By Vishnu Shriram
Internet access used to be a prized commodity at the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS). Six years ago, internet access was provided for one to three hours a week at a common computer to students who paid a required fee. Faced with repeated refusal by the University to support technology access in any credible manner, the Committee used to survive on generous student donations and regular salvages at the computer market at Chandi Chowk.
Today, “nujs.local”, spanning two six storey buildings and over four hundred users is the resident network, wholly conceived, setup and managed by the Cyber Committee. ‘ccom’, as it has come to be known, is comprised entirely of students and has become one of the core committees under the Student Juridical Association (SJA). Like every other committee, it has a Faculty Advisor who guides committee policies and helps out in matters which require funds and consent from the University.
It was established nearly nine years ago as a temporary measure until the University hired professionals to provide internet access and manage the network for the two hostels and the academic block. A high investment proposal by ERNET (a wing of the Information Technology Department of the Government of India) was (and still is!) in the pipeline and so ccom was established by a bunch of nerdy law students who took it upon themselves to provide internet access to the hostels.
After Akash Sirohi (Batch of 2009) took over from the original resident network admin Joydeep Haldar (Batch of 2008) as Convenor of the Cyber Committee, a host of changes were made to the network structure and the software systems that are used to run the various components of the network. The switch from the popular and proprietary Windows platform to open source software on the Linux (Ubuntu) platform helped make tremendous headway. The members became regulars on Ubuntu and networking forums. Sirohi and Soumya Shanker (Batch of 2010), a trouble-shooter for the committee since his first year at NUJS, began the slow and arduous switch to more powerful networking systems. It was also during this period that a cache web server was put into place and faster broadband connections were acquired from BSNL.
Today, the Cyber Committee has put in place far more problem-free system – at least on the software side. The local network is fully self sufficient now with a resident firewall, web cache proxy server, a direct connect hub for file sharing purposes, an in-house DNS resolution server, an authoritative DHCP server, an ad-block proxy server, an Ubuntu update cache server and a host of network management services on all of these. The structure of the network map has been reworked only slightly since its initial days and currently uses CAT5E cables and entry-level access layer switches on each floor of the hostels. Apart from these, the signals cascade down to the access layer switches from a pair of distribution layer switches and the core switch of the network.
The winter semester of 2009 saw the arrival of the much awaited 2 MBps Leased Line connection (courtesy of BSNL again) and new switches. It took the committee a bit of time to free funds from the hands of the University in order to incorporate the newly acquired connection into the network as December 2009 saw a remarkable change in internet access at NUJS. We were all at long last, a static entity on the internet. This spelt joy in project making as research websites such as Heinonline and Westlaw which had access in the library could not previously be incorporated into the hostel network. The popular file sharing program DC++ was also introduced to users soon enough and a file sharing frenzy gripped the network. Today, nujs.local has over eight terabytes of shared data across the network.
Simply put, ccom is the resident Internet Service Provider. The committee carries out both the technical and the administrative side of running a network that is a medium-sized one, even in networking terms (small being between 180 – 200 users).
The administrative work by itself proves quite cumbersome as this involves the gathering of funds to pay off bills and the replacement of the usual loss by wear and tear. The bill for the leased line is paid off by gathering an equal portion of the bill amount from all users of the network’s facilities. Usage is tracked through a system of compulsory static IP addresses that are assigned to the users upon registration. Members also make regular jaunts to the Chandni tech market to meet the routine needs of the network. For several years now Anshuman Rath (Batch of 2011 and Convenor) has been at the helm of affairs in this department.
The technical part of running a network is divided in some sense into two tasks – that of managing the hardware and that of the software systems in place. The committee members branch out when it comes to this and people take up what they are most comfortable with. A feature of the Committee is that the entire network is hosted and managed from a server room (two hostel double rooms put together) on the third floor of the Boys’ Hostel so naturally the role of the female ccom members is minimal. This is as a result of the basic network structure (being centred away from the Girls’ Hostel) and in some sense due to a difference in the level of technical expertise. All technical duties are invariably undertaken by the guys while the work of compiling lists of users on every floor and the like is carried out by the ccom member on every floor. This obviously means that ccom members are pretty much the only guys who have easy access to the girls’ hostel building. This can be quite irritating as lack of access fails to prove a good enough excuse for failing to fix electronic equipment that has been put out of order by a female hand (which is very often the case).
Doubts have been expressed in the past about over-dependence on certain ccom members, especially in managing the networking and software. However, over the years, a notion of continuity has strongly been established as senior members tutor the less experienced ones to carry the baton once they have left. The Cyber Committee’s work almost never ceases, computers having no time or place to give up on you and troubleshooting and management even at preposterously unearthly hours is almost expected of the committee. The committee provides an essential service, and is not simply a form of co-curricular activity, This places it on quite a different footing on comparison with its counterparts.
There are certainly perks associated with the position of a network administrator just as there are perks with every other position of responsibility and power, but members in the past have expressed concern over a growing notion amongst the student body that the ccom is obligated to keep the network running, forgetting that the committee is in its truest sense, just like every other, where the members are simply enthusiastic and interested volunteers who are setting aside personal time and space.
With the ERNET project still hanging uncertain, the committee has chalked out grander plans of improving connection stability and to add more features to the network. An 8 MBPS leased line connection and power backup to begin with.
As of Monsoon Semester 2010, I have taken over the hefty baton of the Committee. At the end of the day, despite the seeming thanklessness of playing a network administrator at nujs.local, the sheer volume and vastness of the knowledge and skill that one acquires as a committee member, especially on the technical side is something in my opinion, every ccom member ought to be extremely thankful for.