Behind the scenes at Trinity IT

Eva O’Brien speaks to the team in IT services in Trinity to explore the changing needs of users and the evolving challenges they face in running one of the largest college networks in the country.


It is difficult for most of us now to imagine a time before Trinity had access to the Internet. And yet just 16 years ago, Trinity’s staff and students were highly suspicious of the new phenomenon. “We first introduced Wi-Fi in 2002 in college,” says Brian O’Hora, who is the project manager of a recently completed full overhaul and expansion of Trinity’s Wi-Fi network. “It was a totally different thing then and it wasn’t trusted – we had to plead with people to ‘please use it, please use it!’” At the time, the network was used primarily by staff, rather than students as John Murphy, Director of Information Technology (IT) Services, explains: “students didn’t have any devices.”

Upgrading the Network

Such dinosaur days might be hard to fathom for those of us who can barely remember a time when we did not have constant access to Google at the tips of our fingertips. For IT services, the past 16 years has seen their remit grow from running a set of desktop computers in various locations across the campus to managing the security and traffic of a constantly expanding network whose challenges only increase year on year.

In 2004, there were 200 users of the wireless network in Trinity, including both staff and students. They were amply served at the time by the 145 access points that were then in place across the campus. (An “access point” is the same modem you plug in at home, explains O’Hora: “There, you simply plug in a few wires and generally speaking you hope to get coverage throughout the house. A university is a slightly different matter.”)

By 2016, the network must now be able to accommodate up to 25,000 users; with the bulk of these being students – moreover, as Murphy explains, most students now want to connect a multitude of devices to the network, increasing the overall traffic even further. “Typically now we’re seeing that students, people in rooms at least, will have between two and four devices. They’ll have a laptop, they’ll have a smartphone, and typically now we’re also seeing people using the network for gaming.”

Naturally, all this requires something more than 145 modems. There has been a year-on year expansion of the number of access points, and in addition there has been a total overhaul and expansion of the network since 2013. At the completion of the recent upgrade, there are 1960 access points across 23 separate sites; covering 300,000 square metres of floor space in 7500 rooms.

There are surely large towns in Ireland with less connection. As part of this project, Dartry Halls of Residence became completely covered by Wi-Fi for the first time, and this led to, in O’Hora’s words, “an exceptional, 100% growth in traffic there.” He expects it to grow further in the coming year. “We’ve had to update the links between here and Dartry to accommodate for people having 3 and 4 devices all in the one space,” Murphy adds.

Challenges in Running the Network

On top of infrastructure requirements for the network, the complexities of running the service sound  immense. Being in the centre of the city poses plenty of problems. “If a bus drives past with Wi-Fi on board, that interferes – one of the networks could stop talking because you can’t have two networks talking on the same channel. At the moment, on the 2.4 range you can see…” – O’Hora displays a real-time information app on his phone to demonstrate this information. “2959 interferers – now that’s a lot, you won’t find that on any other network, with the exception perhaps of the likes of Eircom.”

Interferers are the great collection of shops, banks, restaurants, buses and other lesser-spotted creatures that compete for what Murphy terms “our air-space” and IT services are constantly working to ensure adequate and consistent access.

Build a Wi-Fi network and don’t expect to simply leave it there to exist and be used. It then has to be monitored and carefully maintained to keep it secure. Sara McAneney is the head of IT Security, and she explains some of the procedures that have to be gone through in order to keep the network and the sensitive data that is stored on it secure. “We have segmented networks, so that obviously the network that you as a student are on is not the same network where the most sensitive data would be held.”

Other tools include encryption, “Defence in Depth,” whereby each layer of the network is secured individually, and making sure that all software is correctly configured. “Most software breaches would be due to basic things like incorrect configuration,” McAneney claims. Like any system that is exposed to the Internet, she says, the Trinity system is constantly under potential threat. “We’d be aware of constant attempts to probe systems.”

McInaeney adds that the type of security threats have changed as radically as the system itself over the years it has been in operation. “In the old days the typical threats would have been computer science students trying to hack us from the inside. Most of our threats wouldn’t have come from the outside, because not many people outside actually had access to the Internet. 20 years ago, people learning computer science would have been trying their luck – we’d catch them but they’d be giving it a go.”

Outside security threats now present the greater challenge for IT Services, and a more sinister challenge at that. These threats tend to manifest themselves as fairly predictable attempts to gain access to users’ email accounts, according to McAneney.

“There’s a huge industry in spam and phishing, so people would try to capture ‘good’ email accounts, you know, email accounts belonging to staff and students, because we have a trusted email domain. If you can get a trusted email account you’ll be able to send out a lot of spam and it will get through.”

Her biggest tip for students is almost ridiculously obvious: “Don’t give away your username and password. Your username and password are your credentials; they’re your key, it’s not a good idea to give them away.”

Achievements to Date

Murphy is rather proud of the success of the project to update the college network in recent years. “It’s the fastest network in the country. It’s the most high-density network in Ireland and the UK in any university, and also the quickest in the country, since this project has just been completed.”

He refuses to give a figure for the overall cost of the project after completion, “I want to tell the provost first, I want him to be the first to hear that it came in on time and under budget – give me my one day of glory!” Secure approval and funding for this project was difficult itself, since, as O’Hora notes, “It’s seen as a very student-centric service”.

IT services are constantly monitoring use of their various services, and Murphy notes that not everyone, even today, makes the best use of the latest technologies. “There are some lecturers, we know, who don’t carry mobile phones at all. In the Maths department it’s still pretty much chalk-and-talk – they’re not using the latest technologies. You always know them, because they walk around covered in white dust.”

Nonetheless, it is clear that IT services in Trinity are ever eager to ensure access to their services whenever it will be required of them.