U.S. Robotics Helps MichNet Reduce Cost of Network Support

A non-profit corporation owned by 11 public universities in Michigan, Merit Network operates MichNet, the state's first Internet service provider. In addition to its owners, MichNet serves 175 affiliates including K-12 schools, community colleges, public libraries and private companies. Over the last decade, sponsored research has emerged as Merit's second line of business. From 1987 to 1995, under an award from the National Science Foundation, the firm managed the NSFNET backbone service jointly with MCI, IBM and others. Internet G'es Mainstream "This project was the real spark plug for moving the Internet out of the research environment into the mainstream," says Eric Aupperle, Merit's president. By 1997, Merit estimates, 90% of Michigan's educational population will be able to access the Internet via a local phone call. To keep up with this growing demand, the critical success factor is cost-effective network management. When Merit began in 1966, university students and staff dialed into "time-sharing" mainframes to practice programming languages or conduct research. These days, MichNet offers both dial-in and direct network connections to the Internet at attachment speeds of 56 Kbps, 1.5 Mbps and 45 Mbps. MichNet is also connected to three commercial X.25 networks: SprintNet, Ameritech and Autonet. It has backbone nodes in 17 cities and is adding 4 - 5 new affiliates a month that connect to the backbone routers via point-to-point lines. The most complex part in making dial-in connections is played by modems, which perform a highly sophisticated set of interactions, says Scott Gerstenberger, associate director at Merit. (He also has a part-time appointment as associate director, Information Technology Division, at the University of Michigan, Merit's administrative host.) "When a user had trouble dialing in to a remote site, it used to cause us major headaches. Sometimes we had the user dial in long distance to one of our central site modems where we could physically observe the modem-to-computer signaling," recalls Gerstenberger. "But, if the modem worked at our site and not at the site the user originally dialed, it was sometimes impossible to tell what was really causing the problem without sending a technician there physically." In 1992, Merit selected modems by U.S. Robotics (Skokie, Ill.) because they could be remotely monitored by that firm's DOS-based Total Control network management system. "Total Control Manager lets us monitor the whole network from a single PC. A technician can see what each modem is doing, check the signal quality on each phone line, and reset or reconfigure modems," says Gerstenberger. "Our farthest modems are a 600-mile drive from Ann Arbor, so remote management is a very powerful and valuable tool for us." He gladly reports that Total Control Manager has significantly reduced the cost of network support for Merit. "If a user has trouble dialing in, we diagnose the problem and frequently solve it on the spot. If not, we can express ship a card that our liaison can swap out, or deal with the telephone company about the line. On occasions when our technicians have not been able to solve a network problem, U.S. Robotics' engineers have been very helpful." The Move to V.34 and ISDN MichNet's modem pool now includes about 800 modem lines with U.S. Robotics equipment, much of which will be upgraded to V.34 by fall of 1996. In addition, Merit is adding about 250 more Courier V.34 modems to meet expanding demand at remote sites. Merit and several of its member universities are using U.S. Robotics modems with channelized T1 access from local telephone companies in several cities in addition to the more-common analog access. Two members currently use ISDN lines and Gerstenberger expects others to follow suit. Merit's Total Control Enterprise Network Hubs are upgradable to ISDN with the addition of the PRI Access System. This allows Merit to accept incoming analog and digital calls, dynamically, without having to dedicate ports to one access method or the other. Looking ahead, Merit will work with the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN) in Washington, D.C., to help university staff and students access computing resources when they leave campus. Gerstenberger recommended U.S. Robotics' Total Control Manager for the CREN project in part because it automatically polls participating sites at set intervals and reports problems immediately.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.