Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Campus Internet Connection Overloaded: Student File Sharing at Fault

Anybody who has tried to access the Internet on campus, especially during the afternoon, has noticed that web pages load slowly, and sometimes time out and fail to load at all.

Happily, attempts from outside Marquette to access web sites located on campus are not affected.

The situation is bad enough that the Marquette Tribune recently posted a story about it, and (correctly) reported that student peer-to-peer “file sharing” (read: illegal music piracy) is to blame.

We talked to Information Technology Services network guru Chad Gorectke about the problem.

The University has what, by historic standards, is a lot of bandwidth connecting it to the Internet.

There is one 45 Mb (megabit) per second link to WiscNet, one 70 Mb. connection to Time-Warner Telecom, and an additional 50 Mb. connection to Time-Warner Telecom.

But even that bandwidth can’t keep up with the voracious appetite of students who download music and (increasingly) videos.

These connections are used to full capacity from (typically) 11:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m, leaving only the wee hours of the morning with any excess bandwidth. Of course, if the demands for connections merely equal, or only slightly exceed, the available bandwidth web pages may load fairly quickly. But during the afternoon, the amount of traffic has often caused web pages to time out and entirely fail to load.

The straightforward way to attack this sort of problem is to buy more bandwidth, much as you might junk a dialup connection from your home and go to DSL.

The problem is that bandwidth is expensive, and student demands for bandwidth are pretty much insatiable. Previous increases in bandwidth have quickly been overwhelmed by increased use.

ITS has long tried to limit peer-to-peer traffic. A few years ago, the strategy was to block Internet ports that Napster (the then-current way of pirating music) used. But technology rushes forward.

Gorectke declined to talk on the record about the current attempts to block this sort of traffic and the ways students get around it, not wanting to give out information that might help people abuse University resources.

But we can say that, while the University has more capability to block certain kinds of traffic now, the technology for evading any blocking attempt has progressed even faster.

The problem is hardly unique to Marquette. Indeed, it’s absolutely typical at universities all over the country.

Segregating Student Traffic

The strategy likely to be used is to segregate what Gorectke calls “real traffic” (faculty and staff internet access, workstations at libraries, etc.) from student traffic. Aggregate student bandwidth could then be limited, leaving a clear internet path for other users.

Might this result in students being unable to do research in their dorm rooms because of a lack of connectivity? Certainly. Might students have to go to the library to get any real work done? Quite likely. Will this increase the incentive to leave Marquette dorms and take off-campus apartments? Quite possibly.

But lacking the infrastructure to give each and every student limited and controlled bandwidth, there is really little choice.

This whole situation is a classic example of “The Tragedy of the Commons” in which, when some resource is shared by everybody and used at will, it will be overused and eventually destroyed.

The solution will be to install an infrastructure that can limit the bandwidth available to each individual student. For the moment, however, things are going to get worse (at least for students) before they get better.

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