MAKING CONNECTIONS

Competition in a school environment often is thought of in terms of grade-point averages and athletics. However, the reality facing administrators of today's higher-education institutions is that the fiercest competition is among the colleges as they position themselves to attract students, athletes, staff, and grant and foundation dollars.

Technology plays an important role in determining a college's competitive position. It has the potential to impact every facet of the campus environment, going far beyond providing students access to computer labs. Technology can impact administrative and overhead costs by simplifying recordkeeping and billing while simultaneously enhancing campus security. Technologically advanced training facilities are critical factors in school selection for top athletes, while high-tech medical facilities can attract the grade of professors and students necessary to lead breakthrough research projects.

Getting connected However, most college buildings are not constructed with the technological infrastructure--an integrated structural wiring and cabling system--necessary to adapt and interconnect advanced communications and computer systems.

In 1997, higher-education construction spending reached an all-time high, with the majority of the money being used to build new facilities. The reason for all of this spending is simple: a modern, attractive, technologically advanced campus infrastructure breeds healthy enrollment. As colleges attempt to make strategic changes to modernize facilities and equipment, the integration of structured cabling has become the critical component for how a campus should be set up and operated.

The campus environment presents multiple challenges for administrators and facility managers who recognize the need for technology upgrades. While age and location of facilities are among the physical challenges, the fiscal needs and strategic direction of the college is of even greater consideration.

The cost of maintaining, renovating or replacing existing facilities is increasing. Therefore, when administrators are looking at new construction or renovation projects, they need to determine how to maximize the investment. A key to leveraging construction dollars is to create flexible space. Traditionally, campus space has been viewed as singular in function. However, with the availability of new information technology, campuses can integrate facilities for maximum flexibility.

Becoming a profit center Particularly in an academic environment where revenue streams can be more difficult to come by, the construction of new facilities can be evaluated for ability to become profit centers. Through effective access to technology, schools and the community can form partnerships to help control or reduce operating expenses while increasing institution revenues.

Colleges lease out sporting facilities to the local community and can apply this same principal to new academic facilities. The academic ambiance can be attractive to businesses and organizations for meetings and seminars. However, competing in this arena requires state-of-the-art facilities for technology services, such as teleconferencing, video, Internet access and high-speed data for graphics--all of which need a networking backbone, or structured cabling system, for support.

Distance learning also is becoming an integral component of a campus' offering, particularly with more students geographically dispersed through satellite facilities. Distance education offers a creative response to the increasing inability of the traditional college structure to grow larger in size and curriculum. Through distance learning, an institution can reach a range of students in more flexible learning environments. Schools can provide students access to experts in remote corners of the world or connect satellite classrooms directly to the main campus, which gives students in outlying areas full access to all educational opportunities.

Distance learning also allows the school to better reach and attract the growing number of professional students, who are looking for certification in selected subjects valuable to professional development. Many of these students either do not want to or cannot attend classes at the college, making distance learning an effective approach to reach them.

Meeting student demands The expectations of today's students also are changing in concert with new technologies. Students readily embrace technology as a standard way of communicating. Many students are looking for schools that provide global access to learning with a diverse curriculum.

Students also expect to be able to have Internet access in residence halls, e- mail addresses, computer access to academic and student services, and access to specialized class-related computer programs. The bottom line is that the students are choosing institutions on many issues such as location, academics, curriculum, reputation, and more than ever, technology.

Therefore, the schools that can stay ahead of the technology curve will be better positioned to selectively recruit and retain the best and brightest students and faculty. The challenge, then, is making sure to choose the right systems and vendors that can meet the needs, while minimizing operational costs and maximizing revenues.

Building the infrastructure One of the critical elements in achieving a technologically advanced campus is having the appropriate cabling and wiring network in place. A well-designed system can create a powerful backbone, which can support and integrate the various technology functions for peak performance and efficiency. A campus- wide network offers access to information servers and tools for placing resources on servers that will allow students, classes and faculty to produce on-line materials, do extensive collaborative work and sha re educational information.

An effective structured cabling solution should be made up of both copper and fiber-optic wiring. These can be combined to create a single structured cabling solution where multiple elements work together to create optimum performances for the network. The result is a reliable technology infrastructure capable of handling larger quantities of diverse data at higher speeds.

This network structure should allow the communication system to handle more than the transfer of text. It enables video, voice, graphics and picture applications to run at high rates of speed so as not to impede lectures or the learning process.

A structured cabling system reduces downtime, while providing maximum flexibility to bring new facilities on line, move users from one space to another, or integrate upgraded technologies. This can be accomplished through quick and simple connections to the appropriate services. New connections can be made through the use of cord additions and cross connections in strategically placed local cable distribution rooms.

This creates a flexible environment that does not need to be rewired every time there is a space, user or technology change. Cable distribution rooms also can be configured to include local-area network (LAN) equipment bays for hubs, switches and routers. Thus, adjusting the system requires hooking into the core system through patch cables at readily available access points, rather than rewiring the entire building or campus.

