When Mark Johnson first came to work at ITS nearly a year ago, he introduced himself around UNC-Chapel Hill as the new Jim Gogan.

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson

As interim Assistant Vice Chancellor for Communication Technologies, Johnson found it was the fastest way for the campus community to understand his role. When Gogan retired from his job as CommTech AVC in late January 2019, he had served the University for 42 years.

In short order, though, Johnson said he was able to talk in his own right without being under Gogan’s shadow. Effective December 2, ITS named Johnson as CommTech’s permanent leader.

Proven track record

“Mark is uniquely suited by his experience, his knowledge, and his manner to guide” CommTech, said J. Michael Barker interim Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, in his announcement about Johnson. “Mark’s exposure to, technical mastery of, proven track record in developing, and affinity for the special characteristics of the research and education environment and our opportunities to engage more regionally and nationally, are quite simply without peer.”

As the chief of CommTech, Johnson oversees about 50 employees. He is responsible for all of the communication technologies infrastructure and services for the campus, including phone services, cable TV service, the fiber between buildings and wiring within buildings, the data network and network-based services.

Johnson, who lives in Morrisville with his wife Renee, a pediatrician, came to ITS from MCNC. MCNC is a nonprofit that operates the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN), serving all layers of education in North Carolina and other nonprofit organizations. At MCNC, Johnson served in a variety of roles, including chief technology officer. During his tenure there, he led MCNC’s regional and national networking activities.

Upon the occasion of dropping the “interim” part of his AVC title, Johnson recently reflected on his first 11 months at ITS and shared his goals for 2020.

Johnson has been working around and with UNC-Chapel Hill for more than 20 years. “It’s a little bit different working on the inside,” he said.

It’s a lot of infrastructure. Johnson is responsible for more than 10,000 wireless access points and about 20,000 phones, for example. Some perhaps unexpected things under his jurisdiction include emergency call boxes on campus, the distributed antenna system for cell carriers, and cable TV service in the dorms.

“It’s a different kind of scale,” Johnson said, “although the geography is fairly compact.”

Entire career has involved the internet

This isn’t the first time that Johnson has worked for a university. He worked for Georgia Tech in IT early in his career.

Yes, Johnson worked in information technology early in his career. He said he’s “one of the rare people, at my age, who has worked on developing and running the internet my entire career, even before people knew to call it that.”

His first 11 months at ITS, Johnson said, have been positive. Campus stakeholders are very supportive. A testament to Gogan, CommTech has a good team, Johnson said.

Getting to know his team and the players on campus has taken time as has backfilling quite a few positions following retirements.

During 2019, CommTech has continued to add wireless access points in the dorms, began switching the University to a new phone system, and has continued to expand and improve fiber-optic lines.

Goals for new year

For 2020, Johnson wants to:

  • Focus on thorough and effective division communication
  • Expand outreach and engagement beyond campus
  • Prepare for campus infrastructure needs for evolving technology, including 5G and increasing demands from the Internet of Things
  • Increase redundancy by identifying single points of failure, both technical and human
  • As a side goal, persuade the Raleigh-Durham International Airport to provide eduroam Wi-Fi service

As for improving communication, Johnson said, “We want to do a better job of communicating how well we’re performing and what it means to the campus community.”

“The reliability of the network has been good,” he said, but it’s a communications challenge to describe that succinctly. When something with the network malfunctions, Carolina’s redundant systems mean that most of the time there’s no impact to customers.

Toward the division goal of more communication, CommTech’s head of networking Ryan Turner announced in November that he will start putting together a quarterly network report, with the first issue to be released in January.

Johnson also wants to ensure the campus sees the eduroam maps showing where Carolina’s traveling students, faculty, staff and researchers use eduroam and where eduroam-using campus visitors are from. Eduroam maps show that every month members of the Carolina campus community use eduroam when traveling to about 30 countries. The country count is about the same for visitors to Carolina.

Eduroam is becoming ubiquitous at campuses around the world, especially in Europe.

Johnson also wants to bolster outreach and engagement beyond campus, including working with Duke University, N.C. State University, MCNC and the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) in Chapel Hill.

In February 2019, Johnson brought together IT pros from campus and from the Triangle-area universities and elsewhere to talk to Internet2 about the computer-networking consortium’s cloud strategy, offerings and plans.

As an outgrowth of that February gathering, CommTech, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Computer Science Department, Duke, RENCl and others in July formed the Triangle CyberInfrastructure (TriCI) group, which meets quarterly. Johnson is co-leading the group with Ilya Baldin of RENCI and Rudra Dutta from N.C. State.,

It’s a consequential time to engage and collaborate with key players in networking in the Triangle and beyond. In September, RENCI landed $20 million for a collaborative project to research a faster, more secure internet. A few days later N.C. State was tagged to lead research — with $24 million in new funding — into an advanced wireless network testbed for research.

Johnson also would like UNC-Chapel Hill to get involved with the National Research Platform, a group of networking professionals and researchers who are trying to create a national high-speed network for science data.

In addition, Johnson and John McGee, interim Director for ITS Research Computing, are contemplating organizing some events to bring together scientists and spotlight ITS’ work with these researchers. One idea is to hold an event on campus with scientists involved with the Galapagos Science Center, in which UNC-Chapel Hill is a partner. CommTech and Research Computing are trying to get more bandwidth to the Galapagos Islands.

Planning for 5G

As another goal for 2020, Johnson wants to begin planning for the campus infrastructure that will be needed when fifth-generation, better known as 5G, wireless networks eventually come to Chapel Hill. The major mobile carriers have begun to roll out 5G in a few U.S. cities. Parts of Raleigh and Charlotte were among AT&T’s trial launch in 2018.

Antennas and other new infrastructure will be needed on campus to support 5G technology and the increasing demand from the Internet of Things.

Establishing redundancies

In the new year, Johnson also wants to work toward identifying and eliminating single points of failure and human failure. Ensuring redundancies is key. For example, the data center at ITS Franklin had connected to campus via one fiber path.

“One incident with a backhoe on Rosemary Street could isolate us from campus,” he said.

During 2019, ITS has been working with the town of Carrboro to use town conduit to build a second fiber path to campus. As a result, two fiber paths will feed into the ITS Franklin data center. Having that path diversity will provide more capacity and makes services more reliable.

In another effort to reduce potential errors, Johnson wants to improve networking documentation. There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that resides in CommTech employees’ heads. The duct system on campus, for instance, is somewhat byzantine. Knowing the paths of fiber around campus and what connects where is quite specialized, and it’s always changing as campus construction projects require rerouting of fiber.

Finally, Johnson has one other goal that he acknowledges might be lofty, considering that airports make money from selling Wi-Fi access. Nevertheless, he’d like to convince RDU officials to offer eduroam, the free international roaming service, at this airport that serves as a key transportation hub for the campus communities of multiple, top-tier universities.

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