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Fiber Optics versus VPN Connections


Why is SCLS planning on moving most VPN sites back to the BadgerNet Converged Network (BCN) as part of the 2014 BadgerNet Fiber Project?


The state and BCN providers are showing serious commitment to improving BCN in general and for libraries specifically. They are investing over 4 million dollars in fiber optics infrastructure on behalf of libraries. TEACH is also revising its subsidy structure to make fiber's higher bandwidths available and more affordable. Participating in the fiber project is important in a number of ways:

  • This may be a one-time only chance to have expensive fiber optic installations subsidized to such an extent. This opportunity should not be missed.
  • The stage is being set for future BCN upgrades. The library bandwidths being supplied in 2014 are the new "floor", not the new "ceiling".
  • Fiber investment in the library's neighborhood may lead to better networking and economic opportunities for the broader community.

In addition to the unique nature and extensibility of the BCN project, BCN fiber connections are superior to cable modem VPN connections in a number of ways:

  • Fiber uplinks are more reliable than cable modems. There should be fewer service outages at the library.
  • BCN connections are symmetrical, cable modems are not. Uploading data from the library toward SCLS and the Internet is much faster on BCN. This is important for real time communications technologies like Facetime or Skype. It also improves the efficiency of SCLS remote technology support.
  • BCN connections can get SCLS Network "quality of service" treatments, while VPN links cannot. This allows SCLS to optimize the network for time-sensitive applications like SIP protocol for automated sorters and self check machines, and for ILS traffic generally by way of prioritizing it above general Internet browsing.
  • BCN links are "low latency". A few dozen milliseconds may not seem like much, but fast transit makes SCLS services run more smoothly.
  • Fiber optic BCN links will make future bandwidth upgrades trivial to implement. Only minor configuration changes are required to change 10 Mbps into 20, or 20 into 50, and these future upgrades will not interrupt network service.
  • The BCN help desk is second to none. Often, when SCLS calls for support, they are already aware of and working on the problem. Even if they are not, communications and response times have historically been excellent.

So if BCN is that much better, why did SCLS even deploy VPN in the first place?

Simple: investing in VPN was a way to provide libraries with much-needed bandwidth upgrades, affordably, at a time when it appeared that growth on BCN had reached an undesirable cost ceiling. That cost ceiling is effectively being removed by the 2014 fiber project and the related restructuring of TEACH policy and subsidy distribution. The next generation state network, currently in DOA's RFI/RFP pipeline, is likely to improve the situation even further. Once SCLS staff fully understood the scope and implications of the proposed state network plans for 2014 and beyond, turning back from our VPN plans was not a terribly hard decision.

What about total bandwidth? Aren't the VPN links much better in that dimension?

Libraries that migrated to VPN links did receive 30 Mbps and 60 Mbps download connections (though asymmetrically, with only 3-5 Mbps as upload speeds). Obviously, 30 is more than 10, and 60 is more than 20. However, network performance statistics indicate that most VPN libraries do not regularly use that much bandwidth. Most medium sized SCLS libraries appear to operate comfortably with 10-20 Mbps. The target BCN bandwidth rates should be adequate and the conversion to fiber optics carries with it all of the benefits outlined above.

The migration from VPN back to BCN can be seen as taking a step backward with respect to total bandwidth. However, the most important thing is that this same step takes us to a crucial fork in the road. Choosing and investing in fiber optics seems to be the most promising path forward for the state network, for SCLS, and for member libraries. Accepting the pain of taking a step backward is the unfortunate price of choosing a new direction. This new direction should make all future upgrades "as smooth as glass".


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