Differences between internet connectivity in Colorado and Malawi

Malawians, in general, are both very poor and very ambitious. I think this is why I am finding engineering in Malawi to be such exhilarating experience. So often here we are asked to do a lot with a little. Its forcing me to push the limits my creativity, my imagination, and my skills as an engineer.

I was in a meeting last week to discuss the redesign of the internet network architecture for Mzuzu University. There is a need to rethink how users are allowed to connect to the internet here in Mzuzu. Currently the network is designed much like the networks of the universities in the USA. In general, computers with connections allow users are to have unlimited access to the internet. A quick comparison of the internet connection here in Mzuzu to the last connection I used at my house in the USA will show why a different network architecture is necessary in Mzuzu:

Mzuzu University My Mountain House in Colorado
Bandwidth (speed of connection) 256 kbps > 1000 kbps
Number of users the connection serves about 500 2
Price per month at least $300 - $400 (this could be much more, but getting the actual numbers has been tough) $55

In English the table basically says: In Mzuzu we are trying to serve about 500 people with an internet connection that is about 5 times slower than the one broadband users have at home in the USA. This same slower connection costs us about 6-8 times what it costs home users in the states.

Again, the trick is to do a lot with a little. At home in the USA where there is a lot of cheap extra bandwidth readily available the efficiency of the design of your home network is not of much concern. If for example there is a virus sitting on your home computer sending out data via your internet connection, chances are the data the virus sends costs you very little money. Here in Malawi this is not the case. Over our satellite internet connection, bandwidth is scarce. Viruses sending out data cost us a lot of money. For many reasons of both, economics and engineering, we need to be very efficient here with how data is sent from our network out to the world via the internet.

So Mzuzu University has put together a team of myself, a volunteer from Japan and the university IT staff to design a system network architecture to use the resources of the VSAT internet connection more efficiently. We decided unanimously that we would try our best to carefully document the system we design so that it could be easily implemented by other universities who use satellites to connect to the internet.

Overall our goal is to design a system that gives as much free access to the internet as the University can afford. We want to limit users only so that they realize their internet time is expensive and should be used only in the most productive ways. By limiting the number of hours users have available for free they will respect the time available to them more and will begin to treat the internet as a limited resource.

In our first meeting we decided the requirements for the new university network. I am posting them here in hopes that some of you computer networking nerds out there might take internet in the project.

The requirements :

  • The network should allow users unlimited access to the local network (intra-univeristy network traffic like email , file sharing, and web browsing cost us very very little and should be allowed to happen all of the time)
  • Only network traffic sent via the VSAT to the rest of the world should be limited (this is the expensive network traffic)
  • the University has decided on set number of free hours for various groups (staff, students, administration, etc) available per week or per semester and on a pricing schedule for additional internet time. The network should track individual users use of the VSAT connection and limit their connectivity based upon the limits defined by type of user they are ( for example, a student may be given 3 hours of free connectivity per semester, while a staff member may receive 5 hours per week).
  • The pricing architecture should allow administration to change pricing of internet access easily and frequently
  • Users should be able to view their reaming time and account balances
  • Users should be notified with their remaining free time or account balance is low
  • System should allow large files and full mirrors of websites to be downloaded during off peak hours for internet usage (nights and weekends) at no charge to University network users
  • When power goes out the system should automatically credit one minute to users accounts and stop deducting time
  • new network should continue to use the web proxy cache already in place to minimize duplicate downloads
  • new network should include bandwidth optimization and local queuing of internet traffic to allow highly interactive traffic like Voice over internet, Video conferencing, ssh, web browsing to take priority over non-interactive uses of the internet connection like file downloads (this will also discourage large number of large files from being downloaded as they will go at slower and slower rates without affecting interactive web traffic)

Thoughts anyone?