Creating a Networking Lab for Business Students

Article excerpt

Introduction

Responding to a recent query regarding the value of teaching networking in the college of business, I posed this simple (Socratic) answer: If you were a manager at a major corporation and needed to upgrade your networking capacity, would you be able to make an intelligent choice as to what router to purchase? When asked for more networking resources, can you understand and (more importantly) evaluate what your technical experts are telling you? Or are you simply taking what these experts tell you at face value and writing a check? More importantly, do you have the ability to distinguish between two or more technical solutions and compare their ability to meet the needs of the business? There are many scenarios we might imagine as extensions of this situation, but when the stockholders want to see maximum profits and reduced costs and the board of directors discovers a cash sink in the information technology department, it is the manager who must evaluate the choices being presented to him by his technical staff and make those decisions that have the greatest value to the organization, yet can be obtained and implemented at the least cost. These decisions involve making choices from among the technological alternatives presented to the manager, and they are decisions that any manager might be faced with because today's businesses operate using IT-reliant systems (Alter, 2003). The IS discipline includes networking because it is only through a connected system that users can interface with the back end applications and databases. But are we training our business students correctly in this critical area? While the answers to this question are still out and will be for some time, this paper introduces a networking lab whose pedagogy focuses on this important issue. Activities conducted by students in the lab helps them learn how to mesh the underlying needs of the business with the technical issues that affect resource acquisition, replacement, maintenance and administration as the networking infrastructure grows.

There are several obstacles to overcome in order to create an effective networking lab. The first is cost. Because the technology is not cheap, acquiring the necessary hardware and software and maintaining it may prove to be prohibitive for some institutions. Another obstacle is the effort required to prepare the lab and select the appropriate experiments. The experiments will affect the software and hardware needed in the lab and they must be selected so that they cover the subject adequately. They must also be pre-tested so that the time required to perform them is manageable and that any unanticipated problems the students might have as they work through them can be identified and dealt with prior to the students beginning work. Lab manuals that cover the important topics for business students are few and far between, and so additional effort may be required in creating these experiments from scratch. The currency of the technology is yet another obstacle that affects decisions regarding the lab. That is, is the hardware and software that we utilize the most current? How current does it need to be? Does it have the right mix of functionality to be able to demonstrate the concepts covered in the classroom? Although these issues can be significant impediments, they need not be prohibitive, and in fact can be overcome with some effort. If overcome, the result can be an effective networking lab that enhances both technical and managerial topics.

The purpose of this paper is to address these issues and describe a lab setting for networking for business students. The paper opens with a description of the lab setup as actually implemented. Business students must learn how to make decisions of IT acquisition, implementation and maintenance and so classroom presentation of the technical theory and concepts as they relate to business needs is discussed next. The issues of currency and cost are addressed within this discussion, because implementing a lab must be done with the idea in mind that it will soon become obsolete and will need to be updated and/or upgraded, and that either the initial acquisition and/or later updating and maintenance can be expensive. …