The Challenges of Upgrading School Networks at the Speed of Change
At Virginia's Manassas City Public Schools, the need for better wireless coverage triggered a transformation. Within a few months, the district revamped its entire network with hundreds of switches and a blanket of new access points.
"In order to do the wireless network, we had to do the wired network first — we had to get that infrastructure in place," says Robert Sansone, acting director of technology services.
Like MCPS, K–12 districts across the country are confronting the need to create an infrastructure to support online learning tools and testing, multimedia resources and the proliferation of mobile devices in schools, says Marie Bjerede, project director for CoSN's Smart Education Networks by Design initiative.
"Because of technology, teaching and learning can evolve more rapidly than they ever have before," Bjerede says. "That means that we as technologists need to provide a technology platform that will allow that evolution to happen."
Two major tech challenges for K–12 education are bandwidth and reliability, says Bjerede, adding that some districts are reporting 50 percent year-to-year growth in capacity demand. Uptime is critical for an environment in which an outage can scuttle lesson plans in classrooms across the district or interrupt online testing.
While many districts lack funding or expertise to make sweeping changes to their network infrastructures, Bjerede says they can begin by articulating a long-term plan and making incremental upgrades. "Guidance is there from districts that are further along and from resources like CoSN. But they need to assess where they are and then work toward their own goals," she says.
Assess, Plan and Build
Last fall, MCPS began planning a state-funded learning initiative that would involve distributing 1,100 tablets to ninth and tenth graders. The IT team knew that there was inadequate wireless coverage at the high school to support the program and began considering remedies with the help of a comprehensive network assessment by Cisco Systems and Dimension Data.
"We found that we had a lot of old, outdated switches and very few access points for what we wanted to do," says Sansone, whose district serves approximately 7,200 students in eight schools.
The percentage of K–12 technologists whose districts will have a bring-your-own-device program in place within five years
SOURCE: Software and Information Industry Association, "A Vision for K–20 Education," June 2014
The IT staff created an upgrade plan in the spring, performed testing in June and spent the summer rolling out APs and switches. They upgraded the IOS code on 125 switches, replaced 207 switches with 10/100/1000 Power over Ethernet models, and installed 13 additional switches. Altogether, they distributed 325 Aerohive 802.11 APs across the district, increasing the number of APs at the high school from 21 to 82. The summer's work also included installing a new network firewall.
Even after MCPS's extensive network overhaul, Sansone says there's still work to be done. The district will take advantage of some Aerohive features that enable traffic control and segmentation, and will move toward more web-based applications, Sansone says. "We've built the foundation in the right way so that if the curriculum staff asks for something we can say 'We've got it covered' or make minor changes to get the network to support that instructional change."
In a similar scenario, Clear Creek Independent School District in League City, Texas, is overhauling its network with Aruba wireless technology and moving to a Juniper network core to support a one-to-one tablet rollout. "The network was the thing most in need of help when we did an assessment," says Chief Technology Officer Kevin Schwartz.
Clear Creek ISD provides wireless coverage for its 44 schools. To maintain the network, the IT team must manage the hardware and software, deal with device disparity and use of different 802.11 protocols, and understand how the wireless LAN interacts with the physical environment, says Schwartz. Load balancing and redundancy are essential to ensuring uptime, as is wireless density, he says.
"In the past, we thought we had good coverage if we had an access point in every other classroom," says Schwartz. "Now, you can get a couple hundred kids on the network in a very small area, which can overwhelm it pretty quickly if you haven't planned for bandwidth-demand hot spots."
Schwartz is confident that the new network in place at Clear Creek ISD will provide a solid foundation for future learning initiatives, but concedes that bandwidth demands keep increasing. "The network has shifted from being in the past just a nice, exploratory extra, to being critical to everything we do in the schools," he says.
Foundation for Change
At Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Ga., all 38 schools are connected back to the central data center by two separate 1-gigabit-per-second fiber links. Forsyth maintains a secondary data center to ensure disaster recovery and 24/7 uptime. And county voters recently passed a bond measure to fund a network upgrade that will bring 1Gbps connections to each desktop and up to a 10Gbps pipe to the schools.
Moving forward is the only way to keep up with the needs of students and teachers, says Chief Technology and Information Officer Marty Bray. "The growth in bandwidth demand is going to continue to explode," he says.
"Our focus has shifted from desktop support to the network. Redundancy has become critical," says Bray. "The days of being able to take resources down for maintenance or outages are over."
Adding more devices to the network and supporting a more mobile population complicate security, says Curt Godwin, network and system administrator for Forsyth County Schools. Security technologies help, but he also recommends a stepped-up focus on user education.
Monitoring tools to track bandwidth demand, usage characteristics and network security are crucial, says Godwin. Even more critical, though, is starting with a well-crafted network design.
"Don't design with the thought that you can make it better later," says Godwin. "You can add and upgrade technology, but you need to know where you're going."