Boise State ditches Cisco DNS

Boise State University, the largest university in Idaho, has replaced its aging Cisco Network Registrar software with appliances from BlueCat Networks that it says are easier to manage and less expensive to operate for Domain Name System  and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol services.

Boise State's network links more than 170 buildings spread across its 175-acre campus in downtown Boise. The fiber-optic backbone network is being upgraded to 10G Ethernet in December, with 100Mbps bandwidth to the desktop. The network carries data and voice traffic, and it supports 2,300 IP-based phones.

Boise State is a Cisco shop; the university uses all Cisco switches, routers, IP phones, wireless access points and wireless controllers on its network, which supports 21,000 students, faculty and staff.

But when it comes to core network infrastructure services such as DNS and DHCP, the university decided Cisco's Network Registrar was too expensive to operate.

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Boise State isn't the only organization to discover that it could save money by switching from DNS software to DNS appliances. The Nevada Department of Corrections recently bought DNS appliances from BlueCat rival Infoblox to replace DNS software from Novell that was requiring too much time from network administrators.

Boise State had the same problem. Until this summer, the university was running an old edition of Cisco Network Registrar -- Version 5.5, which was at the end of its life -- on a Windows server for its DNS and DHCP services.

"It was very limited as far as what was actually in the database for DNS and DHCP, and what you could see through the [graphical user interface]," says Diane Dragone, network engineer at Boise State. "There was no easy way to see what was really in the database except through command line tools."

In addition, Boise State had to do custom coding in order to make this older version of Cisco Network Registrar work with all the vendor tags needed for DHCP.

Boise State needed to upgrade the Cisco Network Registrar software, but that option was too expensive, Dragone says.

Cisco ended support for Cisco Network Registrar Version 5.5 in May 2006, and it is now selling Version 7.0 of the software.

"We didn't want to pay the price for upgrading the software; it became extremely expensive," Dragone says.

Dragone explored several alternatives, including DNS software from Novell, Microsoft and Men & Mice. But eventually she zeroed in on appliances, and ended up testing devices from BlueCat and Infoblox.

Boise State bought two BlueCat Adonis 1000 appliances, which are set up to be redundant to each other. The retail cost of the two appliances was $26,000.

"It came down to cost," Dragone says. "Plus, there were a couple things in the [interface] of the management system that I liked better, but they were very small."

Dragone said installation of the Adonis 1000s was easy.

"I spent a few weeks on my own learning the interfaces on the Adonis system, the GUI interface and the command-line interface, until I had a good comfort level. Then I did a testbed of two small buildings…to roll them onto the system for DNS and DHCP so we could test our Active Directory integration and our VoIP to make sure we had no issues," she explains.

Dragone said it took three weeks to migrate the entire campus network to the DNS and DHCP services from the BlueCat appliances.

"We had no helpdesk calls as a result of the conversion," she says. "People didn't really know it happened."

Dragone's favorite features of the Adonis system are the search capabilities and the instantaneous replication between the master and slave systems. She says she can patch the appliances in the middle of the work day, rather than scheduling off-hours maintenance.

Boise State hasn't experienced any outages or other significant problems with the BlueCat appliances.

"I have no complaints whatsoever," Dragone says. "I like all the reports that you can look at. The other thing I really like is the tool for checking your DNS database before you deploy your configuration. That has really come in handy."

Operating modern appliances is a lot easier than keeping aging software running, Dragone says.

"There are savings headache wise," Dragone says. "I spent an entire week in December trying to figure something out that never got resolved. There were a lot of band-aid fixes on the old system to the point where we were shuffling around where the DHCP was coming from."

Cisco declined to comment for this article.

Branko Miskov, director of product management at BlueCat Networks, says more universities like Boise State are migrating to appliances for DNS and DHCP services. Among BlueCat's higher ed customers are UC Berkeley, UCLA, the University of Michigan and the University of Calgary. This segment now represents more than 10% of BlueCat's sales.

"We've actually had some pretty significant traction in the higher ed market…in the last 18 months," Miskov says. "They're a little more diverse in terms of the feature sets they use, whereas a lot of enterprises are pretty much uniform. The dorms have different requirements than the university buildings, so they really use the full extent of our gear."

Miskov says universities are upgrading their core network services in response to the explosion of IP devices in dorm rooms, such as computers, PDAs and gaming consoles.

"Each dorm room might require three or four IP addresses, and that's not even thinking about the faculty requirements," Miskov says. "For those that are rolling out VoIP, that introduces a whole slew of new IP addresses into the mix and makes it harder to manage."

This story, "Boise State ditches Cisco DNS" was originally published by Network World.

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