The last year has been anything but business as usual for most colleges and universities. But network advances are still happening and recently a pair of Cisco customers talked about one of these new Cisco innovations.

During a recent Educause webinar, Cisco Architect Stephen Orr moderated a discussion of Cisco User Defined Network (UDN) between Ken Boynton Communications Network Analyst, Principal at the University of Arizona and Rich Fraboni, the Assistant Director of Network Services at East Carolina University.

Both speakers spoke glowingly about the UDN solution and how it has started to transform their universities. But what is UDN and why is it such a game changer? As a feature available in DNA Center, Cisco User Defined Network allows IT administrators the ability to give end-users control of their very own wireless network partition—or pod—on a shared network. End-users can then remotely and securely deploy their devices on this network. Perfect for university dormitories and other use cases (see below), Cisco User Defined Network grants both device security and control, allowing the end-user the choice of whom can connect to their network.

Orr said that UDN came about after as an explosion of consumer electronic devices has come into the dorm room. He said that Cisco been working five years coming up with a solution so that students can work and interact with the network instead of just being along for a ride.

“We targeted University dorms because there was an immediate need,” he explained. “Over the last five years, students have been coming back to campus every semester with more and more devices and this has put a strain on networks. Where once students brought three-to-four devices each, now they’re bringing more than double that.”

“It’s not just the PC that used to bring,” Boynton added. “There are just so many devices like personal assistants and they all talk to each, like the personal assistant that can play music from iTunes. Gaming has also changed as well.”

Fraboni agreed, “There is tons of different types of equipment and [students] want to be able to use them like they do at home. It doesn’t necessarily work like that in an enterprise network due to security reasons. The increase in bandwidth utilization is up in excess of 8 gigabits per second.”

Boynton, Fraboni and Orr all said that with the additional devices, university networks are starting to break. Repairing these networks don’t come with easy fixes—a lot of times these band-aid solutions weaken security and increase network complexities. In a lot of cases, the best way to provide the best network is to start from the foundation with a new architectural solution.

All rights reserved to Sandra Cifo

Enter the User Defined Network (UDN)

While UDN isn’t deployed in all of the buildings at each college—both are in the midst of a large refresh project that has been slowed by Covid—both Fraboni and Boynton have said that according to the data they’ve seen, the buildings with UDN have seen less security issues. They explained that buildings running UDN are like private VLANs from back in the day. Traffic inside each student’s partition can go out, but traffic outside the partition can’t go in unless the student explicitly allows it.

“Security is a main concern,” Boynton said. “At home you can trust your family, but at the dorm do you trust the other students in your dorm? Making sure security is strong is important.”

The way that students allow friends to gain access to their pod is through an easy-to-use app. If a student wants to share a device in their partition with a friend, a click of the button provides them access. If the students want their friend to leave their partition, it’s another touch of a button.

The app also allows for deploying their devices on the network when students aren’t on campus. Orr explains the positives, “being able to register their devices right before school starts helps with the stress of going back to school. It decreases some of the friction when the show up show up – they put their devices on the right SSID—and it should make things considerably easier for the IT folks.”

This deployment ease lead Boynton and Fraboni to discuss future uses for UDN.

Boynton said that an on-campus fraternity came to him with a request to set up a communal printer that is open only to the fraternity members but won’t be available to just anyone who is on the network. He thought that UDN would be a perfect solution for this.

One of the questions that the IT departments hear about at both schools is gaming. Deploying UDN would make this an easy answer. Boynton said, “It’s very easy to use and you can allow someone into your [partition], which makes it simple. So, it’s great for gameplay.”

“The gaming experience is something that we spent a long time thinking about,” Orr said. “We are also working on being able to plug in your xBox or PlayStation to create that virtual LAN party without having to physically be in the same room, which will be a lot of fun.”

It’s not just gaming and printers. The trio discussed setting up a UDN partition strictly for IoT devices as something that will be worth the time.

When asked by a webinar user about signal degradation between campus Wi-Fi and UDN Wi-Fi enabled devices in a partition, Fabrini explained, “If I give every student their own SSID then it’s more broadcast traffic which degrades the entire network, which we stayed away from. You’re not bringing additional equipment or extra SSIDs onto the network, so nothing is competing for more bandwidth.”

Orr said Cisco tried to steer clear of adding more RF. He explained that you have to provide enterprise security but at the same time, you have to also accommodate the students with their consumer electronic devices. All this needed to be done without creating more RF interference to make it more difficult for the IT crew.

How will UDN help the university in the long run? Fabrini has some ideas, “this will go a long way with our residential halls leveling the playing field by removing some negatives (bad Wi-Fi) from the residential hall experience. They can bring all of the devices that they want and won’t have to go off campus to get more bandwidth.”

“This will help when competing against some of the outside off campus dorms who have wide-open networks,” Boynton said. “This also helps when competing against other universities too. From what I hear, word of a good Wi-Fi experience is something that gets down to the high school level when those kids are choosing a college. It’s not the only thing that makes this decision, obviously, but it helps.”

Fabrini also talked about other uses for UDN, away from campus.

“How about at a Starbucks, or a place like that,” he said. “If you know that you’re in your own little partition once you go in there you don’t have to worry about the 17 other people all hammering on your computer when you join the network. Same thing at a hotel. If we can provide that type of security to them or isolation and tie it to your rewards, so that every time you go to a hotel you know that your partition will be ready for you.”

Both Boynton and Fabrini were unanimous when asked about the best part of UDN.

“The part that I like best is that once it’s configured, I don’t have to do anything else,” Boyton said. “Once it’s done it’s done, you don’t have to set all of these [partitions] up for every individual student.”

“Our network operators, once it’s established have time to work on other things,” Fabrini explained. “The installation was very straight-forward, very easy for us.”

Learn more about UDN

Listen to the Educause webinar


Check out our Cisco Networking video channel

Subscribe to the Cisco Networking blog


Byron Magrane

Product Manager, Marketing