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Carlos Rosa of Mahwah Township Public Schools says his infrastructure “Aha” moment came when he realized it would be less expensive to replace network gear than to maintain it.

Andrew Kist

Out with the Old: How Mahwah Township Public Schools Revamped Its IT Infrastructure

An IT pro shares the benefits of updating school technology.

posted December 10, 2009  |  Appears in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of EdTech Magazine.

Sometimes it makes sense to roll out a brand-new IT infrastructure.

Carlos Rosa's I.T. infrastructure had everything he needed, and then some. But, he realized, “and then some” was probably too much.

Mahwah Township Public Schools' eight-year-old network was top of the line. “That comes at a price,” says Rosa, the New Jersey district's IT manager. But in his mind, the price that didn't add up was the annual maintenance warranty, which could be as much as 20 percent of the cost of the equipment. So upgrades, maintenance and support on a $10,000 switch over a five-year period could double the price.

“Change is a scary word. If something is working, most people believe the motto, ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'” says Rosa. “When you do the math and see that by changing certain aspects of an infrastructure you're going to save money and get more power in the long run, it's not that complex.”

Last summer, Rosa joined the ranks of school IT leaders swapping out not just one or two pieces of technology, but entire infrastructures. Although it may seem like a bold move in such a belt-tightening economy, it can easily lead to cost savings.

School districts are often in such a rush to cut down their trees that they don't take time to sharpen their saws, says Darin Stahl, lead analyst at Info-Tech Research Group of London, Ontario. But if leaders stop focusing on replacing technology as it becomes untenable and address their needs with a long-term IT plan, they can often get more with less.

Rip and Replace

Rosa initially sought to add new equipment to Mahwah Township Public Schools' aging infrastructure, though he soon realized it was more expensive to maintain it than it would be to replace it. Instead, he purchased HP's ProCurve network gear, which comes with a lifetime warranty, free firmware upgrades and next-business-day advance replacement. He started the rollout last summer. So far, it's been problem-free.

As Rosa explains, it's not just a matter of choosing the infrastructure that neighboring schools are using. You must do your homework and understand the demands, costs and advantages of your infrastructure.

He recommends asking vendors for references in both the public arena and the private sector. “The focus of private industry is to earn profits to remain in business, not to continuously spend earnings by redoing an inadequate or poorly designed infrastructure year after year,” he says. “They're in business to stay in business.”

By choosing to deploy ProCurve, Rosa was able to address all of his needs at a lower cost of ownership. He also made sure the infrastructure was scalable enough to accommodate new technologies.

Making such decisions can be overwhelming because there's a lot on the line, but Rosa advises: “Never stop, never quit, just slow down. You'll get there.”

Staying Alive

Self-preservation is what got Kent School District to where it is now. Technology levies have increased student-facing technologies fourfold in the Washington state district, while its operating budget has been cut each of the past five years. The goal of Thuan Nguyen, Kent's executive director for IT, was to build a new infrastructure that's more self-sufficient and, at the same time, improves service for students and staff.

That's how he is able to manage projects such as last year's implementation of 200 new PCs and 800 smartboards and projectors, despite the fact that he lost another two employees that year.

The retooling started in 2000, when the district added buildings and upgraded its aging infrastructure. Nguyen switched from a 3Com wired network to a Cisco Systems backbone, then spent the next few years building a wireless network. He swapped out the aging phone system with Voice over IP and added IP video.

By 2007, Nguyen took advantage of the fast network and implemented application virtualization; the district is now piloting desktop virtualization with 300 machines and plans to expand that by several hundred in the near future.

ROI Factor: When budgeting for a new infrastructure purchase, don't forget to factor in the cost of maintaining it for five to 10 years.

“It's been rock solid,” Nguyen says of the new infrastructure. The aim, he says, is for the help desk to solve 80 to 90 percent of calls on the phone, slashing maintenance costs. But that's just one aspect of the district's return on investment.

“ROI was really easy for us to show,” Nguyen says. The hard costs alone justified the expenses. Maintenance costs for PBX boxes, for instance, disappeared when he moved to VoIP. The cable company covered the cost of laying fiber, and that cut T1 line and circuit costs.

“We were able to justify expenses just on black-and-white dollars without even getting into soft costs, like additional services and time savings for teachers,”
says Nguyen.

Manteca (Calif.) Unified School District has also seen big results from its software infrastructure optimization project. Its schools had different types and versions of software, and it was a struggle to keep up with licensing and maintenance, says Colby Clark, systems administrator supervisor for the district.

Three years ago, the district replaced its application infrastructure, with Microsoft applications bundled in one per-seat license.

Clark says the agreement opened doors to a lot of applications the district normally wouldn't have considered, and at a lower overall cost. To buy a spam filter, antivirus program and SharePoint, for example, “it's going to cost you at least $300 or $400 a seat, and we're spending a fraction of that,” he says.

And it's easier. Instead of counting up which machines are using which applications in which schools, Clark just gives Microsoft a districtwide count.

“The only lesson is that we should have done it sooner,” he says. “It really is a no-brainer. You get the latest and greatest technology, and quite honestly, that's what benefits the students; it's why we're all here.”

Points to Ponder

Answer the following before moving forward with an infrastructure upgrade:
• What technologies do users need now and in the future? What are their pain points?
• Is your staff certified or experienced in the new technology?
• A vendor partner can get to know the nuances of your organization over time and offer ongoing help.
• Make sure you have the facilities – as well as adequate cooling and power – to support the new infrastructure.
• Don't just focus on “feeds and speeds,” says Darin Stahl, lead analyst at Info-Tech. Some of the less-flashy topics, such as cooling, need to be addressed.
• With virtualization, software and management are just as important as the hardware. So sometimes a good-enough server at a lower price makes sense.

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