To protect their networks and serve campus constituents effectively, IT departments need a mobile strategy that encompasses both the devices and the applications they run.

apps-byoa-collegesWhile many higher-ed IT shops are still struggling to handle the flood of mobile devices onto campus networks, some industry experts now advise schools to adopt a broader strategy that goes beyond BYOD to encompass the applications they run, too.

“We are transitioning from BYOD to bring-your-own-application (BYOA)—it’s really about the application,” said Chris LaPoint, vice president of product management at SolarWinds, a Texas-based company that develops IT management software. “The applications that run on those devices are potentially more important than the fact that these devices are showing up on the network. That’s the landscape of the problem.”

According to LaPoint, BYOD and BYOA must be tackled as part of an integrated strategy that rests on three key considerations:

  • What are the bandwidth needs of all the devices and applications running on the network?
  • What are the security implications of the applications running on these devices, and the data being shared?
  • How can the school detect and handle improper—or even illegal—use of devices and applications?

Ramping up the bandwidth capabilities of campus networks certainly ranks among the top IT investments at many colleges. “Where we’ve really had to adapt and adjust is on our wireless network,” said Charles Spann, assistant vice president for service delivery and communications for the Division of Information Technology at George Washington University. “We’ve been in the process of upgrading our wireless network over the last two years, and it seems that whenever we finish our last wireless upgrade project it’s time to start the next.”

While student consumption of bandwidth has gone through the roof in recent years, the wireless network now plays an increasingly central role in teaching and administration, too. “Faculty are leveraging [student mobile devices] to be more creative in how they conduct their classes,” explained Spann. “It’s becoming more common for faculty to conduct an online quiz at the beginning of the class, for example, or have students take a test over the wireless network on the laptops they bring to class. This has caused quite a surprise at times when a faculty member’s use of a technology has got ahead of our wireless upgrade.”

But is increasing the size of the pipe alone enough to ensure that vital instructional applications are available when students and faculty need them? “Doubling down in terms of infrastructure and network access control makes a lot of sense,” said LaPoint, “but if you’re not thinking about it end-to-end, then you’re missing the point.”

(Next page: Narrowing apps for your mission)

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.


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