Avoiding data traffic bottlenecks

Last updated: February 7, 2023

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By Ignacio Lobos

Imagine Interstate 5, Highway 520 and Link light rail shut down at the same time thanks to a litany of malfunctions as tens of thousands of fans try to get to Husky Stadium for a big football game.

That’s right. No one gets to the gates, not even Dubs. And now you know what happens when data networks go down — and why UW Information Technology (UW-IT) spent more than two years and nearly $2 million overhauling the UW’s core network platform that supports student, faculty and staff needs for data, voice and wired and wireless connectivity.

“Improving data infrastructure is a major priority for the UW and a major strategic goal for UW-IT,” said Mary Mulvihill, interim associate vice president for IT Infrastructure.

And a robust, reliable core network platform is critical to the research operations of an R1 institution like the UW.

“The infrastructure that underlies the technology that researchers and others use at the UW has become a major, indispensable utility,” said Shane McDowell, a technology manager for network operations with UW-IT. “It simply must work.”

That’s why about 250 buildings across three campuses were upgraded during the pandemic so that by 2022 they were outfitted with new equipment: switches, routers, cabling and more; the infrastructure of the core network that connects them all was re-designed and re-engineered with architecture safeguards like firewall enhancements that reduced risk and made maintenance easier and more cost-effective.

The infrastructure that underlies the technology that researchers and others use at the UW has become a major, indispensable utility. It simply must work. ~Shane McDowell

Building a resilient foundation for critical work

The upgrade will save the UW $300,000 a year in maintenance costs. And it provides a more standard and resilient foundation for the UW’s critical, ever-growing connectivity needs for education and research, McDowell said.

Improvements in network traffic flow is a notable update for the platform upgrade.

Shane McDowell
Technology Manager, UW Information Technology

It’s helpful to compare the design of our transportation network for vehicular traffic to the design of the data network for understanding how critical “data highways” are to moving information, he explained.

If you need to suddenly move a few hundred terabytes of research data to a computer across the globe from the eScience Institute, you don’t want to worry about others in the Hans Rosling Center for Population Health and the Molecular Engineering & Sciences Building who may be doing the same thing.

In the newly upgraded system, bottlenecks that can happen on I-5’s single lane through downtown won’t happen. Data from multiple buildings can move independently via multiple channels and no longer have to travel through pinch points or even on the same data highways.

So, if something breaks down in one building — and causes a connection issue or a network outage — it should not affect the data flowing on the network from other buildings at UW.

And researchers can more confidently run time-consuming data crunching jobs and big data transfers without worry that they could be interrupted and have to start over.

These improvements have effects farther down the line because UW-IT is also responsible for the strategy, design and operations of the essential network infrastructures for the UW and its network partners, including the state’s K-20 Education Network, Pacific Northwest Gigapop, UW Medicine and Pacific Wave.

A more stable network foundation certainly enhances the student experience, helps staff do their work and supports wide-ranging research. But it’s not something that is visible to the naked eye, McDowell said.

No one pays much attention until something breaks and the computer freezes mid-sentence. Which is why, he likes to say, tech infrastructure at the UW “simply must work.”

UW-IT’s Gretchen Konrady contributed to this story