Tribune Media Service
Last spring, alarm bells went off at the University of Minnesota when technology administrators discovered students had overwhelmed school computer networks with digital-music downloading off the popular Napster Web site.
The students had gobbled more than half the networks’ information-carrying capacity or “bandwidth” with their pastime, threatening to bring the university’s high-priced, high-speed networking infrastructure to a virtual standstill.
This spring, though, Napster and Napster-like downloading is consuming less than 10 percent of the university’s bandwidth.
The difference? The university has made peace with its bandwidth bete noire instead of futilely trying to banish it.
Institutions of higher learning across Minnesota and the nation have absorbed the same lesson. After unsuccessfully trying to block access to Napster and similar music-downloading Web sites last spring, many colleges and universities this academic year are harnessing technologies that manage their Internet traffic much like freeway ramp metering does during rush hour.
While students still get to download music, this recreational use gets low priority during the day when professors, staffers and students log on to campus networks for exchanging e-mails, looking up Web sites and conducting research. MP3-music files must be content to crawl in the slow lane.
But at night, when nonstudents have logged off and workday traffic subsides, the music-downloading students can put the pedal to the metal.
Colleges and university students are among the most voracious consumers of Napster-like services because their high-speed Internet access allows them to download songs in seconds or minutes instead of hours.
Given this fact, student outrage about recent on-campus Napster braking might seem inevitable. But such cyber-traffic management has been accomplished with little complaint, University of Minnesota officials claim.
They call this practice “rate limiting” — the ability to restrict a particular kind of online activity to a set amount of network bandwidth.
“If any entertainment application seems to be hogging Internet resources, we can throttle it back to a reasonable consumption level,” said Steve Cawley, associate vice president and chief information officer for the university.
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The university has limited Napster and its ilk to 10 percent of its bandwidth after finding students had consumed an estimated 57 percent last year. This startled school officials at the time, considering the massive amount of university bandwidth that was available.
A run-of-the-mill high-speed T1 line transmits 1.5 megabits of information per second, while a faster T3 line speeds along 45 megabits. But the university uses something called OC3 that transmits 150 megabits of information, or three times that of a T3 line.
The university also is plugged into the so-called Internet II, a new network that connects research universities nationwide and transmits information at 600 megabytes per second, smoking even the hyper-fast OC3 lines.
Put another way, the University of Minnesota-managed Internet connection point sends and receives the equivalent of a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica every three seconds.
“It’s a wonderful playground for our students,” Cawley said of the broad bandwidth. “So in one respect, we want to encourage (Internet usage). These are our future scientists and our future artists. We want them to take advantage of the resources that the university has to offer.”
But some universities think students are taking advantage of this bandwidth bonanza, monopolizing too much of campus computer networks with recreational music downloading.
Part of the problem stems from the “bursty” nature of Napster-like music-file transfers, meaning the files gobble whatever bandwidth is available to send themselves as quickly as possible. It’s like a giant semi-tractor trailer barreling down the information superhighway, shoving aside smaller vehicles such as e-mail messages and Web page downloads.
College students aren’t the only ones who have given administrators bandwidth-related migraines. Nonstudents away from the campuses are a big part of the problem, too, because they use services such as Napster to grab music tracks right off the hard drives of college students. That’s how these “peer-to-peer” music-sharing systems work.
With such big pipes connecting students’ computers to the outside world, it’s no wonder colleges and universities figure among the top download destinations for nonstudents looking for their favorite music.
Research institutions such as the University of Minnesota routinely crack the Internet’s top-60 lists of most popular URLs to visit, with more files exported out than imported, Cawley said.
That’s why some schools are considering whether to charge for Internet access.
Clemson University in South Carolina, for instance, is looking at restructuring the way it provides all telecommunications services, including phone, video conferencing and voice mail as well as Internet access.
“And to the extent that Internet is becoming the mode of communication that everyone wants and uses, it might make more sense to charge for that and provide the other services ‘free,’” says spokeswoman Cathy Sams.
The University of Minnesota already builds high-speed Internet access — at a flat rate of about $20 per month per room — into its student housing fees, just as it does for telephone services. Other Minnesota schools don’t charge anything for Net access, however.
“Students consider free access to the Internet an entitlement. It would be like charging for drinking water,” said James Koenig, director of Information Technology Services at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, which share resources.
Both colleges, near St. Cloud, originally tried to block Napster access and failed when students easily out-maneuvered the system. So the schools became among the first in Minnesota to go with the flow this fall by using a device called a Packet Shaper.
