May 8, 2006

In the stealth of night, EzraNet upgrades building networks

It's 3 a.m. Night blankets the slumbering campus. The silence is broken only by the plodding of the occasional weary student bound for home.

Comstock and Olin halls, though, are abuzz with people drilling, driving screws, hammering and sawing; workers reach up into ceilings, down under desks and behind cabinets and bookcases. In five hours, it will be hard to tell they were even there. Only upon close inspection might their accomplishments be noticed -- new network jacks and perhaps some new conduits or molding along a ceiling or up a wall.

And that's exactly how the university's EzraNet program wants it: The 14-year, $57 million program quietly upgrades 1990-vintage data and phone wiring and the distribution infrastructure in 60 buildings, while faculty and staff work virtually uninterrupted.

"Most people can't tell any difference once the work is done. Some have noticed the new conduit, but only because it hasn't been painted yet to match the walls. Once we're done, in most places, it will look just like it was before," said Brian Ford, facilities coordinator for Olin Hall.

Ideally, the only difference faculty and staff might detect is how flawless and fast the network is when they tap into such resource-intensive technologies as virtual reality, data modeling or videoconferencing.

EzraNet's ability to be so unobtrusive is the product of months of intense planning and comprehensive communicating, made possible by a tight partnership among building coordinators, representatives from each department in the building, Cornell Information Technologies' (CIT) Network and Communication Services staff and the contractor, which, for Comstock and Olin halls, is Cornell's Planning, Design and Construction (PDC).

Building coordinators and department representatives ensure that everyone in a building knows about EzraNet, where the new jacks are going and when construction will occur. Depending on a building's complexity, construction can take as little as four months or as long as a year. It is done in four phases: installing conduit and cable trays; running the wiring; testing and switching to the new network; and removing the old cabling.

"In both Comstock and Biotech, people's main concern was whether their productivity would be interrupted. So we made sure they saw the proposed schedule well in advance, and we negotiated the best timing for everyone concerned," said Mick LoPinto, who coordinates EzraNet construction for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

As the start of construction nears, building coordinators intensify their communications. Schedules are posted on doors, e-mails go out, personal visits are made, orange dots appear on the walls.

Orange dots? These are simply indicators of where new jacks will go. They help the room's occupants see what will have to be moved (anything within three feet of an orange dot) and plan for securing sensitive equipment and such irreplaceable or fragile items as framed photos and artwork. The dots also serve as a second reference to the construction crew; any differences between the dots and the design schematics are checked with CIT.

In Olin Hall, Ford reminds people of the construction schedule three days in advance. He does room-by-room walk-throughs with CIT personnel to note such special considerations or sensitivities as ongoing experiments or computer equipment that cannot be shut down.

Just before construction begins, room furnishings take on a ghostly look as they are covered in protective tarps. A final walk-through is done with the construction foreman; then the construction crew gets to work.

CIT construction coordinators are on-site as well, answering questions, working out proposed solutions to unforeseen challenges, checking to see that everything is running according to plan and acting as the knowledge bridge between daytime and nighttime teams.

By the time 8 a.m. rolls around, there is no sign of the construction crew. Tools, tarps and materials have been stowed in trailers and closets, dust and debris swept away. The CIT construction coordinators and PDC construction managers and forepersons have provided the morning report to the building coordinators and their colleagues in CIT and PDC.

And the faculty and staff are doing what they do every morning, uninterrupted.

Current Status of EzraNet

The EzraNet column is published biannually and edited by Beth Goelzer Lyons at Cornell Information Technologies. For more information, e-mail ezranet@cornell.edu or visit http://www.cit.cornell.edu/ezranet/.