The proliferation of technology in classrooms has made clear a reality with which many network administrators struggle: You can never have too much bandwidth.
In this age of one-to-one computing and “bring your own device” programs, distance learning and cloud-based applications, students, teachers and staff have come to expect that the network on which they rely during the school day will deliver the resources they need, when they need them. But making do with a patchwork network is no longer enough. As many school IT departments have discovered, at some point, the demands these emerging technologies exert on a network make a major overhaul imperative.
For the University School, an all-boys private school with campuses in Shaker Heights and Hunting Valley, Ohio, that moment came in 2010, when school leaders decided to launch a one-to-one program and realized their aging network wasn’t equipped to support it.
“The years had taken their toll,” says Director of Technology Jason Hiett. “Our internal capacity, bandwidth and throughput were getting choked out. We also were having problems with some administrative systems slowing down or being inoperable.” Reboots were a common occurrence, he adds.
So Hiett and his team worked with CDW•G’s Advanced Technology Services group last summer to replace the network’s old, ill-configured switches with Cisco Systems switches. The school also upgraded the wireless infrastructure at the K–8 Shaker Heights campus, where its one-to-one effort originated. (The initiative was first rolled out to fifth-grade students. Every year going forward, it will expand to two additional grades.)
Today, Power over Ethernet switches accommodate everything from video cameras to wireless access points, and the entire network runs at gigabit speeds. The school also adopted a four- to five-year rotation cycle to replace switches as they age. Most important, the network now is reliable and fully capable of meeting the demands of the one-to-one program and future technology initiatives.
“The support calls have gone down,” Hiett confirms. “People no longer talk about network resources not being available. Weekends aren’t about having to have someone on call just in case the network crashes. We’ve developed the performance consistency that we were expecting from our network.”
Heed the Signs
With increasing numbers of devices connecting to the Internet and applications moving to the cloud, it’s more important than ever for school networks to be fast, reliable and secure. Here are signs that yours needs an overhaul.
1. You have an old, unmanageable infrastructure. Any equipment that’s been in place for eight years or more is simply too old, says Mark Tauschek, a lead research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. Eight-port small office/home office–class hubs, old Category-5 cabling and network speeds of less than 100 megabits per second, for example, are dated and should be upgraded. If possible, school networks should offer speeds of a gigabit or better, Tauschek adds.
Ideally, network components should be centrally located in secure wiring closets rather than in classrooms. “You don’t want the edge layer in a classroom, because such equipment is prone to getting dirty, dropped or damaged,” Tauschek says. He recommends storing it in a physically secured closet instead.
In addition, IT staff should have the ability to remotely manage traffic patterns throughout the network. Typically, Layer-3 switches provide better visibility and more granular control over how traffic is prioritized.
2. You don’t have a wireless network. “The future of networks is wireless, and we are going to see fewer blue cables,” Tauschek says. Particularly in a school environment, where users are nomadic and somewhat mobile, wireless access is becoming crucial.
“Wireless is supplementing or displacing a lot of wired connections, at least in the higher education market, and it’s moving into K–12 as well,” confirms David Stein, principal of the Stein Technology Consulting Group.
Consequently, school IT leaders should work to make their wireless local area network secure, resilient and reliable. It also should be centrally managed with some distributed infrastructure. Wireless 802.11n is the current standard to deploy, but a newer standard, 802.11ac, will offer gigabit wireless when it debuts in 2013.
3. Your network is unreliable. When a school’s network screeches to a halt, the repercussions are huge. Teachers have to switch gears on the fly, students can’t do their work, administrators can’t save files, and everyone loses faith in technology.
If you don’t know when part of your network is in trouble or is becoming increasingly unreliable, it’s a big tip-off that an upgrade is in order. “If you hit seven or eight years, you’ll start to see that ports or switches will start failing more regularly,” Tauschek says. “Even physical cables will start to fail if they’re that old.”
4. Your network isn’t secure. Schools are legally and morally obligated to secure private student data, including grades and personal information. Security breaches expose a school not only to potential legal action, but also to viruses and other malware that can destroy or damage the network and the files that administrators, teachers and staff rely on to do their jobs. Disruptions of any kind indicate that your network is vulnerable.
“If you aren’t aware of the traffic that’s passing through your network, and you don’t have visibility into where that traffic is going, then it’s probably time to think about upgrading and possibly adding some layers to the network,” Tauschek advises.