The Packet Shaper, made by Silicon Valley-based Packeteer, can dip into the scramble of Internet traffic and differentiate among e-mail, Web pages, music, photographs and other types of digital information. It then allows administrators to assign different amounts of bandwidth to each type of file.
Koenig considers it a life-saver. “It makes the difference between being in business and not ... These kids would just eat us alive without it.”
Packet Shaper and other Web-traffic-management appliances can’t actually tell if bits of digital information are songs or e-mails.
Instead, they look at where the information is going, judging its makeup by what “port” — akin to a television channel — it uses to enter the university’s computer system. Each type of information usually uses the same port, allowing information to flow to the right spots.
Napster was good as “port hopping,” however. If schools tried to ban the service via port blocking, it simply found another. So devices like Packet Shaper also look at the block of messages exchanged just before a file transfer, called “framing messages,” says John Burke, director of network services in the Computing and Communications Services Department at the University of St. Thomas.
Such framing messages are practically Victorian in their stiff formality.
For instance, an Internet user might send Napster a message that says, essentially, “Give me all the locations where I can find all the Britney Spears’ ‘Oops, I Did It Again’ song on the system.” Napster would reply, “Here is our response to your request,” followed by, “Here is a list of computers carrying the Britney Spears song.” Then the user would send a request to one of the computers carrying the Britney Spears song. That computer would respond, “Here is my response to your request.” It would then send the song as a separate response.
In computer jargon, this exchange is called “protocol” and never varies. The rigid rules allow Packet Shaper-like traffic-management devices to figure out what kind of information is being sent without actually ascertaining its content in any great detail.
Protocol is so distinct that it allows universities even to tell the difference between Napster traffic and that of rival music-sharing applications such as Gnutella, which don’t use centralized servers as Napster does.
System administrators such as St. Thomas’ Burke haven’t tried to systematically distinguish between recreational and academic traffic on their networks, a difficult task. That’s why some kinds of traffic may be difficult to identify.
St. Thomas’ system, for instance, has recently shown a rise in a new but unidentifiable type of computer-network use.
“We’re not that curious about it as long as it doesn’t swamp our system,” he said.
St. Thomas’ network restrictions consist largely of prioritizing traffic — giving top priority to anyone accessing the library catalog system the school shares with other area colleges, for instance — while giving low priority to traffic that is clearly Napster-like.
When Concordia University in St. Paul turned on its Packet Shaper last fall, “Boy, it was an eye-opener,” recalled Eric LaMott, vice president of information and technology. Napster and other music-swapping services were consuming up to 80 percent of the school’s bandwidth.
Concordia, which allows laptop networking among its 1,800 students and 120 faculty, considers the boxy device a good investment even at $10,000 because the school would pay between $12,000 and $15,000 to add more network bandwidth. Packet Shaper could well spare the school that expense for several years, LaMott believes.
Packeteer has sold Packet Shapers to businesses such Pepsi-Cola and Domino’s Pizza, but it is keen on targeting schools. Its devices already manage Internet traffic at 177 colleges and universities across the nation, including the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and the U.S. Air Force Academy, spokeswoman Jennifer Geisler says.
Packet Shaper is popular in Minnesota, installed at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Concordia College in Moorhead, Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, St. Olaf and Carleton colleges in Northfield, and the College of St. Catherine and Macalester College in St. Paul.
Schools may be getting a handle on their bandwidth now, but the demands on their networks will continue to grow.
The University of Minnesota has seen traffic on its systems double every year since 1991, although this may be the first year that doesn’t happen, thanks in part to its rate limiting.
St. Thomas upgraded its system this January from several T-1 lines carrying a total of 6 megabytes per second to a T-3 line carrying 9 megabytes, but by March it already was bumping up to its limits.
“If demand continues to climb the rest of the semester, we may hit September where we are now or worse, and if that happens, we’ll start to feel a pinch,” Burke said.
Napster itself may not survive its bitter fight with the recording industry, but schools are seeing increases in other types of bandwidth-ravenous traffic — pirated copies of movies such as “American Beauty” began showing up in dorm rooms this year at St. John’s and St. Benedict’s. And more and more college students are using their desktop computers to upload files to personal Web sites.
The way colleges and universities manage their bandwidth might hold lessons for businesses, particularly providers of residential high-speed Internet access that require neighborhood networks to share bandwidth, Cawley said.
“I think they will try to do much the same things we’re doing here — trying to manage a shared resource without trying to police the contents of that resource.”