Students get hands-on WAN training

For Anthony Lucifero, having the opportunity to learn about wide area network (WAN) protocols on a real-life network is better than just reading about them in a textbook.

Now because of some new WAN technology available to students at George Brown College in Toronto, the third-year student in the Wireless Networking Program said he is able to “learn by doing,” while also getting a better idea of what protocols such as ATM, Frame Relay and X.25 virtual circuits actually look like.

“It is much better to actually see them instead of reading about them,” he said.

Using a self-contained WAN that runs on a single PC, called the WAN EduKit, students can see the inner workings of WAN protocols, said Gideon Hack, vice-president and CTO at Sangoma Technologies Corp. in Markham, Ont.

Sangoma, a provider of connectivity hardware and software products for WANs and Internet infrastructure, designed the kits that act as a WAN connection between high-speed LANs and simulate LAN/WAN connectivity.

Another product called the WANPipe is also part of Sangoma’s educational products. It allows educators to build WANs within the lab environment to demonstrate TCP/IP over WAN topologies.

“In most real-life situations, large companies don’t want people fiddling with real data online (for learning purposes),” Hack explained. He added that this made it difficult for students to work with WAN protocols in a lab environment and actually see how packets are transmitted in a network, to understand how the size of the packets affect transmission and to be able to work with configurations.

“How can you expect programmers to program without ever seeing a computer? How can a person learn how to drive without actually being behind the wheel of a car?” he said.

While there are many factors that contribute to the complexity in creating a WAN, including the routers and all other aspects of the network, within an educational setting, Sangoma’s Hack said fiddling with live networks is not ideal, especially when the traffic is not properly controlled across the network.

Hack estimates the equipment to set up a WAN could run hundreds of thousands of dollars, as opposed to the US$549 it costs accredited institutions for the EduKits. The WANPipes cost US$849, complete with all protocols and software.

In fact, for many of the colleges that now use the EduKits, including Seneca College and Humber College, cost used to be a major factor in not being able to demonstrate WAN technology, Hack said.

Khalid Danok, professor at George Brown, said that simulating broadband technologies in a lab environment has been a challenge for the college.

All wireless networking equipment is very expensive, and the college would need to have the service coming into the institution and would be required to pay a monthly fee, Danok said.

The college has 16 kits, to be shared among the students in the classes. They have labs two hours a week and the students configure both ends of a communications channel, including data terminal equipment and data communications equipment.

For Danok, the most important thing is to keep the students interested in the subject matter.

“I feel that if students cannot link the technology to anything in real life, they will lose interest in the subject,” he said. “But now when you talk about some kind of technology and take the students to the lab, they can see how to participate in the configuration.”

It also means the students will be more successful in school and in their careers, Danok added.

Until now, George Brown didn’t offer any courses in Broadband, but Danok said he found out about the EduKit from Seneca, where he also teaches. George Brown also offers labs for wireless, signal generators, access points, network analyzers and spectrum analyzers, among others.

Lucifero, who hopes to get a job working for a wireless company when he graduates in April, said he understands the job market is tough right now, but that his hands-on experience might make a difference when he’s applying for jobs.

Many of his classes are based on lecture information and new concepts, which Lucifero said is still important to learn. But the chance to participate in the labs makes it easier to learn the technology and retain that knowledge, he said.

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