computers are replaced each year. He said that HASCS had not yet decided whether to continue using iMacs as replacement for Internet kiosks.