The key to such flexibility is open architecture design. This approach allows for the continued integration of additional technologies/components into the existing infrastructure. Through the use of an integrated cable delivery system platform of raceways, conduit and cable trays, new elements can be brought on-line quickly and easily. Connecting the room to the main system only requires the use of patch cords at the closest access point to the system. By designing each room or facility for the worst-case technology solution, any space will have the flexibility for multiple uses without requiring the room or facility to be rewired when a change is needed.

Achieving operational efficiency With a structured cabling system, all of a facility's operating systems, such as communication, environmental and building-management systems, can be integrated into one control point, which results in operational savings. >From a financial standpoint, expenses for continually running and removing duplicate cabling systems can be eliminated, helping to reduce the costs of labor and equipment, as well as downtime.

In addition, an integrated solution often will offer a single point for controlling multiple systems. Thus, there is less staff required to run the various operating systems and less training time. From a service standpoint, integrating the technology into a single solution also means that if something should go wrong, there is only one vendor to contact for repairs.

Today's copper and fiber-optic wiring systems have a greater capacity than what has been available in the past. These products are capable of handling higher data flows at greater speeds with fewer transmission errors. They also can handle simultaneous operations of multiple systems with minimal interference.

A single networking backbone can support multiple equipment and services such as computers, phones, Internet access, security systems, HVAC, etc., thereby eliminating the process of continual re-wiring. In addition, integrating the operating systems into one main cabling and wiring solution with superior capacity reduces the potential for system crashes due to faulty or inadequate wiring--the leading cause of system malfunctions.

These new structured cabling and wiring solutions also are being designed to meet future needs. In fact, some manufacturers guarantee the products will be able to handle any new technologies that might arise over the next 15 to 20 years. Therefore, the need to continuously rewire is essentially eliminated and commitment to technology is less risky.

Flexibility is a key at Harrison Hall, Portland State University, Oregon, which is a 9,000-square-foot facility built in 1996. In addition to being a large new classroom, it can be converted into a ballroom, banquet room, video conferencing center, multimedia laboratory or interactive television facility.

The key element to creating this flexible environment is the wiring infrastructure that runs throughout the building and allows for anytime/anywhere adaptation to connectors and computer systems. Since it is wired to take full advantage of the Internet, video conferencing and other technologies, students, faculty and other users can take advantage of programs conducted in Harrison Hall from anywhere on or off campus.

Harrison Hall also is an example of recombinant use of buildings, which is the technology approach that takes existing classrooms, laboratories, media support facilities and other spaces that are frequently autonomous and separately managed, and integrates them through the use of structured cabling and wiring systems, technical staff, computer systems, technologies and funding to create a ubiquitous learning environment. The advantage of this approach is that the integration and management of technology meets the specific functions of the facility while creating the capability of offering a full curriculum environment rather than disparate systems for each vertical educational market.

Santa Monica Community College's (SMCC) new Academy of Entertainment and Technology in Southern California, sometimes called the Animation Academy, offers students an academic program that includes technical training in animation and special-effects software, providing the necessary tools for careers in the entertainment industry. Therefore, when looking for a wiring system, administrators wanted a network that could handle the load.

The installation at the 53,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility included some 200,000 feet of cabling and more than 1,100 multimedia outlets. The structured cabling solution enables the school to implement current information and communication technologies, while providing a platform guaranteed to support emerging applications for the next 20 years.

"One of the reasons we chose the structured cabling solution is because it allows our system to migrate to gigabit speeds smoothly and seamlessly," says Greg Brown, director of telecommunications for SMCC. "The cabling solution includes fiberoptics in the network backbone to support the transition to higher speeds--all at once, or a little at a time." This high-speed cabling solution provides the school with the highest transmission speeds available over copper (up to 1.2 Gigabits per second) to support the bandwidth-intensive multimedia applications.

"The high-speed copper solution supports our tremendous bandwidth needs easily and economically," says Brown. "The flexibility of our new network allows us to run voice, video and data applications over the same infrastructure, without adding coaxial cable to the system design." Each of the eight classrooms and the large, open computer laboratory are color-coded for easier administration. This design feature allowed the Academy to install the cable in highly visible open trays to conform to the high-tech look the entertainment industry prefers.

The system is designed to accommodate network changes and additions without requiring additional cable, providing a solution capable of handling expected student growth. The flexibility of the system provides each student and teacher desktop workstation with four separate connections to support voice, video and data requirements, making moves, additions and changes as easy as plugging into a new jack.

"The entertainment industry offers boundless opportunities for people who are creative and comfortable with computers," says Brown. "The copper and fiber- optic cabling infrastructure helps us deliver the education and technical trainingthat will help our students take advantage of these opportunities."

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