Designing a Versatile Dedicated Computing Lab to Support Computer Network Courses: Insights from a Case Study

Gercek, Gokhan; Saleem, Naveed
January 2006
Journal of Information Technology Education;2006, Vol. 5, p13
Academic Journal
Providing adequate computing lab support for Management Information Systems (MIS) and Computer Science (CS) programs is a perennial challenge for most academic institutions in the US and abroad. Factors, such as lack of physical space, budgetary constraints, conflicting needs of different courses, and rapid obsolescence of computing technology, precipitate this challenge. While introductory computing courses can be adequately supported through general labs, advanced computing courses typically require dedicated labs. Normally, however, even a dedicated lab must simultaneously support multiple courses with diverse support requirements. Consequently, in designing dedicated computing labs, versatility and flexibility of the lab must be the prime consideration. Drawing on the insights gained from developing a dedicated lab, the authors present a model for developing a versatile, flexible lab to support computer network courses. The proposed model entails a modular design approach which offers ease of management, configuration and upgrading of the lab by decoupling the lab functions into layers. The layered design divides the lab into four management layers: (1) wiring layer, (2) networking layer, (3) server systems layer, and (4) support procedures layer. Each layer offers a versatile and configurable design and serves as a foundation for the next higher layer. Wiring layer minimizes the wire configuration efforts and enhances wiring flexibility by utilizing patch panels at the computer desks and the racks housing networking devices, and sufficient underground wiring between desks and racks. The underground wiring allows for network, telephone and serial cable connections as needed. Network layer builds LANs, subnets and internets with minimal configuration effort through a careful arrangement of network hubs, switches, routers, and firewalls. The network layer distinguishes between permanent networks needed in the lab, called pre-configured networks, and the networks that are assembled and disassembled by the students, called configurable networks. The network address allocation schemes for different types of network experiments are also discussed. Server systems layer covers two categories of servers: pre-configured servers and configurable servers. Pre-configured servers, such as DNS and file servers, are production servers that support network experiments. Configurable servers are hardware platforms that can be configured as needed according to experimental needs. The last layer, procedural layer, provides policies, guidelines and operational procedures that are needed for proper utilization of the lab space and the equipment. The paper also illustrates the application of the proposed model through the design and configuration of the computing lab for network courses underlying this case study.


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