In LaPoint’s view, it’s critical for schools to protect the performance of those applications that the university considers central to its mission. Students on Facebook or streaming videos of kittens should not interfere with that mission.
“If BYOD is going to be useful in your campus network, then it has to be about the connection of the user to the app,” explained LaPoint. “What tools do you have to measure what that looks like, especially for the critical apps that students require to learn? What are those apps? How does IT make sure it has a view into the end-to-end performance of those apps, and how does the network support them?”
Several third-party products, including SolarWind’s NetFlow Traffic Analyzer (NTA), allow IT departments to gain just this kind of view into their networks as well as into the applications running across them. For devices that don’t support NetFlow, deep-packet inspection tools provide an alternative solution. The benefit of a tool like NTA is that universities can actually give priority on their network to officially sanctioned applications. A school might elect to favor traffic relating to its LMS or Google Docs, for example, while throttling student-entertainment apps that tend to hog bandwidth.
Given higher ed sensitivities surrounding academic freedom, however, many schools are understandably hesitant about imposing top-down edicts about which applications will receive priority. “We have some ways of prioritizing traffic but we don’t do that,” noted Spann. “We are concerned about inadvertently blocking something that we shouldn’t be blocking.”
He recalled an effort by GWU to prevent streaming of copyrighted MP3s that ended up blocking a faculty member from streaming a public domain file for his class. “We don’t have the ability of knowing how every faculty member is planning on delivering their content,” added Spann. “We want to make sure that we’re not getting in the very way of the mission of the university.”
For this very reason, LaPoint advocates developing a BYOA policy, based on community feedback and an analysis of network traffic. “Take a step back and ask, ‘What are the requirements of the student body, of the administrators, faculty, and staff?'” he explained. “It means talking to them, asking questions about what apps they use and their expectations, so you can develop a strategy rather than just reacting to what’s happening.”
A university app store can play a critical role in a school’s BYOA policy. By identifying apps, whether on premise or cloud-based, that the university is willing to support, IT can then optimize the network to ensure that those apps perform as well as possible.
A university app store also makes it easier for IT to secure the network and sensitive university data. A recent study by Gartner indicated that more than 75 percent of mobile apps built through 2015 will fail “basic security tests.”
But security flaws may not be the only reason to consider a university-sanctioned list of apps. Data is the lifeblood of any university and protecting that data is critical—a fact not lost on Spann who struggles with the fact that a large population of GWU faculty use Dropbox. “We would certainly prefer that they use Google Drive because we have a university-wide license agreement with Google that protects the data. If they’re using Dropbox for their research work, it’s protected only by the end-user licensing agreement that they personally made with Dropbox. They could have agreed to terms that essentially give no protection to their data, and they may lose that data or lose ownership of that data.”
In its attempts to persuade faculty to use certain applications, GWU tends to favor the carrot over the stick. “We look for ways to incentivize them to use the systems that we provide,” said Spann, noting that his department offers training and workshops on university-approved systems that are not otherwise available to faculty who strike out on their own.
For his part, LaPoint believes it is possible for faculty and IT to work together to identify those apps whose performance will be optimized on the university network: First, IT must gain a proper understanding about the apps used by students, faculty, and staff really; second, the university community must grasp the security and performance challenges facing IT.
“The good news is that solving these particular problems does not require a broad set of new tools,” noted LaPoint. “A lot of the fundamentals still apply—it’s just how you wield them.”
Andrew Barbour is an editorial freelancer with eCampus News.