Interview | A Closer Look: Managing the Network at WKU

Jeppie Sumpter has been with Western Kentucky University for thirteen years now and has been in his current role for the past nine. His background involves a degree in Computer Science that focused on programming along with experience in many different areas of operational Information Technology and project management. Over the last decade, he has handled IT components for approximately half a billion dollars of construction and has held over thirteen industry (IT) certifications from a variety of companies including Microsoft, Novell, Sun, Cisco, Checkpoint, and Red Hat to name a few. At WKU, Jeppie manages a team of skilled IT admins and together they cover a broad spectrum of constantly expanding responsibilities including the administration of vital services such as the University’s data network and video surveillance system operations. 

Victor: How big is the network you manage?

Jeppie: Our group manages the network for roughly 24,500 students and employees at Western Kentucky University, which includes about 80 buildings, 40,000 wired ports and 1,500 access points across multiple campuses. This network, as is the case with many higher education networks, is interesting because we end up playing many different roles: enterprise/corporate, ISP, etc. It is a fairly large network to manage with such a relatively small group of people, particularly considering amount responsibilities with which we are tasked.

Victor: What problems have you faced when it comes to tracking networked devices?

Jeppie: Tracking networked devices in a large environment can be tricky, particularly in a multi-vendor environment. The need for tracking has always existed, so we have worked over the past few years to position ourselves so we can better deal with the situation. Obviously, the software is a core component to the overall solution but we actually spent the most time doing field work, properly documenting our cross connections and creating procedures to keep this documentation accurate so that we know which switch ports go to which building, floor, room, communication plate in the room, and outlet in that plate. This information is something that had been lacking in years past. We’ve always desired a complete solution to the problem but the market has been limited. With the introduction of User Device Tracker (UDT) from Solarwinds, it just made sense for us to head in that direction.

Victor: You use SolarWinds’ User Device Tracker (UDT) to help keep track of what’s happening on your network. How does the software work?

Jeppie: At its core, UDT is a SolarWinds product that monitors MAC addresses and the switch ports they are seen on but it doesn’t stop there. It can also gather additional data that correlates that information to IP addresses and, for Microsoft AD environments, ultimately the user ID. This information enables us to not only determine current location information, but also perform historical device location lookups, check on switch capacity status, and implement various alerting processes. UDT has made it quick and easy for us to chase down devices that may either intentionally or inadvertently be doing something wrong.

Also, we have long-term goals to leverage UDT data for physical location inventory of University owned networked devices and to use it to notify us of VoIP phone location changes for enhanced 911 services and the like. 

Victor: What are the differences between using packaged software and a build-your-own approach?

Jeppie: In the past, we had used some homegrown software that worked decently for the limited scope it was designed for. However, it wasn’t being used enterprise-wide and wasn’t written to cover all of the switch makes and models we had in production, which is ultimately what we were looking for in terms of functionality. In most cases, if a commercial solution is available that fits our need we’ll go with it – we prefer to limit the number of homegrown solutions we use. We found that using SolarWinds UDT better integrates with our other management products and provides us with a more holistic view of our network.

Victor: Why is this technology important?

Jeppie: There are a variety of reasons. One of the strongest use cases for SolarWinds UDT surrounds security. Many times the physical aspects of network security don’t make the top of the list, but for many of our cases it’s not enough just to turn a port off. Ideally we need to track down the device, track down the user (or users) and investigate end-to-end. These cases could be for our own troubleshooting or investigation purposes, we could be asked by an outside group like the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) to notify a suspected copyright infringer, or we might even receive subpoenas or search warrants from law enforcement agencies. Also, we can monitor for stolen devices and devices associated with illegal activities to see if they show back up on the network and set the software to alert us accordingly. SolarWinds UDT simplifies these processes, allowing our small team additional insight into our network.

Victor: Got any good stories that tell the tale of what you’re using Solarwinds UDT for?

Jeppie: Not really – luckily most of the reasons we’ve employed SolarWinds UDT are pretty typical. Normally, we’ll get a notification from an outside organization or a law enforcement agency with an IP address associated with suspect behavior and we’ll need to track down the user or device as part of our investigation into the situation.

Victor: Is illegal downloading a problem at your university? What about other universities?

Jeppie: Over the years, copyright infringement has been an issue, no matter the university. Many people feel that groups like the RIAA and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) have targeted higher education more than many other industries. However, we have seen a decrease in this activity over the last few years we feel in part due better awareness of the severity of the situation and the emergence of new offerings that make purchasing music online easier and less expensive.

Victor: What goes into preparing for a law enforcement investigation and have you ever had to prepare for one?

Jeppie: We have participated in many investigations and have worked with the local campus police department as well as outside local and federal agencies on a number of cases. Typically the agency will contact us, ask what information it’s possible for us to provide and then we work with them to do what we can. The most prevalent issue we’ve seen as of late is device theft, but there are other instances where we need to locate an offending device or try to pinpoint the person who would have been using said device. 

Victor: Any thoughts about technology transforming IT management in education?

Jeppie: IT management and monitoring technology is taking a cue from restricted budgets and is changing to make university IT admins more efficient than ever. Networks become more complex and these teams are commonly tasked with more duties, yet many organizations are not able to grow their personnel resources at the same pace. We rely on tools that tie everything together and provide us with an end-to-end view of the network and related services. The more we can get out of those tools, the more personnel resources can be freed to focus on other initiatives. In this ‘virtual Network Operations Center (NOC)’ we don’t have to employ people to sit and watch a screen, instead we are alerted to problems, can clearly see the problems, and can react as needed.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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