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1/10/2013
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How Centre College IT Prepped For VP Debate

Small college needed new IT infrastructure to meet the Wi-Fi, cellular, VoIP demands for the U.S. vice presidential debate. Here's how they did it.

It was no mean feat for Centre College, a small liberal arts college in the heart of Kentucky, to land an event as large as the Oct. 11 U.S. vice presidential debate between Rep. Paul Ryan and VP Joseph Biden.

The event meant that 3,200 members of the political campaigns, the Secret Service and credentialed members of the press would descend on the 1,350-student institution, whether it was ready or not. Coordinator of network services Shane Wilson, however, knew that Centre had staged classes throughout the Civil War, even when it was occupied by Confederate or Union troops. As far as he and his small staff were concerned, they would meet the invading armies and march on.

But that was easier said than done. Wilson was already a veteran of a previous engagement, the 2000 vice presidential debate, when Dick Cheney battled Joe Lieberman for the support of voters. But that skirmish might as well have been a century ago, Wilson concluded, as he considered the requirements leading up to the 2012 event.

Centre College already had a venue to stage the debate, the Norton Center for the Arts, with a fine theater available. It also needed a separate building to house the media there to witness the debate, and Centre freed up space in its Sutcliffe Hall, where the athletic director, coaches and training teams had a big assortment of gyms, conference rooms and classrooms.

[ Want to learn more about how the Obama campaign technical staff used data to help their candidate win big? See Small Data Beat Big Data In Election 2012. ]

The problem in 2000 would have been installing sufficient analog phone lines in Sutcliffe to satisfy the needs of the media. "I don't think at that time that most reporters even had a cellphone," said Wilson in an interview.

The challenge in 2012 was establishing a voice over IP network with lots of bandwidth separate from the main campus network. The network would need to be subdivided under rigorous rules to keep Democratic and Republican teams from potentially listening to cross-talk. Likewise, the Secret Service wanted its own secure lines. And many visiting parties wanted wireless as well as Ethernet ground-line access.

"We had to set up a temporary data center (in Sutcliffe) and 900 temporary phone lines. We had to provide cell and wireless coverage," said Wilson. That meant three racks of servers and network switches went into a small room in the athletic building, with 100 wireless access points scattered throughout the building. In addition, they installed 50 one-Gbps Ethernet switches with two 10-Gbps uplinks. Cisco's Identity Services Engine was installed to provide access control to authorized users and set policies that kept one set of network services for Democrats separate from another set for Republicans, and both apart from the Secret Service's.

With minimal staff, Wilson and his assistants couldn't do such a project themselves. They hired and supervised experts from Boice Networks in Louisville, Ky., and six weeks before the event, installation started with two Boice staffers, whose numbers grew to 14 by the time of the event. "I'm normally someone who is an implementer and getting his hands dirty," Wilson said. This time, he had to supervise as the designer of the plan that Boice, Cisco, IBM and VMware staffers were implementing.

Everything appeared to be working fine, when the one pre-event glitch occurred. A circuit breaker tripped on an overloaded circuit, and loads had to be redistributed to keep everything running. Otherwise, members of the press had the access they sought to the VoIP network and the commodity Internet, he said.

Some members of the press weren't satisfied with all the preparations and attempted to use their MiFi mobile hotspot connectors (now called Jetpacks) tied into nearby Verizon wireless towers to create their own wireless hotspots. The activity interfered with the access points Centre had set up. "We had to ask some people nicely to turn them off," recalled Wilson.

The 14 IBM servers and 50 Cisco Ethernet switches, along with VMware vSphere 5 virtualization for the servers, networking and storage, were all an investment that the college had to make. Wilson says he can't disclose the amount spent, but observers familiar with such events and the amount of equipment involved estimate that it exceeded $1 million.

Wilson said the college reaped the benefit of an equipment oversupply following the event. Everything started to be dismantled at 2 p.m., the day following the event, as the last of the press closed up shop. Wilson has incorporated some of the equipment into Centre's operations and much remains on hand for future expansion.

The swift buildup, followed by the rapid dismantling, occurred on a much larger scale in 2012 than it had in 2000, when Wilson was also coordinator of networking at the school. He's ready to do it again, he says, but "The whole event is so temporary ... Not in four years, but maybe in eight."

At the same time, he's sure it brings long-term benefits to the college. Located in the heart of Kentucky, Centre, which charges $42,000 a year in tuition, has a fierce academic tradition that keeps classes open in a multitude of circumstances, including the Civil War, federal holidays such as Martin Luther King Day, winter storms (with brief, rare exceptions) and other upheavals. That tradition has placed Centre in the top 50 small liberal arts colleges in the United States on some lists, with the likes of Carleton in Minnesota, Bowdin in Maine or Hamilton in New York.

After the 2000 Cheney/Lieberman debate, Wilson said the college's student body, which had been heavily dominated by Kentucky students, "began to take on a more diverse look," he said. He expects something similar to happen after the Oct. 11, 2012, event. IT support is crucial for an event like this that enhances Centre's standing as a center for the arts, political debate and a high degree of undergraduate involvement.

As he recalls the many outsiders who helped him prepare the network and data center resources, he said he realized the day before the event that he didn't feel overrun by all the vendors. "All of them were personally invested in pulling the event off. It didn't feel like a bunch of third parties. They all were treating it as if they were a Centre staffer," he said.

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