Birmingham City Schools made the switch to new network hardware to improve throughput, ease power managment and add new services, say Darryl Burroughs (left) and Brian Thomas.

Jan 07 2009

Bringing the Best Internet-Based Education to Birmingham

Alabama school district continues to develop efficient networks for students and teachers.

With a nod to the future, Birmingham City Schools modernizes its network.

School districts today are a lot like corporations: They want to give their students, faculties and administrators the network-enabled tools they need to do their work — teaching and learning — most effectively. That means creating and maintaining up-to-date, reliable, efficient and scalable networks capable of delivering everything from Voice over IP to streaming video.

Alabama’s Birmingham City Schools is no exception. The citywide school district, with nearly 29,000 students and 66 campuses, is doing everything it can to afford its students the best in Internet-enabled education.

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The school district took its first step in 1999, when IT administrators implemented a districtwide network. That provided a good foundation, but the technology was still maturing at the time, and the district’s IT staff experienced its share of frustration.

“Most of our mornings were spent rebooting switches,” says Network Telecommunications Manager Brian Thomas. “They just weren’t reliable enough.”

By 2004, Thomas and his staff were fed up. That frustration, combined with more mature network technology, led to a full-scale upgrade that started with one HP ProCurve 2650 10/100 switch with two uplink ports.

“We decided to try just one ProCurve switch at the core of the network — the most crucial point, where every school connects,” Thomas explains. “And we had no problems. Nothing failed, and no problems arose.”

Ahead of the Curve

From there, it was an easy decision to replace the entire network, connected by T1 lines using Cisco Systemsrouters, with HP ProCurve switches. At the time, the network’s hub-and-spoke topology called for 533 ProCurve 2650 switches, 66 ProCurve 5304 switches and eight ProCurve 5308 switches. Smaller schools relied on the ProCurve 5304 as the core switch, while larger schools used ProCurve 5308 switches.

The new network stood the school district in good stead, remaining fully reliable and consistent until last year. By spring 2008, school technology in general had taken a leap forward, and it was time for IT to again think about upgrading.

The ProCurve 2650 switches, although working fine, couldn’t handle the high speeds to the desktop needed to take advantage of cutting-edge media technologies, says Darryl Burroughs, Birmingham’s executive director of information technology.

“We wanted to be able to provide more capabilities to our schools,” Burroughs says. “If they wanted to have video to every desktop in the classroom, we wanted to be able to provide that. If they needed wireless connectivity, we wanted to be able to do that. Whatever they needed, we wanted to provide.”

To enable wireless access and IP-enabled phones, the IT team knew it needed an effective and efficient power source — one that didn’t require installing power above the ceiling everywhere they deployed an access point.

The solution entailed installation of 552 HP ProCurve 3500 switches, which allow Power over Ethernet (PoE) at every port. “Regardless of where we needed to plug in a device, the switches provided power,” Thomas says.

The other challenge was speed. New media options required Gigabit Ethernet at every desktop, Thomas adds.

In addition to the ProCurve 3500 switches installed in all distribution closets, IT replaced all core switches with HP ProCurve 5406 switches, which provided Gig-E connectivity at every port. The new-generation switches can connect up to 24 fiber ports to one module and are “far more advanced than the previous generation,” Thomas notes.

Upgrading network infrastructure every few years, as Birmingham City Schools did, is something every school organization should consider carefully, evaluating both cost and future needs, says Mark Tauschek, a senior anlayst at Info-Tech Research of London, Ontario.

“You have to ask yourself a lot of questions before you buy LAN switches, such as what technology you plan to implement over the next five years and how long you want to use the infrastructure,” Tauschek says. “You might not need Gigabit Ethernet now, but you might in two years. If you do, do you want to do a whole refresh again? It might be more cost-effective to buy the higher-capacity switch now.”

That’s exactly the route Birmingham City Schools took.

“To decide which specifications were appropriate, we used future expansion as a guide,” Thomas says. “We knew we were going to eventually have a wireless system and implement VoIP, so one requirement was that the switches had to have PoE on every port. The switches also had to have both quality of service and be Layer 3 devices as well.”

The chosen switches provide much greater speed than the district currently needs, which bodes well for the technology’s longevity, he adds.

Forge Forward

The investment is already paying for itself, at least in terms of performance. “Network speed and speed to the desktop have been improved by an increase of more than 10 times what was available before,” Burroughs says.

But the payback isn’t all about dollars, he stresses.

“For us, the return on investment is being able to allow educators to take advantage of the newest technologies,” Burroughs says. “There may not be an easily identifiable monetary ROI, but there is definitely an educational ROI when it comes to our children’s education.”

And when it comes to providing the best capabilities to Birmingham City Schools’ users, the IT department isn’t finished. Other projects in the works will further improve network availability, Internet access and wireless capability. Among the projects planned for this year: an upgrade to Windows Server 2008 and Microsoft Exchange 2007, a new Internet appliance implementation and a new Aruba-based wireless infrastructure.

The Aruba wireless upgrade will be the school district’s first foray into wireless. When complete, the centrally controlled system will provide wireless access throughout the school district, complementing the ProCurve network.

“It’s all about providing uninterrupted Internet and network services to the department’s three customers: employees, administration and students,” Burroughs says. “The wireless implementation is just the next step, giving people the ability to be untethered from their desks and move about the campus taking the world’s classroom [the Internet] with them.”

Network Switches: Take a Gut Check

All network switches look pretty much the same. But under the hood, so to speak, there are differences — especially when it comes to speed.

There are basically three types of Ethernet LAN switches, says Mark Tauschek, a senior analyst specializing in networking equipment at Info-Tech Research of London, Ontario:

  • A 10/100 megabits-per-second switch offers 100Mbps of throughput. It is the standard for many organizations and is still the base of the most commonly deployed switched-LAN infrastructure. It meets the demands of the vast majority of organizations today, including educational institutions, Tauschek says.
  • A Gigabit switch provides 1,000Mbps to the desktop. It’s particularly useful for bandwidth-intensive applications, such as multigigabyte engineering drawings, large video files or data from hospital imaging systems.
  • A 10 Gigabit switch typically connects multiple end-user devices in disparate locations to data center servers.

Other than speed and cost, most of the differences among switches are minor, Tauschek says. Security is standard, but organizations scaling up to larger switches might have to upgrade security devices to handle the additional throughput, he notes.