Discourse / Editorials / September 30, 2009

Unplugged: Knox’s wireless problem

Contrary to popular belief, it might actually not be a student’s fault if he or she can’t connect to the network. This year, the computer center was more swamped than it has ever been trying to help students connect to the network. Yet it approached every student with the attitude that the problem must have stemmed from the student’s computer. The department has never acknowledged the possibility that its policies and practices might be the reason so many students had problems this year.

If a student couldn’t connect to the Internet when he or she arrived, Bradford was likely the culprit. Bradford flagged any student who didn’t have all of his or her Sophos or operating system updates. Bradford comes with two settings to deal with students who have been flagged. The first option has Bradford issue a warning requiring the user to update his or her computer, but the user remains connected to the Internet. The second option is largely the same, except that Bradford blocks the user from connecting to both the Internet and the local Knox network. Because the computer center doesn’t trust Knox students, it chose the second option, and students couldn’t even check their Knox emails until their computers were up to date.

Bradford is, by definition, spyware. Spyware is any software forcibly installed on a computer that reports information about the computer or its user to a third party. Bradford’s sole purpose is to continually relay information to the computer center about which updates you have installed for your operating system and Sophos. It decreases the performance of every machine it is installed on and does not prevent frequent network outages, which it was supposed to do.

For those students whom Bradford blocked, the computer center had “open trouble shooting” sessions. The help session system is only helpful in the sense that it is better than the appointment system. If a student brings a computer to the help desk at a time that isn’t designated “open trouble shooting,” the employee at the desk explains that the department is busy, and that he or she can make an appointment (usually for about a week into the future). Meanwhile, staff members sit at desks in the back, doing nothing but waiting for appointments that never show up.

A help session, on the other hand, works like this: a “helper” erases the computer’s wireless settings, re-types them in, and tries to connect. If that fails, he points to something on the computer and assert that it must be the problem. These actions repeat until either the computer connects, or the helpers run out of ideas.

This is how the poorly implemented all wireless and Bradford came to be: The lease on all of the college’s network equipment was set to expire in the summer of 2009. It would cost up to half of a million dollars to lease and install a new wired-network for the residence halls. Only 15 to 20 percent of students use the wired-network exclusively, and most of them were capable of connecting wirelessly if need be. Furthermore, the reason for the subpar wireless given by the computer center was because it was installed as an afterthought, a backup for the wired network. Steve Hall and Steve Jones said that the money not spent on the wired network would be reinvested in creating a more robust wireless network, which primarily meant that the school would buy wireless “n” access points, which are six times faster than the “g” access points, on which we relied at the time.

If we spent a few more hundred thousand dollars on the wireless infrastructure, it seemed like it would have to succeed. But, the wireless failed for two reasons. First, the savings from not replacing the wired system only turned out to be roughly two hundred thousand dollars, which is less than the lower bound estimate. The second cause is Bradford, which is a poorly configured nuisance. It should be noted that Bradford is a complete surprise to everyone; I assure you that senate would not have approved the “all-wireless” initiative if they knew that Bradford was part of the package. Of course, the computer center had no reason to tell us; we just wouldn’t understand. Some also blame Sophos for ruining the wireless. I’m not convinced it’s any worse than Trend, and I’m doubtful that it’s actually hindering the network. That said, it’s just plain dumb to require Mac and Linux users to install Sophos.

The computer center could be much more effective by listening to students’ concerns and working with them, rather than working against them in the name of protecting students from themselves. On the other hand, any student fed up with trying to work with the computer center can pay one hundred dollars to have a wired connection in his or her room.

Maxwell Galloway-Carson

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