Illustration: Alanna Rizza

The mysterious links of Ryerson’s internet, debunked

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By Katie Swyers 

Next time you’re in a building on campus, look up. Somewhere nearby is a small white blinking box.

Known as access points, they are your first point of entry to Ryerson’s Wi-Fi and communicate with your laptop through an internal antenna. They act a little like the modems you have at home.

They also determine your internet speed. “I’d say, really, the performance you see is a function of how many other people are connecting to the same access point,” said Brian Lesser, Ryerson’s chief information officer (CIO). “Wireless is always a shared service.”

Once connected to an access point, the information from your computer begins a journey through Ryerson’s network; through authentication servers and server rooms, whose locations on campus are kept secret, before travelling through physical cables under the streets of Toronto—some of which connect directly with the University of Toronto and York University.

Seven people at Ryerson’s Computing and Communications Services (CCS) keep Ryerson’s internet running, according to Lesser. And over the last five fiscal years, Ryerson has spent nearly 6.7 million dollars on its wireless system. One of the biggest expenditures was upgrading and replacing access points.

From March 2012 to June 2018, 2,309 new access points have been installed throughout campus, bringing the university’s total from 1,115 in February 2012 to an estimated 3,500 last September. “The university has really invested in providing internet services for students and everybody else,” said Lesser.

All of this has been done to accommodate the over 1,000-per-cent increase in the number of devices accessing Ryerson’s Wi-Fi over the past ten years. In the 2008-2009 academic year, the highest number of devices simultaneously on the Wi-Fi was 2,500. On a busy day, Lesser said 35,000 devices might now be simultaneously connected to the wireless. Lesser added that your device’s radio waves are constantly competing with other people’s for bandwidth.

There is no specific building or spot on campus with the best internet according to Lesser.

“So if you’re alone, near an access point and there’s nobody else around, you’ve probably got as good as it’s going to get anywhere on the campus.” He said that the university is “over-provisioned” when it comes to internet bandwidth. This means that even at peak times around 1 or 2 p.m., users shouldn’t notice things slowing down.

The 3,500 access points means that if one fails, the others can pick up the slack without interrupting service.

Ryerson’s entire internet system was built to be redundant, said Lesser, meaning there are extra resources to share usage burden. So, something can fail without bringing down the entire network, including your next step in accessing the internet at Ryerson, authentication.

Through an access point, your computer sends a query to one of Ryerson’s five authentication servers, asking to access the university’s network. This is when you type in your log-in info.

The authentication servers verify that you are allowed to log in and that your username and password are correct. They verify all requests by Ryerson users. Your internet traffic then goes through Ryerson’s network and exits through one of two gateways to the internet.

“I’d say, really, the performance you see is a function of how many other people are connecting to the same access point”

Ryerson’s CCS hosts two Wi-Fi networks: RU-Secure and Eduroam. Edurom is a global Wi-Fi network which is shared by research institutions such as universities. It allows you to log in to another university’s Wi-Fi using your home school’s credentials.

Even when you are off-campus and using an Eduroam Wi-Fi at another university, if you log in with your Ryerson credentials, your identity is still verified by the authentication servers located at Ryerson. This is made possible by how integrated universities and other research institutions are to each other.

In the Greater Toronto Area, they are physically connected by cables running under the ground.

Ryerson buys its bandwidth from two sources, GTAnet and Cogent, and has a total traffic capacity to the internet of 25 gigabits per second.

Founded in 2002, GTAnet is a private highspeed research network owned by 19 Toronto research institutions, including Ryerson. It also connects to larger provincial and national research networks through routers at University of Toronto and York University, who are also members. GTAnet allows institutions to share very large sets of data between each other, but its job is only transport.

“We’re like the post office, we just deliver the mail, so to speak. We don’t look inside it to see what’s going on,” said Douglas Carson, GTAnet’s director of networking and operations.

Carson said GTAnet was built to meet the unique needs of researchers in a cost-effective manner. And they do that primarily with dark fibre cables.

“Dark fibre is just a piece of fibre that goes from one point to another point, with nothing in between,” said Carson.

Unlike the type used by companies like Bell and Rogers, dark fibre does not have a fixed capacity, said Carson. He explained that the equipment you put on the fibre cables determines its capacity.

In March 2004, GTAnet secured a 20-year lease on dark fibre cables in the city for $2 million that will expire in 2024. The group is currently in talks to renew their fibre agreements, but others want the cables too.

“Dark fibre is very hard to get right now and there has been some resistance from various suppliers to provide us with that,” said Carson, adding that other providers have been “stepping up to the plate,” and are interested in offering GTAnet their services.

Carson said that if they cannot get dark fibre, there would have to be some kind of agreement made with third-party suppliers like Bell and Rogers.

Having internet service interrupted for its members is not a viable option.

“It would be devastating for everyone involved,” said Carson.

“Can you imagine working without the internet these days? For instance, what I do every day, if I didn’t have the internet here, I’d just close my office door and go home.”

GTAnet isn’t your computer’s final destination. The destination can take your computer’s signal anywhere and through any one of the networks that GTAnet or Ryerson connects to. Just try to sit near an access point next time, it will get you to the internet faster.

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