Montreal’s McGill University is in the midst of installing what the school believes could be the largest homogenous network of its kind.

Gary Bernstein, the director of the telecommunications and computing centre at McGill, told Network World Canada the university has begun installing Cisco 3500- and 6500-series switches across both its downtown campus and an agricultural campus 40 kilometres away.

The federal government’s Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant program is funding 40 per cent of the $7.2 million project, announced for the first time last year.

There were a variety of reasons to overhaul the school’s network, Bernstein said. “The money certainly helped, but the motivation was we weren’t homogenous. And that was a real problem because some of the pedagogical applications that we were thinking of implementing were being thwarted because some things could (only) be delivered to some places some times,” he described. “Some departments still had passive hubs, some had switches with no quality of servce.

“So we decided if we want to be able to intelligently plan teaching efforts around the network, then we better have a network where we can deliver whatever it is we want to any location.”

To that end, Bernstein said the school has begun installing homogenous switches and ports around the network’s edge, an all-fibre distribution layer, and connecting the school’s two campuses, which encompass about 160 buildings and 10,000 nodes, via OC-3 and some ATM switches.

“We’re essentially ripping out just about everything in the wire closets,” Bernstein added. “We want Cat 5 I everywhere, so we can have 100Mbps to the desktop.”

Bernstein said the school’s decision to go with Cisco was due to its long relationship with the California-based company. About $4.7 million of the $7.2 million project money is being invested into Cisco equipment. Bernstein said the new network is part of the school’s five-year business plan, which involves teaching students on campus in new and different ways — “click and mortar teaching,” if you will.

One McGill professor has even designed an interactive classroom, Berstein noted. “It’s really quite something to see.

“Just to give you one example: A professor comes in and he puts a document down on the document camera. And what happens is — without him pressing any buttons — the blinds go down, the appropriate lighting comes on, the overhead projector comes on, the screen comes down. And all the lectures in that classroom are captured on digital video, and then they’re available on a Web site for students (to replay).”

The classroom’s blackboards will also become “white boards” so students viewing the lecture on-line can see exactly what the professor is writing on the wall, Bernstein said.

He said future projects such as this require bandwidth and need gigabit speed for decent voice and video quality, both reasons for the new network.

McGill expects to finish phase one of the project by the end of this year. Bernstein said phase two, which involves building a redundant core, should be completed by May of 2001.