Virtual networking helps California colleges provide IT labs to students
Product recommendations are often suspect because of an undisclosed relationship the endorser has with the product producer. To alleviate any concerns, I have absolutely no relationship with the virtual training environment identified as “NetLab+,” except for the fact that I’ve both taken classes utilizing the environment and taught students utilizing NetLab+.
Last year, because of my belief in the value this product brings to classroom instruction, I managed to champion an effort by a consortium of 15 community colleges in Northern California to allocate more than $500,000 for the development of what we call a NetLab+ Regional Hub,1 providing students access to this lab environment, any time of the day or night, from any Internet accessible location. Assisted by the practical magic of virtual networking, those 15 schools are now working in concert to provide an outstanding educational resource to students.
This virtual lab solution was created by the Network Development Group, and has been around for more than 10 years.2 Our “hub” is up and operational, serving the needs of community colleges. The idea of a “hub” concept has been recently adopted by another regional consortium in Northern California, serving an additional twenty-eight (28) colleges.3
This regional approach is in response to a reality all of the California community colleges face. As many of us know, the cost for a single college to set up a NetLab+ environment and to maintain its operation is too high, particularly for smaller colleges. This “shared expense” approach, where all colleges in a region share the costs of establishing and maintaining a virtual teaching resource, makes particular sense when the physical location of the resource is not an issue.
From a practical standpoint it does not matter where the hardware that sits in a server rack is located. All that is necessary is the physical connection to the Internet for both the “hub” and the student utilizing this virtual training environment.
A key benefit of this approach to learning is the resulting availability of a large library of existing labs that can operate in the NetLab+ environment. Many of these labs were created from grant funding provided by the National Science Foundation. The extensive library of labs can be found on the BACCC hub site.4 Colleges can obtain lab images and other content from the National Center for System Security and Information Assurance (CSSIA).5
A shared goal of CSSIA, its partnering colleges, business and industry partners, and industry certification providers, is upgrading current labs and creating new labs. This effort would not be possible without the collaborative efforts of these partners. Coordination of colleges in this “regional structure” will provide a mechanism for the assignment and delegation of lab content development through a structure that is able to identify faculty champions willing to serve as lab content authors.
Because of the availability of centralized hardware resources, faculty will find it much easier to provide students with complex environments where meaningful and challenging labs can be created. An example of this is the current set of labs utilized for “Ethical Hacking” classes. The lab topologies shown below identify eight (8) virtual machines in one configuration and five (5) virtual machines in another configuration.6
The fact that students will be able to access this virtual environment, where all the processing and storage needs are available, effectively means that the workstations available for student use will not need to have the processing power and other hardware requirements to run a large number of virtual guest computers. This will result in a cost savings for colleges and for their students since the need to update computers as often may disappear. An additional benefit includes the possibility of creating more “online” versions of courses, since students will be able to access the lab environment without having to come to the college to complete lab assignments.
The bottom line is the NetLab+ virtual lab environment has proven to be a cost effective and valuable tool for teaching and learning, and as more faculty and students have access to it for their classes, efforts that focus on lab development will increase through lab sharing arrangements, further justifying its use.
1 See the access point for the hub developed for the North/Far North Regional Consortium (NFNRC)
2 Visit the Network Development Group website.
3 See the access point for the hub developed for the Bay Area Community College Consortium (BACCC).
4 View the labs list here.
5 Visit the CSSIA website.
6 Additional information relating to these network topologies and their related labs can be found here and here.