Deploying Network Sentries
Deploying Network Sentries

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM

Educators at the University of Missouri-Kansas City believe in pairing technology with academics for their 14,000 students. As part of the university's Ideal Learning Environment (ILE) program, many of its classrooms are equipped with high-tech teaching tools, including document cameras, high-resolution slide projectors, high-speed computers, wireless mice and microphones, VCRs and laptop docking stations.

Attended primarily by commuter students, the university's policy is to keep its 120 classrooms unlocked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., allowing students access for study activities between classes.

The commitment to technology and policy of openness improves educational life for students and teachers, but for one university staff member, it had the potential to create more worry. Tom Brenneman, now the university's director of information services, has worked with the university for more than 17 years. To protect the school's technological assets from both human and natural threats, Brenneman needed a security tool that would combine environmental sensors measuring temperature or moisture with the ability to record images.
Bring In The Botz

In 2001, Brenneman began deploying a series of network monitoring appliances called Wallbotz. Produced by Austin, Texas-based Netbotz, the devices are designed to detect and prevent the factors that often cause equipment failure and network downtime. Comprised of integrated environmental sensors and a digital video camera, the devices allow real-time monitoring through a customer's existing network.

"We've taken a customer network and used it to create a PTN, or a physical threat network," says Mitch Medford, Netbotz' chief technology officer. "(We) think of (Netbotz) almost as sentries. These are intelligent appliances. You just plug them in the network and they wake up."

The integrated sensors detect excess heat, humidity, smoke and lack of airflow, while an audio sensor listens for smoke alarms, intrusion detection alarms or sounds far exceeding the ambient noise level. Exterior ports allow for the addition of more sensors, such as amperage monitoring, or third-party dry contact sensors for water or glass-break, for example. The built-in camera allows users to view the protected room using a Web interface, and automatically begins to record when motion is detected or a door opens.

Alerts and sensor data are posted to Web servers or sent in e-mails to designated recipients. The appliances can work independently or as part of an enterprise management solution, such as Computer Associate's Unicenter or Hewlett Packard's OpenView IT/Operations. Netbotz also offers a network server that customers can use to group and manage their fleet of Wallbotz appliances. If environmental readings exceed parameters in the third floor calculus classroom, for example, the icon for that site glows red on the central map. Historical alarm data can be accessed by appliance and date, and data can be exported to other applications or used to generate graphs and reports.
Visible Upgrades

At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Brenneman uses the Netbotz Central Standard system, armed with 120 gigabytes of storage, to manage 50 Netbotz appliances. This year, however, he will upgrade to the NetBotz Central Enterprise system, necessary when the university adopts the Netbotz 500 series of appliances.

The new series is SSL-encrypted and supports 802.11 wireless networking. It provides resolutions from 640 480 at 30 frames/second to 1280 1024 at 10 frames/second, and can operate four cameras with full-voice recording at the same IP address. "The new 500 series has really squelched one of my biggest complaints and that's resolution," Brenneman says.

Soon the university will shift the older 300 series into the smaller IT rooms, server storage areas and boiler rooms, making space in the classrooms for the 500 series, equipped with three cameras each. The school's 120 GB server will support the Netbotz installed in storage areas, and Netbotz pods deployed in local K-12 classrooms through a partnership with the local school district. The new enterprise server will handle the host of images generated by the new high-resolution cameras in the classrooms. Eventually, Brenneman plans to equip all of his 120 classrooms with new appliances.

Brenneman also purchased extra leak sensors for the campus television station located below an air conditioning system cooled with chilled water. "We've had the chilled water lines break and drip onto the cameras. Now we can take action before it causes irreversible damage," he says.
Botz In Action

Typically, the campus police dispatcher and the supervisor of the ILE program monitor the system each day. Using an add-on software option called NetBotz Surveillance, staff members can view up to 25 live continuous thumbnail images.

"I can look at (the Netbotz units) not only for surveillance and classroom security, but I can also check when lights are turned on (in classrooms), or if equipment has been left on," Brenneman says. "I can also verify people's time cards by checking the stored surveillance images. You can use it for a variety of things."

In case an equipment repair were needed, without the systems' eyes, IT staff members would have to travel across campus to the classroom, find out whether it was occupied and then return at a later time wasting time and employee resources. "As a supervisor, I want to be able to go to one place and see all (the classrooms)," Brenneman adds.

"When the system is down, we're in a panic. Certainly because of security, and because it's nice to be able to look in the room and see if anyone is in there before you go there," he adds.

Netbotz has also helped to solve several thefts and pranks since being installed. One student decided it would be humorous to disconnect all the electronics in a classroom before the teacher arrived. The prank backfired, explains Brenneman: "The problem was his face was right in front of the Netbotz when he was unplugging it, so that information was recorded on the server with a date and time." The student didn't realize that a Wallbotz sends an alarm to the command center when it is disconnected from the system.

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