Library revamps net

When people picture libraries, they often conjure up images of musty old tomes guarded closely by unsmiling, curmudgeonly librarians. “Innovative” and “leading edge” aren’t terms most casual observers would use to describe the typical public library.

Calgary’s municipal library system recently did its part to help shatter this age-old stereotype by installing a high-speed network to interconnect its 18 sites throughout the city. Not only did the new network provide a minimum 5Mbps to each location, but it also allowed the library to collapse its previously separate voice and data networks into one converged system, while saving the library a bundle of money. Despite some minor growing pains, such as learning how to handle packet shaping and a clunky, temporary DSL scheme, the network is now humming along nicely and the library is looking to provide its clients with new bandwidth hungry applications, potentially including video.

Out with the old

The Calgary library began planning for its new network about two-and-a-half years ago. There were three main drivers behind the project, says Scott Stanley, manager of information technology with the Calgary Public Library.

The first was the existing data network, installed in the mid-1990s, was reaching the end of its useful life.

The second was Alberta’s provincial government was providing funds for public libraries to connect to SuperNet, a provincial high-speed network available to select research and public institutions.

The third driver was the library’s existing integrated library system (ILS), software which tracks data such as book check-ins, library customers and book purchases, was nearing the end of useful life and the library was in the process of moving to the next generation of ILS software. Vendors who supported the next-generation library systems had moved to a client/server environment, while Calgary’s existing application was telnet-based.

“We weren’t running in client/server and our infrastructure couldn’t support client/server,” Stanley says.

The library’s old network consisted primarily of 10Mbps Ethernet networks made up mostly of hubs with a few switches thrown in. Each library location connected back to a central site over ISDN, except for one that had a fibre link. The biggest branches were supporting upwards of 80 devices each, so clearly ISDN wasn’t enough, Stanley notes.

At the same time as the library was looking to overhaul its data network, its phone system was nearing the end of its lifespan. The system was old enough that if a customer called one branch with a request and had to be transferred to another branch, the customer couldn’t be transferred internally. They had to call the other branch directly.

In with the new

The library issued the RFP for its new network in late 2003.

“The RFP was written in such a way that we didn’t ask for an IP phone system, but we basically described where we wanted to go and asked for what was considered to be the best solution,” Stanley explains.

The RFP closed in early 2004 and the final selection was made in the spring of 2004.

Based on the RFP requirements, the library selected integrator NexInnovations and Cisco Systems Canada for a converged voice/data network.

Implementation of the new network started at the library’s main branch and moved out to the other branches in phases.

Most branches got their new networks between March and August 2005, with the last site going live in October.

Each site has a Cisco Catalyst 3750 at the edge, connecting back to the central site over fibre. The central site has a stack of 3750s at its core. The library’s server infrastructure hangs off the core stack.

Each branch is now able to pull down a minimum of 5Mbps over the WAN, a vast improvement over the 128Kbps offered by ISDN. The central hub site has a massive 45Mbps connection.

A router at the central site hooks into the Internet over a fibre link with 3Mbps guaranteed and burstable up to 30Mbps.

A variety of applications run over the new network including basic Office products, the library’s financial package, Internet access for between 350 and 400 public workstations, as well as the library’s own approximately 400 internal workstations. The network also supports all the library’s voice traffic.

By moving to one network for its voice and data, the library is saving a lot of money.

For example, Stanley notes he was able to get rid of between 200 and 250 Centrex lines.

But, Stanley adds, the library’s business model wouldn’t necessarily work for a private sector company. One big reason for the savings is the library’s SuperNet costs are subsidized significantly by the provincial government.

Lessons learned

Overall Stanely says the network implementation went well.

One hurdle that had to be overcome was SuperNet wasn’t initially available at all of the library branches right away. While these branches were waiting for SuperNet connections, they had to make do with managed DSL lines and the slow upload speeds — the maximum available was 640Kbps — caused some problems.

A second hurdle was fine tuning the packet prioritization scheme for the new network.

“One of the issues we’ve had to deal with in our packet shaping is that because we have the larger feed at our central hub site, our branches, occassionally without the shaping set up properly, would get more traffic from the central site than the spoke end could handle,” Stanley says.

The library turned to packet shaping tools from Packeteer to help get the new network under control.

Over the next several months, the library will look at new services it can offer over its beefed-up network.

Stanley has already targeted wireless hotspots as something to add. Now he’s examining other applications, such as video.

“We’re looking at how we can use the system better,” he says.

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