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College Deploys Highly Available, Secure Student Information System Supported by F5 Technology

Bowdoin College, a nationally renowned liberal arts institution in Maine, needed the best Application Delivery Network to support a planned student information services (SIS) system. The SIS applications had to be highly available and secure, as well as easy to manage and monitor.

Bowdoin integrated its new system with F5 BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager(LTM) devices, and it plans to install BIG-IP Global Traffic Manager (GTM) devices in a new data center. Now, the school can give students and other users a better experience, while offering highly available applications and solid system security. In addition, the school’s IT department can easily manage the system, and has the right solution in place to support IPv6 technologies.

Business Challenges

 

Founded in 1794, Bowdoin College is a prestigious liberal arts college located in Brunswick, Maine. Bowdoin, which has 2,000 students, is well known for its highly regarded Government and Legal Studies Department. In 2011, the school was ranked sixth among all liberal arts schools in the United States by U.S. News and World Report.

The college’s IT department supports a large, growing infrastructure for faculty and students, including student  applications, wired and wireless networks, Internet connectivity, and systems management. The department manages more than 4,000 Microsoft Exchange mailboxes for both students and faculty.

A key role for the IT department is developing new IT initiatives that improve the student user experience. One such initiative, started in mid-2011, is a new student information services (SIS) system that includes dozens of heavily used applications. This system is critical for students, who use the applications to register for classes each semester, check grades, keep track of class changes or other scheduling information, and update their billing information.

As Bowdoin IT employees were planning the new SIS system, they realized it would require new technology to support it, because the previous Brocade networking solution had availability and manageability flaws. “Availability is the most important thing, because these are critical application students use every day throughout the year to get their grades, register for classes, and access other information,” says  Jason Lavoie, Director of Networking and Telecommunications for Bowdoin College.  “Unfortunately, the previous Brocade networking solution couldn’t provide the high availability we needed.”

IT also needed a better way to provide fast, available service to SIS users even at peak network traffic times. “At registration time,  for example, there’s a mad rush for students to sign up for classes, and that really puts a heavy load on the network,” Lavoie  remarks. “We tried some stopgap solutions to mitigate that load on the previous SIS system, but nothing really worked well.”  The registration application was developed on a single server and not designed for large inrushes of traffic. The application supported only 100 users, and Lavoie wanted to increase its capacity to support 500 to 1,000 users.

Manageability was another pressing need. “We needed a more functional user interface, for sure,” says Lavoie. “But we also needed a flexible solution. Our previous solution didn’t allow security personnel, network administrators, and application owners to all have a unified solution that met their needs.”

In addition to those requirements, Bowdoin College also wanted to find a solution that supported Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6).  “Like most colleges, we will need to support IPv6 so users can access IPv6 websites, but will also still need to ensure continued IPv4 support,” says Lavoie.

In spring 2011, the Bowdoin College IT department set out to find a technology that would enable them to manage access to a user-friendly SIS system that was highly available and secure and easily managed and monitored.

“F5 BIG-IP devices give our students and alumni a secure, reliable, easily accessed system that can handle all their billing, class registration, and scheduling needs.” Jason Lavoie, Director of Networking and Telecommunications, Bowdoin College

Solution

 

Bowdoin College began the technology evaluation process by considering a variety of vendors, including F5. “After doing a lot of research and talking to my peers about the best technology out there, it became very apparent that F5 had the products for our needs,” says Lavoie.  “Also, the F5 team spent a lot of time with us, talking to us about our concerns and looking at the possible architecture of a solution. That was a very positive experience, and really helpful to us in making our final choice.”

Bowdoin began developing its new SIS system by installing two F5 BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) devices in front of a dozen student applications. These devices provide intelligent network traffic management by routing web traffic, and also offer high availability.

Bowdoin also implemented the BIG-IP Application Security Manager (ASM) add-on module for BIG-IP LTM. This web application firewall will offer enhanced application security for the SIS system. “Protecting our applications from the latest web threats and keeping our end users productive was one of our main requirements for the overall solution,” says Lavoie.

F5 technology will also be part of a second project to be implemented late in 2012.           

This will involve the creation of a secondary data center with two additional BIG-IP LTM devices, as well as two BIG-IP Global Traffic Manager devices, which will direct network users to the closest or best-performing of the two sites.

