QUORUM: Prepaid Internet at the University of Zululand
Painless administration of user accounts is crucial to the successful adoption of this system. In our deployment of QUORUM, students must have a usage quota for WWW access. Staff usage is currently tallied by the QUORUM server, but staff members are not yet subject to quotas. (Tracking staff usage with QUORUM has been invaluable in cracking down on the use of stolen staff accounts by students, however.)
For internet usage related to a particular course, we credit all students in the course with a specified amount of usage credit, using our database of student registration information. We do this at the start of every term for all courses where the lecturers have requested internet access.
In the past, we found that there were continual cases of students who had registered late, whose registration was not in our database for some other reason or who simply needed additional usage quota. We now have additional discretionary accounts for some departments. Nominated lecturers can transfer funds from their departmental accounts to individual student accounts. This relieves our department of an administrative burden and gives the departments some discretion for the management of student accounts.
For students who require additional usage over and above the quota they are issued, we will introduce a prepaid voucher system. This system is intentionally reminiscent of the voucher systems for prepaid cell phones, which are very popular with our students. Students will be able to buy a voucher from the university bookshop that has a secret access number. The voucher can be redeemed by typing this number into a WWW form and submitting it. The MD5 hash of the number entered is compared to hash values stored in a database table, and if the hashed value matches one of these, the student's account is credited with the amount shown on the voucher. We have had initial discussions with the suppliers of our new campus point-of-sale (PoS) system to see if we can sell our internet quota vouchers using a system similar to the one currently used to sell prepaid cell-phone vouchers at till points.
The voucher system is an important part of our goal to offer a flexible internet service to our users, subsidize internet use for academic purposes and recover the costs of other usage. We currently are testing the voucher system. There is pressure from the students to introduce the voucher system quickly, but we are being very cautious about the rollout of the system as we this will be a service that students are paying for directly. It is important that the system is well established and well understood by our student users so they can be completely comfortable with what they are paying for.
From the outset, QUORUM was designed for applications beyond WWW usage accounting and quota management. Any service that generates a log file of usage information can be parsed by a script that sends tally request messages to the QUORUM server. In the near future, we will add accounting for e-mail usage so that mail messages with large attachments are billed against the sender's usage quota. Gratuitous e-mail usage (sending that cool AVI to all your friends) has been a recurring problem at our site. In the future, our users will have to decide if sending a large e-mail attachment now might mean having to pay for WWW access later.
Usage accounting in QUORUM is structured into cost codes. Currently, WWW usage is broken down into international and national traffic, which are charged at different rates, and Squid cache hits, which are not charged for. The breakdown of charges is hierarchical, where internet usage may be split into WWW and e-mail access, each of which is split into further categories. Eventually, we plan to have additional usage cost codes for network printing, dial-up access and direct TCP/IP traffic through our firewall. The hierarchical structure of the cost codes means that we can have one quota for all services or that specific quota credits apply to only parts of the cost-code hierarchy. For example, we could decide that the quota credits issued to students in a course apply only to internet access, but prepaid voucher credits could be used for network printing as well.
We are trying to utilise our internet bandwidth more effectively by encouraging our users to do so. Our charging structure benefits users who download large files from mirror sites within South Africa rather than from overseas. It is cheaper for us to purchase guaranteed bandwidth for national destinations than for overseas ones. Similarly, we offer after-hour discounts to encourage users to download large files in the evenings when our internet access is less congested.
Another intriguing idea is to integrate a messaging/bulletin system into QUORUM, a sort of intranet instant messaging. We currently can see which users are browsing the WWW. QUORUM could be extended so messages could be sent to a user or group of users. When one of the recipients next requests a URL, the QUORUM server could redirect the user to a page that shows the message/bulletin.