An upgraded network at Dawson County Schools in Georgia delivers faster response times for school information, says Carol Helton, district technology supervisor and acting technology coordinator.  
Apr 05 2011

Fast Learners

School districts upgrade their networks to handle network and web-based applications.

May 2011 E-newsletter

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Cisco's Small-Office Switch

More than ever before, school districts today depend on fast networks.

At Dawson County Schools in Dawsonville, Ga., the slow network connection between the district office and the district's one high school was causing problems for teachers. With the old network, teachers had to wait for several minutes to access routine student information such as attendance and grades. Similarly, student research in the school's computer lab was painfully slow.

By 2008, the IT staff knew something had to change. But that was easier said than done because the school had been built in 1998 with fiber to each classroom. That meant that the network entered the school on fiber, transitioned to Ethernet, and then transitioned back to fiber before it entered each classroom.

“Fiber to the classroom sounds like a great idea, but fiber can only operate as fast as the equipment at each end,” says Carol Helton, district technology supervisor and acting technology coordinator. “So to get where we needed to go – from about 100 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second – we had to upgrade not only the network switches in the school and in the district office, but the equipment in each classroom.”

The first step was recabling the high school, adding Category 5 cabling to each classroom, followed by replacing all the switches at the high school and district office with HP ProCurve E2510-48G switches. The deployment was finished in 2010.

The networking gear was then replaced in all four elementary schools with HP V1400-24G switches. Finally, during spring break of 2011, the last building – a middle school – was outfitted with E2510-48G switches. (Another middle school, more recently constructed, already had the switches.)

The difference is significant, Helton says. The accessibility of the student information improved tremendously. The Internet connection is much faster and more reliable, and some of the web-based programs used in the district are more responsive.

The upgrade has worked so well, Helton says, that she plans to build on the new infrastructure by upgrading Internet bandwidth. The school system currently has 33Mbps of bandwidth, but will move to 133Mbps. “The older switches couldn't have kept up with that speed,” Helton says. “It was important to build this infrastructure with the new switches so we can build from there.”

Familiar Theme

In many ways, the situation at Sioux City Community School District in Iowa is similar to Dawson County's. The district, home to 25 schools, had been relying on dual T1 lines to each of its schools and 100Mbps to the desktop for several years. As network demands increased, the slow speed of the network became an issue.

“Over the last five years, we have moved to more network-based applications, like our online professional development system, our time clock, student grade book and student learning system,” says Neil Schroeder, director of technology. “When the network went down or got too slow, education stopped happening.”

The first step when moving to Gigabit Ethernet throughout the district was replacing the dual T-1 lines with gigabit fiber to the schools. Then the district outfitted each school, administrative building and data center with Extreme Networks Summit X450e PoE Layer 3 edge switches. The number of switches depends on the need at each building, but they total about 400 in all. That effort was finished this spring.

1 terabit per second
The estimated bandwidth requirement for network aggregation by 2015

SOURCE: Ethernet Alliance

“By switching from routing to Layer 3 switching, we avoid having routers in the middle, which just adds a layer of complexity,” Schroeder says. “We have a small staff, so we went out of our way to simplify while providing as much robust functionality as possible.”

“People are just overjoyed with the new capabilities of the network,” Schroeder says. “The network was almost unusable before, and now teachers have immediate full access to a wide variety of curriculum resources and can collaborate with each other. The administration's systems are faster, and classroom teaching runs smoothly.”

A Short History of Network Speed

A little more than a decade ago, 10BASE-T, a 10-megabits-per-second signal over common twisted-pair cabling, was the gold standard. Fast forward a few years, and Fast Ethernet (100Mbps), or 100BASE-T, came into the mainstream, followed by Gigabit Ethernet (1 gigabit per second), or 1000BASE-T.

Gigabit Ethernet then became the standard for small businesses, educational institutions and others with the need for speed, but without the demands of extremely large disparate organizations. Today, for many of those larger organizations, 10 Gigabit Ethernet is what's needed.

“In general, it's the demand of applications that drives an upgrade,” notes Steve Steinke, senior analyst at the 451 Group, a technology research firm in San Francisco.

However, there are applications that will continue to push the speed envelope, such as video on demand, remote storage, IP data transit, mobile broadband services, VPN services and peer-to-peer streaming. These applications are what have the industry pushing forward to 40Gbps and eventually 100Gbps.

Some predict that speeds will even reach 1 terabit per second, although that is several years away.

“Maybe the biggest service providers that have multiple data streams going in multiple directions might need something like that, but most organizations won't get to that point any time soon,” Steinke says.

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