And suddenly we all went virtual

SWITCH is providing full support to the university community during the extraordinary situation caused by coronavirus, with secure basic infrastructure, targeted advice, innovative solutions and networked specialist communities.

Pubblicato il 11.05.2020

With Swiss universities discontinuing face-to-face lessons for this semester and teaching switching to the virtual realm, there has been a radical shift for all concerned, including SWITCH. This unforeseen push towards digitalisation in university teaching has required every team in the foundation to adapt existing solutions to changing conditions at very short notice. This particularly applies to SWITCHlan and SWITCHengines, the SWITCH collaboration tools, eduhub and SWITCHprocure, as well as SWITCH-CERT.

SWITCHlan: secure, stable background operations

SWITCHlan hasn’t experienced any bottlenecks. This dedicated network means that the concerns of universities and research institutes have topmost priority, even in an extraordinary situation such as this.

"Our many years of architecture philosophy and capacity planning in the network have paid off,’ says Daniel Bertolo, Head of Network. ‘We were in a position to expand operations substantially to deal with the significant jump in new users within the first week of lockdown."

With so many university members working from home, network traffic between private homes and universities travels over direct connections from SWITCHlan to commercial internet providers. This exchange between SWITCH and other Swiss providers, which is known as ‘peering’ traffic, has increased fivefold from around 6-8 Gbit/s to something like 30 Gbit/s. Overall, SWITCH increased its peering capacities from 120 Gbit/s to a total of 240 Gbit/s within just a few days.

Research traffic remains as high as ever. But even under normal conditions this (computing) work is handled by large supercomputer centres, so the physical location of users is irrelevant.

The major university hospitals, almost all of which are connected to SWITCHlan, represent a special case. Traffic remains high here, and within two weeks capacities were expanded on a case-by-case basis.

SWITCHengines: well-developed basic infrastructure

The data volume on SWITCHengines has increased significantly since the beginning of lockdown – up by 100 TB in one month. Future-oriented planning in the last financial year had already seen the capacities of SWITCHengines greatly expanded to accommodate the constant growth of data volumes within the university community. But the memory and computing power of the academic cloud also provide basic infrastructure for many SWITCH services. This means that solutions like SWITCH Online Meetings can be developed quickly using agile methods.

The demands of virtual teaching have also forced many universities to address their IT infrastructure, with questions like: what should we send to the cloud, and how? The SWITCHengines team is conducting intensive consultation and evaluation.

SWITCH collaboration tools: seminars at the kitchen table

Renato Furter, Head of the Collaboration team, recalls the first few days in March when universities were constantly ringing to request video conferencing solutions. SWITCHvideoconf (based on Vidyo) and SWITCHinteract (a conferencing solution based on Adobe Connect) were pushed to their limits, with the existing licences unable to cover the sudden spike in demand.

Extra licences for SWITCHinteract were quickly obtained, while SWITCHprocure negotiated agreements with commercial video conferencing providers. Within 24 hours, a small, internal team programmed a prototype on SWITCHengines using the Jitsi open-source software. And within just a few days this became SWITCH Online Meetings, which is free to use. Over 20 institutions have now had dedicated servers installed, secured with encrypted data and passwords.

Within two weeks most universities were able to restart lessons virtually, which had a major impact on the video management system SWITCHcast and SWITCHtube. With the wide range of new online teaching events, the load on the video portal SWITCHtube suddenly intensified. The servers, which encode videos when they are uploaded by compressing them and converting them to a standard video format, were at capacity. This meant that it took much longer than usual to make videos available. Since late March, all SWITCHtube videos have been encoded by an external company and the whole process has returned to its normal efficiency.

The other SWITCH collaboration tools have also seen sudden spikes since the start of lockdown. On SWITCHfilesender, for instance, data volumes doubled (from 5 to 10 TB), as did the number of users (from 2,000 to more than 4,000).

SWITCHprocure: targeted advice and procurement

SWITCHprocure has also seen a sharp rise in requests for commercial collaboration and video conferencing solutions since the start of lockdown. Tools such as Microsoft Teams, Webex, Zoom and other video conferencing solutions were deployed overnight. With working from home and virtual teaching now becoming routine, we have a moment’s pause in which we can take a detailed look at compliance and sustainability for the individual solutions. Here SWITCHprocure is consulting closely with privatim and providing advice to universities.

For the collaboration tools, other universities have benefited from the advantageous framework contracts negotiated with Microsoft, G Suite, Wooclap and TeamViewer, and relied on the support of SWITCHprocure in procuring licences.

E-learning community eduhub: years of proven collaboration

Coronavirus is boosting the digitalisation of university teaching. Faculty have become more digitally aware and have been able to draw on existing learning environments and e-learning expertise. The Swiss e-learning community eduhub offers rapid answers to questions, with guidelines and working groups on a wide range of topics around online university teaching. It is a close-knit community which promotes open dialogue in the eduhub spirit.

The greatest current challenge in teaching is the question of how to hold exams during the coronavirus crisis. The eduhub special interest group (SIG) for e-assessment is working on solutions for upcoming semester and final exams with the Safe Exam Browser Consortium. The SIG virtual exam experts at Swiss universities have convened a number of extraordinary meetings to coordinate their response to this issue. They are also holding weekly virtual coffee breaks for informal exchange.

Switzerland is relatively well-placed for e-assessment in international comparison, says Nathalie Roth, eduhub coordinator at SWITCH. As she proudly relates, Switzerland’s eduhub community is the envy of other participants at European GÉANT meetings. The exchange between experts over the last 12 years has consistently driven forward the issue of e-learning in universities. And that meant they were better able to respond to the crisis – and more quickly.

SWITCH-CERT: coronavirus brings new misuse scenarios

The current extraordinary situation has been exploited for criminal fraud scenarios from the beginning, reports Silvio Oertli from SWITCH-CERT. Fake shops with disinfectant and masks were registered on .ch domains, the heightened need for information was misused to carry out cyber attacks, and loopholes in new collaboration tools were exploited. SWITCH-CERT is in constant dialogue with all universities to provide prompt information on changes to threat levels.

There has been a particular increase in phishing attacks on universities. At the beginning of the shutdown, SWITCH-CERT helped universities make their employees aware of the heightened risk with security awareness materials in three languages and amended rules of conduct for secure working from home.


Lessons learnt

Crisis situations show how reliable your own network is, both in human and technical terms. Lockdown has made it clear just how important it is to have secure, stable operations of basic IT infrastructure, and how fast a well-connected community of experts can come together to solve problems.


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