The Burden of ResNets

Well, another year, another ResNet. I’m always amazed whenever I leave a ResNet conference at the sheer variety in attitudes, policies, practices and resources available at ResNet organizations throughout the country. A vital part of each ResNet conference is chatting with people from other schools at BOFs, during meals, and on the always-long-ass bus ride to the closing dinner, but the strange thing is that more often than not, I usually end up feeling really uncomfortable whenever I talk shop with someone from another school and it’s not just that ResNet folks might be some of the most socially awkward people in the world. It’s the fact that talking shop usually involves talking policy and unfortunately, more and more schools are opting for draconian network management practices. While some are certainly driven by philosophical differences– e.g., they really do believe you shouldn’t let students run their own servers or file-share– many are driven to draconian practices by lack of resources and funding. I’ve been to three ResNet conferences so far and I was a Technical and Security theme guide this past year and the two main issues driving policy lately are file-sharing and viruses. Both are huge resource sucks– file-sharing, obviously, takes up a lot of time and resources because ResNet staffers are often the DMCA agents for their residential networks and with the rise in p2p, that one ResNet guy who was responsible for managing a network used by thousands of students and providing end user support for all of those students is suddenly expected to respond to hundreds, possibly even thousands, of DMCA complaints. (Good thing the RIAA just filed more lawsuits. The record companies keep talking about taking money out of the hands of artists, but not only are their lawsuits not very good at stopping file-sharing, they’re taking money and resources out of the hands of educational institutions.) On top of the legal issues, file-sharing is usually just a huge bandwidth suck– even with traffic shaping tools like Packeteer, file-sharing traffic usually takes up as much network bandwidth as it possibly can. As a result, many schools are issuing bandwidth caps per student (since most schools can’t afford to pay for a lot of commodity Internet bandwidth) which can severely limit your network experimentation and usage even for legitimate purposes and some even ban all file-sharing traffic completely. I mean, we’re talking refer you to Judicial Affairs, take away your network connection for a semester or even a year, get in real trouble kind of trouble. Talk about traffic shaping.

And of course, then there are the viruses. I remember last year, even before RPC Hell, one campus actually banned Windows 2000 from their campus. ResNet organizations are just seriously at a loss. There are a number of universities who are taking advantage of open source solutions like Snort, buying commercial solutions like Perfigo or Bradford Campus Manager, or developing their own homegrown solutions. But what do you do when your ResNet is that one guy again who is still trying to manage a network for thousands of students, provide end user support, and respond to DMCA complaints? Suddenly, on top of that, you’ve got operating system vulnerabilities and exploits, email viruses, spyware, adware and more. And even if you did have the time to look into network wide solutions, if you’re the one guy managing the whole ResNet, what’s the chances that your university is willing to fork over the money for a commercial solution or even a few servers for a free or cheap solution? Probably not, so instead, you’re left with either just complete network chaos (not necessarily a bad option) or just shutting people down left and right for the health of the network. Which might seem like a valid option at face value, but then you realize that one guy has to turn all those people back on at some point, which could take a really. Long. Time. In the end, you could lose your network connection for some indefinite time which, considering how important being online is nowadays for schoolwork and otherwise, is a high price to pay just because you happened to miss a Windows Update.

The one man ResNet situation is, of course, a worst-case scenario, but this situation of lack of funding, resources, and staff and, as a result, draconian policies and practices, are prevalent throughout the country in varying degrees. And in the end, even if ResNet staffers push these policies because they have to and not because they want to, ResNet organizations usually don’t have enough political power within their universities to do anything, to effectively demand money and resources or change policy. We are the grassroots organizations, the Greenpeace, the Legal Aid of university computing organizations. We are the underdog and our political successes are, lately, few and far between. Which is really sad in the grand scheme of things because while students are the bread-and-butter of the education business, their personal computing needs are perhaps among those with which we are least concerned. Instead of student needs, support for personal student computing (not computer labs and such) lives and dies by how far you can stretch a fixed amount of resources and money, a fixed number that was set in the mid-nineties before the Internet really took off, before almost every single college freshman owned her own computer, and before we realized how important technology would really be to a whole generation of young people for which we would be responsible in many ways. In the end, universities and even the companies that include universities in their list of customers for software and hardware products will pay a high price. Some students will never get to experiment and learn and truly spread their wings because they can’t explore all the technologies out there, whether old or new. How many innovative ideas will never come to fruition because a student wasn’t allowed to explore or experiment? How many bad ideas will get played out in the real world because a student couldn’t test it out during their college years when the consequences wouldn’t cost somebody a job? And how many software and hardware companies will lose the chance to establish a user base and develop consumer buy-in and trust among millions of college students across the country? Before Napster fell with a big bang for all the world to see and hear, it managed to spread like wildfire on college campuses throughout the country and the RIAA is still trying to deal with the legacy it left behind and the undeniable place file-sharing and, more importantly, digital music holds now in our world. And even with its fall, universities like University of Rochester are signing huge contracts to bring legal, for-pay services to thousands and thousands of their students. Wouldn’t it be nice to be the company that is the source for digital music for millions of college students across the country?

Personal computing services are not like call waiting or caller ID. It is not like cable TV. It is an integral part of the learning process and essential to the principle of learning through experimentation and exploration, to the idea that a university’s responsibilities include providing students with the opportunity to learn both in and outside of the classroom through a comprehensive approach to education. Just because a computer sits in a student’s room doesn’t mean it’s not vital to the educational process. If anything, it is more important because of the undeniable role it plays it that student’s life and how it can and will be used to do great things, even if those great things are just allowing the student the opportunity to learn something new on her own. And ResNet organizations are the ones who are helping to shape that process even with the few resources we have. While ResNet organizations first grew out of utility, they are now at an important stage in the history of how technology can shape education and learning. Let’s see how many universities will seize this opporunity.