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Campus News

Computing Services: inside your campus internetz, fixin’ your frustrationz

Chris Biddle, Staff Writer (cbiddle@wwc)

It’s regrettably late on a Thursday night, and you’re working on that term paper that’s worth half of your grade.  You use what information you can get in the library, but the key sources to pull your paper together can only be found on the Internet.  The only problem is that the Internet is down.  Down?  Down where?  Where did the Internet go, and for that matter, where does it come from?

The Internet as we know it is essentially a system of independent groups of computers called servers.  These servers are where information is stored, much in the same way individual computers store information on hard-drives.  The beauty and power of the internet is of course its connectivity, which is achieved through an interconnected system of hardware like servers and fiber-optic cables.

Imagine it as a kind of massive digital plumbing system where we work with information instead of water, servers instead of reservoirs, fiber-optics instead of copper pipes, and megabits per second instead of pounds per second.  In the case of Warren Wilson, the reservoir is the Education Resource Consortium of Western North Carolina, a non-profit, federally funded broadband provider to schools and other colleges.  Our portion of the Internet rounds off to about 30 megabits of bandwidth.  In other words, on-campus users have access to a total of 30 megabits of information from outside of the Wilson bubble.  In addition to that, Wilson has its very own ‘well’ if you will, in the servers that live in the basement of Bannerman.

“Everything from our campus email accounts and m-drives are stored in the Bannerman servers,” says Mikel Oboylski, a senior member of the computing services crew.  “When you send emails from campus to campus, you’re not actually using any of the bandwidth we buy.”

This is all relatively simple, requiring only a short stretch of the imagination to paint the right picture.  But once the flow of information reaches campus, things start to get a bit more complicated.

“We’re pretty much topped out in our bandwidth usage at all times,” says Sloan Poe, Network Administrator.  Imagine every faucet on campus turned on to full and you can imagine what happens to Internet access when too many people are using it.  Each bit of information that comes together into a web page takes longer to get there, and as a result, certain functions of the internet don’t operate as smoothly.  “Streaming media, like Pandora,” says Poe, “requires a minimum amount of bandwidth in order to function properly, and sometimes on-campus users have trouble getting all the bandwidth they need.

There are ways to deal with this, as Sloan Poe would tell you.  Part of Sloan’s job is to keep tabs on when and where bandwidth is needed on campus, and like a plumber, he directs the flow of information to the proper destination.  This might explain why internet connection seems slower in dorms room during the day when buildings like Bannerman and the library benefit from the portioning.  At night time and on weekends, the flow is directed back to the dorms.  In addition to time and place, priority is set for certain kinds of information, which might make it harder to access multimedia sites like Youtube over something like Wikipedia, especially if it’s the wrong time and place.

With increasing functionality and familiarization with the web, internet developers and users are always using up more bandwidth, and sometimes it’s easy to point a finger in the direction of computing services when internet connection is spotty.  We assume that if the internet is having problems, it must be because of the slow connection, the lack of efficient bandwidth, the cheapness of Warren Wilson College; as of late, however, this has not been the case.  Commuting Services now believes that the issue causing problems with internet connectivity as of late is a type of software called a “botnet,” usually associated with malicious purposes.

“We don’t know where it’s coming from at this point,” says Mikel Oboyski, “But as soon as we do you can bet we’ll have that computer in here, quarantined.”  A bot-net program is usually a single infected computer that sucks up as much available bandwidth as possible.  According to Oboyski, this sets off some sort of safety shut-off on the far end of our internet connection, causing the internet to go “down.”

The problems started before fall break and remain a thorn in the side of computing services. “We have to wait until the problem vamps up again until we can figure out what it is exactly,” said David Harper, computing services manager, who is also concerned with keeping the network up and running. “We have to let things go to hell for long enough so that we can analyze it.”

There are ways to prevent this sort of thing from happening.  Computing Services will look at your computer for free, as well as install an antivirus on your computer that would help ward off malware like bot-nets.  “We’re free and that’s unusual at most colleges,” Harper said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Staff Writer Micah Wilkins contributing reporting to this story.

Refer to warren-wilson.edu/blogs/echo to see documents displaying on-campus network usage and efficiency.

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