In many ways the engineering labs at Southern University's College of Engineering are student paradise. The Windows 2003 network supports 300 high-end Intel workstations with dual flat-panel displays, running myriad applications from AutoCAD, Unigraphics and others. Students transform two-dimensional projects into 3-D models using 3-D printers and the "Cave," an eight-foot cube where they project and manipulate holographic images.
The only trouble is this paradise keeps business hours - 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with only one lab staying open until 10 p.m. Students and faculty can't access their work - all of which lives on the network's 50 servers - unless they're on site.
Security has been the biggest concern. The school has an ample budget for equipment but a meager one for staff. Scott Woodall, the school's IT director, and Alan Mattson, the system administrator, typically work 16-hour days. Woodall had experimented with remote access on his office systems - installing Microsoft's Terminal Server - but he had to take a hard line with users.
"If we gave people free rein we'd be up here 24 hours a day," he says.
But increasingly, students and faculty pushed for 24-hour access to the labs and remote access from their homes and dorms. While the school recently received US$150,000 in state funds to install a keycard system and cameras to secure the lab after hours, Woodall also began exploring remote-access products and settled on the Netilla Security Platform from Netilla Networks.
The Netilla appliance works in conjunction with Microsoft Terminal Server to offer thin-client remote access to applications and data. The system screens and intermediates Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)-encrypted sessions between remote user and applications sitting on the network servers. Because the Netilla system passes only mouse clicks and keystrokes between client and server, it requires only a thin datastream, making it possible for students to access applications even over a dial-up connection - albeit with some delay.
Woodall explored various SSL-VPN products, but Netilla's ease of use impressed him most. "Since it's just the two of us, it had to be simple to use. I've found over the years, no matter how great the technology, if it's not easy, the students and faculty won't bother with it," he says.
Making the grade
Since Woodall installed the system last fall, students and faculty have raved about how the Netilla box has improved their productivity and their home lives.
"It's the tool I've been waiting for," says Parviz Razi, associate professor for mechanical engineering. "I teach 8 a.m. classes, and my family doesn't like me working late on campus. So if I didn't finish my PowerPoint presentation for tomorrow's lecture during the day, I'd often have to come in at six in the morning."
Woodall started with the Netilla business-class version, which supports 150 concurrent users, but because "people were hammering at it like there was no tomorrow," he quickly stepped up to the enterprise version, which serves 400.
Netilla users experience a delay, especially when accessing processor-intensive engineering applications. "If you're working on some intricate part in AutoCAD, you might have to blow up the screen to make sure you're getting it done the way you want to," Woodall says. "Even though you can use dial-up, we recommend broadband."
Razi says, "There is a slight delay in using it, but nothing to interfere with performance. And considering the convenience, I can ignore it." Netilla also is changing the way Razi interacts with his students. When the labs would close at 5 p.m., often students wouldn't have all lab reports and graphics completed on time. "So now when they make the excuse that the lab is closed I tell them to get online, no more excuses,"he says.
Cox Communications offers Southern University and Louisiana State University students and faculty discounted cable broadband for $25 per month. But many students, including Doye Brumfield, still find that price out of reach and use Netilla over a dial-up connection. Before Netilla, the 28-year-old mechanical engineering senior often stayed at school studying until midnight, which didn't please his wife.
"Sure, it's different from using the lab computers, which are very fast. But the function's the same," he says. Brumfield tries to work around his wife's work schedule, often connecting to the servers at 2 a.m., when the dial-up system is less crowded. He also says Netilla lets him use applications that cost thousands of dollars on his midrange Dell home PC.
At LSU, computer manager George Ohrberg recently launched a pilot of Netilla for 3,000-plus students and faculty users in the school of engineering. Unlike Southern University, LSU offers its community a VPN client for remote access to data. But Ohrberg says it results in numerous help desk calls.
"The setup's supposed to be straightforward, but it doesn't always configure itself correctly," he says, adding that because Netilla requires only a Java-enabled browser and configures itself, it's a no-brainer.
Ohrberg also says his team is exploring whether Netilla can help consolidate the department's client software licenses. "Moving to server-based licensing might be more efficient for some applications because we won't pay for what we don't need," he says. In contrast, Woodall's not interested in this strategy because all his software is bought using a campus or site licenses.