ITS Eliminates Problematic Program to Streamline Internet Connectivity

Moving back on campus after winter break may have been smoother for students this semester after finding out that connecting to the Ramapo Internet network became a little easier. 

As of Jan. 2, the College switched to a new, web-based authentication system that only requires a one-time registration and reboot to access the Internet in residence halls. In other words, the Cisco NAC Agent software was no longer needed.

"We wanted to move away from something where it required installation on a computer," explained Mike Skafidas, Ramapo's manager of infrastructure. "We wanted something simpler."

Cisco, a FAC client that can be installed on a computer for Internet access in dorm rooms or on-campus apartments, is a hardware-based authentication procedure that validated a student's Ramapo login and password before allowing network connectivity. Logging in was often necessary multiple times with Cisco, but the new method, called a "captive portal," streamlines the process, Skafidas said.

"It requires a one-time login and reboot," Skafidas added. "You have to be on our local network to get [the registration] page. But it holds you captive right there; you can't get any further until you authenticate."

While the switch from Cisco to the captive portal was in the works for over the summer, Skafidas said the ITS Department had to expedite the process over winter break because students were having problems.

"Anytime you have to install software on a lot of different operating systems, there can be some inconsistencies," Skafidas said. "We found that the number one cause of help desk tickets that we had from residence halls were some incompatibility with that software. Where it really came to a head was when newer operating systems came out."

Skafidas said that Cisco was unsupported for OSX Mavericks, for Apple computers, and Windows 8.2, from Microsoft, and when students upgraded their laptops to these systems, they no longer could get on the Internet.

Although ITS created workarounds for those students who couldn't use Cisco last semester, Skafidas wanted a more long term solution. When the captive portal was set up, ITS even preregistered over 2,000 students to make the switch between semesters even easier.

When students were informed that they could officially uninstall Cisco from their computers, SGA senator Vivek Pandey said many were thrilled.

"When I first came here, many people would be like, 'Cisco is really difficult to use the Internet,'" Pandey, a freshman, said. "For the students, they are pretty much really happy about it. I haven't heard anyone complain."

Pandey, SGA's liaison to the ITS Department, helped Skafidas and his team make the transition and is helping coordinate ITS's larger move to bring wireless Internet access to all of the residence halls over the next two summers.

"We hope to have wireless throughout the campus on all of the residence life areas," explained George Tabback, the College's Chief Information Officer. "We applied for a bond, and we were successful in getting that. Once that money starts to flow in, Mike and his team are ready, willing and able to accommodate the students."

In fact, Skafidas said the department already did a survey of all of the residence halls-except for the College Park Apartments, that already has wireless connectivity-to prepare for the project.

"We tested wireless and came up with placement areas where the access points would be mounted," Skafidas added. "If we do have funding for that, we know the kind of equipment that we need and where it needs to be placed. It will be easier for everybody."

Since the campus already has wireless Internet in the academic buildings and common areas, this would bring the residence halls up to speed.

The switch from Cisco to the captive portal authentication system was made at no extra cost to the College, Tabbock explained, and is just as secure.

"Authentication is key. If you don't have authentication, then it's like the Wild West, because anyone can come on campus and just use our network," Tabbock said. "Cisco had an authentication, we just switched to a web-based [option] as opposed to hardware."

After working out the kinks over winter break, things have been running smoothly.

"This is important for us, because what we want is a solid performance in technology for all of our students," Tabbock said. "What we always want to do is listen to the students' complaints and adjust. We're here to help."