Insider networking: UNU ICT workshop 2013

From 19-23 August 2013 the headquarters of UN University in Tokyo held the first ever ICT conference for staff of the various UNU institutes. While the content was technical, the aim was simple: to share skills and knowledge and get to know each other personally. For example, I’ve been in touch with Bruck Tadesse, my opposite number at WIDER, for several years but we’ve never actually met in real life.

Aug13IctgroupDuring the conference each participant explained the main aspects of his/her network in a short presentation. This was very interesting, as I learned that MERIT’s network is very different from our counterparts across the UNU in terms of age, size and hardware.

The issue of “implemented redundancy” was also in the spotlight. This basically means the duplication of critical components, for example having two power supplies and two firewalls, so that if one fails the other can take over without service disruption.

Same same, but different
In terms of age, FLORES (in Dresden) is just starting up and therefore making different choices compared to older institutes like MERIT or WIDER. For example: they host email and VOIP via HQ in Tokyo. Beyond Dresden, many other institutes host various other services at HQ. Many are in fact part of the UNU global active directory, do not maintain their own user databases, and are connected via site-to-site VPN lines.

Size-wise, MERIT has one of the biggest networks, partly because of our high staff numbers, shared and embedded within Maastricht University. All our core systems (firewall, router, switches, servers) are non-redundant, but our counterparts have made different choices: many have dual core routers, dual power provider plus diesel generator (at HQ), redundant mail servers, etc.

In terms of hardware, many institutes rely on Cisco network equipment. In the past we had Cisco as well, but for the last decade we’ve used 3com because the cost difference is huge. On the software side, MERIT has basically had an open source network since 2006, when we migrated to Samba / OpenLDAP. To my knowledge, we’re the only UNU institute running a 100 per cent open source server environment.

Conclusions, biting bullets

  • MERIT should perhaps talk about having (some) more redundancy in its network. But given the increase in costs, it’s important to decide wisely where to apply some redundancy, and where not;
  • MERIT may host an ipv6 secondary DNS for HQ, as it turns out we are the only institute with a native ipv6 connection
  • CiviCRM is used extensively at HQ and WIDER. I did not know CiviCRM, but since we organize a lot of bigger events) we could benefit tremendously from some form of Customer Relationship Management application. I talked with our secretaries Eveline in de Braek and Monique Raedts, and I’ll setup a test CiviCRM instance for them to try.
  • Our wireless system has turned out to work unreliably under Windows 7 and 8. HQ has tested a system called ‘open mesh‘ which is very cost effective, compatible and simple. We are currently running an open-mesh trial, so far we like it and will probably migrate our entire WiFi infrastructure to open-mesh.
  • We are considering using EMC backup devices to replace our existing LTO4 tape drives with. Tape-backup capacity is quickly running out, and a new LTO6 drive plus the required new tapes are pretty expensive. WIDER is considering doing the same, so we could be each other’s fully automatic, off-site storage.
  • Something to consider is so called functional email accounts, like director@merit.unu.edu. (like we currently already have library@merit.unu.edu as an alias) I think we don’t have that, but we might like the idea? HQ did it NOT as an alias, but as a separate mailbox, that could be handed over to a new director.
  • I will again follow something called ‘alfresco’. I used to be interested in it, but lost interest. Now (years later) HQ has it in a test lab, and they like it a lot. It is a ‘document management and collaboration’ software. It does a lot of things very easily and allows staff to work with and access their documents at home or anywhere using a web browser or mobile device.

 For the rest, and for updates, watch this space!

heupinkMourik Jan C Heupink, a Dutch national, is the Network Administrator at UNU-MERIT. As such, he is responsible for designing, setting up, maintaining and supporting UNU-MERIT ‘s IT infrastructure.

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