In addition, because BIG-IP LTM offers support for both IPv4 and IPv6 technology and provides protocol translation services, Bowdoin College is now able to handle traffic and translation between both protocols, without deploying new hardware or software.

Bowdoin College also plans to take advantage of F5 technology to directly support its Microsoft Exchange 2010 email messaging system. “We are testing that right now, to see how the technology will best work in front of our Exchange environment. So far it’s working exactly as we hoped it would,” says Lavoie.

“Once we have both phases of this project in place … we will be able to provide the availability students and alumni demand. We could not do that without F5 technology.” Jason Lavoie, Director of Networking and Telecommunications, Bowdoin College

Benefits

 

With F5 technology supporting its new student information services system, Bowdoin College offers students and alumni a better overall experience while ensuring high availability and strong security for the system’s dozens of applications. The Bowdoin IT staff is able to take advantage of centralized management capabilities, and the school will be able to grow its infrastructure in the future. Also, the college is better prepared to handle the upcoming transition to IPv6.

Improves experience for students by deploying an application delivery system with intelligent traffic management and application security capabilities, the Bowdoin College IT department has greatly improved the SIS system user experience.  “F5 BIG-IP devices give our students and alumni a secure, reliable, easily accessed system that can handle all their billing, class registration, and scheduling needs. That gives them a great user experience every single day,” says Lavoie.

It also provides a wider benefit to the school “On this project, we worked with faculty, administration, students, and technical staff to come up with the best system,” says Lavoie. “Because of that collaboration, everyone on campus feels like they have a stake in the system. So combining that with the F5 technology, we are positively affecting the college overall.”

Offers high availability, security for critical applications

Using its previous technology, the Bowdoin IT team could not ensure the high availability its new SIS system requires. “We often had to rely on the applications themselves, because we didn’t have the ability to intelligently manage traffic,” Lavoie says.  Now, IT can make sure SIS applications are highly available at all times. “Once we have both phases of this project in place, including the new data center, we will be able to provide the 24/7 availability that students and alumni demand,” says Lavoie. “We could not do that without F5 technology.”

When Bowdoin begins using the BIG-IP ASM module, it will have strong security for applications on the SIS system. “Although we are still training on the technology, we know that BIG-IP ASM on BIG-IP LTM network security will give us another layer of strong defense for our applications,” Lavoie states.

Provides centralized, simplified management

Bowdoin College can also use BIG-IP LTM to centrally manage its new SIS system.  “With BIG-IP LTM, we have a centralized point of control from which to manage our new project, behind a single server,” says Lavoie. “It gives us a central point of proxy to connections from all of the users on the system, which greatly simplifies things from my perspective. We now have a single place for debugging, and I can look at the status of individual applications, while also having a consistent single location to look at testing from clients and servers.”

The school’s IT administrators are also benefiting from the streamlined BIG-IP LTM user interface. “The BIG-IP LTM command line is very flexible and very intuitive for making individual changes,” Lavoie says.  “It is rare in the industry for a vendor to be good at both the command line and the web interface, but F5 does both extremely well.”

Gives Bowdoin a solid IT foundation for growth

When Bowdon implements the second phase of its solution, featuring BIG-IP LTM and GTM devices in a newly built off-campus data center, it will have a technology foundation that prepares the school for future growth. “Once deployed, our new data center, featuring F5 BIG-IP GTM devices, will allow us to grow beyond the limits of our current data center and give us disaster recovery capabilities we previously lacked,” says Lavoie. “We’ll also have a much better ability to operate our infrastructure in the event of a failure, so it will give us another layer of protection for the SIS system.”

Prepares college for IPv6 compatibility

The school will also be better prepared for the transition from IPv4 to IPv6. “Many applications don’t support IPv6 yet, but we can front-end those applications using the dual-stack functionality of BIG-IP LTM, while still continuing to support IPv4 on the back end,” says Lavoie. “As we renew contracts with providers, we’re making IPv6 compatibility a requirement, and we really need to make sure our staff understands how to support IPv6 services. BIG-IP LTM helps us do that easily.”

For Lavoie and his team, it’s yet another part of a complete solution that helps the college offer the best service to SIS users. “High availability, redundancy, security, growth, and simplified management all contribute to a great user experience,” he says. “F5 delivers all of these things for us.”