When IT leaders at Bremen City Schools realized in 2011 that the time had come to overhaul the Georgia district’s network, they opted to upgrade the out-of-date switches at its five school buildings, as well as the firewall and web content filter.
Numerous network outages made it difficult for teachers and students to do their everyday work. Equally problematic, students had figured out how to bypass the district’s content filter. Such performance issues were not only hurting instruction for the students, but also exposing them to potentially inappropriate content, says Director of Technology Brian Wheeler.
After updating the network to gigabit connections and instituting a new logical network design, Wheeler’s team replaced the antiquated firewall and web content filter with one that helped ensure the district’s compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act. “The students hated that we did this because they were blocked from inappropriate content and couldn’t figure out a way around it,” Wheeler says.
5. Your network isn’t ready for the future. If your network can’t handle the network-intensive applications that enliven learning in today’s classrooms, then it’s time to upgrade.
Administrators in the Richmond County School System in Augusta, Ga., knew an overhaul was in order when they couldn’t deliver web-based instructional content to users and were having trouble connecting to essential web-based financial and student information systems. Because half of the district’s 61 sites were on T1 circuits, with average connection speeds of 10 to 100 megabits per second, district officials had to block all video streaming because they lacked the bandwidth to support it.
“We had no choice. Just to keep everyone performing their day-to-day duties, we had to increase our bandwidth,” says Robert A. Jankus, director of information technology. “It was topping out, and the whole network was crashing regularly. It would completely stop, especially around 3 p.m.”
With the help of E-Rate and a technology integrator, the IT department installed a districtwide fiber network, which was completed this past February. “It’s about a thousand times faster” and costs the same, Jankus says.
Following a complete network upgrade in 2010, the Hoboken Public School District in New Jersey had 10-gigabits-per-second fiber and new switches in place, but it still lacked enough bandwidth to meet teachers’ and students’ needs. District officials expect to increase bandwidth sixfold by renegotiating their contract with their Internet service provider, which they are in the process of doing now. “There’s a lot of content that we have been blocking because we didn’t have the bandwidth,” explains Network Engineer Jerry Crocamo. “If we allowed teachers to stream YouTube randomly at current speeds, our Internet pipe would slow to a crawl.”
Often, district networks have more horsepower than their administrators realize, either because they aren’t configured properly or because they aren’t being used fully. “I call it the ‘Wizard of Oz effect,’ ” says Stein, the consultant. “Dorothy always had the capability to go home — she just had to click her heels together. But she didn’t know it.”
With the new contract, Hoboken’s Internet connections will increase from 50Mbps to 300Mbps. Crocamo also is upgrading the district’s firewall and web content filter so it can accommodate the faster speeds.
Despite the costs and the hard work involved, upgrading a district's network always has a positive impact. "I can't say enough positive things about our overhaul," University School's Hiett says. "It's given us the base and the growth opportunities we wanted. We have achieved 99.9 percent uptime. Trouble calls are rare. By no means was our technology insufficient before, but this was an opportunity to make it better."
Overhauling a network is no easy task. But school IT leaders who have been through it say the process is easier if you follow these best practices.
Assess your needs and formulate a plan. Begin by conducting an internal review of existing resources and anticipated requirements. Among the questions to consider are these: How much bandwidth do you need? Do you have sufficient wireless access? Are your network security measures as comprehensive as they could be?
If appropriate, hire networking experts who can help determine which components are most in need of an upgrade and how best to execute that transformation.
Secure buy-in from stakeholders. Jason Hiett, director of technology at the University School in Ohio, says the network transformation he oversaw last year was much easier once administrators and parents were on board. "Quite frankly, networking equipment is a hard sell," he says. "Even when you know you need it, it's a hard sell. You're not showing people how cool or cutting-edge your network closets are, after all."
When it comes to technology investments, people tend to be more supportive of purchases that have an immediate impact on students, so be prepared to make the case for why a stronger network will enhance their learning experience.
Find the money. Consider your E-Rate eligibility and other grant sources. Budgets should include funds for initial one-time costs, hardware maintenance and future upgrades. Because school budgets are so tight these days, most districts will have to forgo some purchases in order to make others.
"What we often find is that districts can't afford to fulfill all of their needs; the number just gets too big," says David Stein, principal of the Stein Technology Consulting Group. "You have to prioritize and sometimes make trade-offs between what you want and what you can really afford."
Districts that struggle to pay for recurring costs, such as maintenance and software upgrades, sometimes find leasing to be a good solution. Most leasing arrangements amortize overall costs via a monthly payment.