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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Students and teachers dissatisfied with UMass Boston internet architecture

According to Computer Science students and teachers, the UMass Boston internet architecture is inconvenient, puts students at a competitive disadvantage, and also hinders teaching certain technologies.

UMass Boston IT administrators say the internet architecture avoids security risks and changes will be made when more faculty members are hired.

The term “internet architecture” describes an internet network’s firewall configuration and has implications for what it allows users to do.

“I’ve been fighting for these things for five years,” says Joseph Cohen, a Computer Science PhD and former undergraduate at UMass Boston, who has long fought for internet improvements at the school. 

In Spring 2013, Cohen wrote a letter published by the Mass Media, outlining “systematic disadvantages” students were subjected to.

At the start of this semester, he created a petition on change.org, a letter to Chancellor Motley referring to an “inequality in educational infrastructure between UMass Boston and competing universities”, such as blocked ports, “outbound VPN,” “UDP packets for streaming,” and the “ability to VOIP systems such as T-Mobile Wi-Fi calling.”

“Outbound VPN” catapults a student into another network so that they can access the internet as coming from that location or open private files.
This is relevant to students who access their internship’s or job’s folders through “outbound VPN” to get at secure files; for example, files containing coding.

“It embarrassed students in their internships, because they couldn’t do their work from [UMass Boston], unlike the Boston College and MIT students they were working with,” said Cohen.
Certain internet “ports” are utilized for web development.
Cohen says that this past spring he couldn’t work on a project because of “blocked ports,” and so resorted to the guest internet at Harvard University. 
Lecturer Martin Hellwig considers the blocking to be a major limitation to his teaching and research and a common complaint among students, who have turned to running experiments at home.
In his professional opinion, Hellwig sees no major benefit from the blocking and no justification for the “different” approach at UMass Boston.
Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Duc Tran, says, “How can we test a video streaming research prototype if UDP packets are blocked?”
“UDP” is the protocol by which two points in a network communicate with each other. It is faster than other protocols but some unreliability exists, as pieces of information may be lost while traveling the distance.
Cohen gave an example where a group of students were experiencing difficulties controlling a remote control car with a cellphone for lack of UDP. 

Apurva Mehta, Interim Vice-Provost for Information Technology, says much of the internet architecture bulleted in Cohen’s petition may be applied for by students. The form on the UMass Boston website, “Internet Access Request Procedure,” will undergo the “Exception Request Process” after being filled out.

Mehta and Brian Forbes, a Systems Manager, say risk is the primary factor behind the internet architecture’s state, although the situation could change in the future, but not until the new security team is finished being assembled, something that may take 18 to 24 months.

Cohen thinks that only firewall configurations would be required, and this could be done cheaply in two days.

On Cohen’s petition’s list is “T-Mobile Wi-Fi Calling,” an alternative for students whose cellphones cannot reach cell towers through the walls of the buildings. 

Computer Science student, Michael Bazzinotti, says, “It can ruins plans because people can’t get in touch with me over the phone [when I am in the Science Building].”

Mehta and Forbes say that “T-Mobile Wi-Fi Calling” should be functional as of a month ago yet Cohen and one other anonymous student report there are still issues.

Cohen believes actual data can’t be sent, despite the fact that the devices recognize the configuration for “T-Mobile Wi-Fi Calling”.
“[T-Mobile] Wi-Fi Calling will believe the ports are completely available to send information [but] you will be sitting there for 20 seconds of silence before your phone hangs up,” says the anonymous student.

In 2010 Cohen created a petition against the then W-iFi login system, which had to be downloaded to and scan the student’s/faculty’s laptop, something he termed as “invasive.” It was discontinued after a year of campus disapproval.

In 2012 the Mass Media covered Cohen’s creation of an app that prevented students from having to enter their login information every time they sought to use the Wi-Fi. The then IT administration took down his university-hosted research page.  

But the IT administration has since undergone restructuring and the anonymous student thinks there is a “black mark” on Cohen for the resistance he showed in the past. 

“Any further change he tries to push will be looked at as mischief by the administration and not taken seriously.”

“The minor changes in policy [on the petition] would be a sign of good faith that [the administration is] willing to adapt to meet the needs of students and the modern technology they use.

“It’ll also give us the consolation that those left in the current administration will not be the ones running smear campaigns against students who just want things to work.”

“That’s all we really want. Students and faculty alike don’t want to be at war with the administration.”

Mehta believes it is important to communicate with the undergraduate and graduate governments to gauge what most needs fixing and a possible reason for the undergraduate government not being aware of the complaints was because they “hadn’t bubbled up.”

Says Professor Duc Tran,”My feeling is that there are more students in our department upset about UMB Wi-Fi than those who are happy with it.”