After years of cobbling together small fixes to its ancient technology infrastructure, the IT team at Spencer-East Brookfield Regional School District (SEBRSD) in central Massachusetts hit an insurmountable impasse this spring and had to devise a solution to finally provide students with a modern, mobile learning environment.
The cash-strapped district had long grappled with a 1990s-era network, comprising a hodgepodge of servers, switches and other components that were older than many of the district’s K–12 students. The wired network lacked the bandwidth and speed needed to enable modern demands such as streaming media, file sharing and cloud computing. The school had nothing but old PCs running old software, including Windows XP and Office 2003, and no Wi-Fi coverage.
“Our computing was extremely limited,” admits Technology Supervisor Steve Torrey, who notes that any added pressure, such as showing students a YouTube video, would overwhelm the network. “We were so out of date that our students weren’t getting any value from the technology, and they weren’t able to transition very easily or successfully to college or a workplace environment.”
When Microsoft announced that it would no longer support the Windows XP operating system beginning in April 2014, Torrey and his team initially saw a quandary — and then an opportunity. “We had no choice but to shut down XP and upgrade to Windows 8.1,” he says. “Since the more modern operating systems are all tied into high-bandwidth applications like Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud, we also had to strengthen the network backbone in order to support the operating system and use the latest software.”
The biggest obstacle to overhauling the network was once again money. Torrey and school administrators made presentations to the Spencer and East Brookfield town councils. Although their initial request was denied, the two towns ultimately provided roughly $150,000 for the project. Additionally, district officials were able to match that amount with an unexpected reimbursement from the state and by shifting their internal financial priorities.
“The administrative team as a whole sat down and actually robbed Peter to pay Paul,” recounts David Bachant, interim principal of David Prouty High School. “We had to make some tough decisions. It was very hard to order a pencil last year, just to save the money to do this.”
SEBRSD ended up with $300,000 for the project, which wasn’t nearly enough to upgrade all five schools within the district. But Torrey believed that by replacing and augmenting PCs across the district and rolling out a state-of-the-art network at David Prouty High School, the district could effectively demonstrate the value that a smart IT investment could provide to its educational mission.
Small Budget, Big Plans
Torrey turned to CDW for assistance in purchasing new PCs and with network design and implementation.
“The folks at CDW have been a huge help to us because they took the time to really understand our struggles and what we were trying to accomplish,” Torrey explains.
“They met with us — principals, teachers and students — and they really got a good solid feel for where we were and where everybody wanted to go. Then they went back and built a plan that they thought would work for us.”
First up was addressing the computing situation. To make the most of his budget, Torrey took an inventory of the infrastructure to determine what might qualify for reuse. He found there was hope for some of the PCs, despite the fact that most were at least 10 years old.
Of 800 administrative and lab machines, 200 had the potential to support Windows 8. The IT team upgraded the memory and the hard drives of those machines and worked with CDW to acquire 400 Lenovo ThinkCentre M73 tiny desktops and deploy them across the district.
An inventory of the existing network was more bleak: All of the switching and routing hardware was at least 12 years old and based on the Category 5 10/100 Ethernet standard. “We knew then that we would have to completely rewire the entire high school,” Torrey says.
School administrators wanted a new network that could support bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiatives, online testing, cloud-based applications (such as Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud), and digital textbooks in the classroom.The tight budget didn’t allow for certain wants such as unified communications and IP surveillance cameras in the near term. However, Torrey was more than willing to pay extra for a high-quality network that was “stable, easy to use, and powerful and scalable enough to support various new technologies, not just this year but in the years going forward,” he says.
The CDW team, which first conducted a complete wired and wireless assessment of the infrastructure, suggested that a Cisco Systems solution would be the best fit for those requirements, and Torrey, who worked exclusively with the manufacturer’s equipment during his previous career as an IT specialist in the military, agreed.
“I had used Cisco products in environments that are not designed for technology, places that are hot and full of sand and dust and where the power is no good, and they consistently worked, and worked well,” he says.
Torrey had so much confidence in Cisco products that he and his team were willing to step out onto the cutting edge, opting to deploy with a wireless production environment that utilizes the latest 802.11ac access points (APs) rather than 802.11n devices, the current industry standard.
802.11ac promises huge performance and reliability gains. It enables higher data rate transmission speeds that are up to three times quicker than 802.11n, provides more bandwidth so each AP can handle a significantly greater number of devices, and its ability to seek out mobile devices and beam signal directly to them ensures a more intense, stable connection with mobile clients. In addition, 802.11ac lives entirely in the largely unpopulated 5-gigahertz spectrum, so it doesn’t have to contend with interference from the plethora of 2.4GHz devices that currently exist, such as cordless phones, microwaves and neighborhood Wi-Fi.
“In doing our research and talking to Cisco and CDW, we were convinced that wireless AC had been properly vetted and that it is going to become the industry standard within the next six months to a year, and remain the standard for at least another two years beyond that,” Torrey explains. “We wanted to go with the latest and greatest technology available.”
The Cisco network that CDW recommended for David Prouty High School includes extra-powerful 2960-X switches; 5508 wireless controllers; 2702i dual-band, controller-based 802.11ac access points; and the Cisco Prime Infrastructure management solution.
“We were able to work together to find the solution to fit their budget — but also provide the peace of mind knowing that they were buying an optimal network solution,” says Richard Noonan, a mobility solution architect for CDW.
Success From Day One
With little time to complete the project before the start of the new school year, the SEBRSD IT team leaned heavily on CDW, which provided a number of professional services, including architectural design capabilities, engineering services and the deployment and configuration of the wired and wireless networks. CDW also implemented the Cisco Prime Manager service and assisted in setting up VMware’s vSphere ESXi hypervisor technology to support that application.
“Our biggest problem was that the age of everything made it very hard to design a new solution that would plug and play,” says Torrey.
Working together, the CDW and SEBRSD teams ripped out old cabling and pulled nearly 50,000 feet of new CAT 6 cabling; installed a 10 Gigabit Ethernet fiber backbone between the main office and the server room; and ran data drops and access points to each classroom and other high-traffic areas of the building.
The project was daunting — even without the time pressure — but the teams’ persistence paid off.
“There was no single, big challenge we overcame that brought it all together,” Noonan says. “It was just sticking to it in the face of constantly recurring little challenges.”
In the end, the project was a success. The network was up and running on the first day of school, to the delight of both students and staff. “In 10 weeks, we went from having nothing to completely revamping the entire high school with rewiring and new switches, wireless controllers, access points, servers and computers throughout,” Torrey says. “I don’t think another company would have done it like CDW.”
Torrey attributes that to strong camaraderie and lack of ego. If there was ever a problem that the CDW team didn’t know how to solve immediately, it would reach back into the organization for additional expertise.
“At one point, we had an engineer onsite, and he had two laptops open, a tablet and two cellphones, and he was working with two or three CDW engineers to figure out a problem,” Torrey recalls. “Everyone dropped what they were doing and jumped in.”
He praises the impressive teamwork within CDW and between his team and theirs. CDW staff is always available to listen, answer questions and anticipate needs. “If I call, they answer or call back within minutes,” Torrey explains. “If we have a problem, they fix it. If I talk about an issue or a need, they get us information and a solution. The quality of service is unsurpassed.”
A New Day For SEBRSD
For SEBRSD, the stakes involved in a successful implementation were extremely high. David Prouty High School’s Bachant says because of the obsolete technology, “we had been steadily losing kids to other school districts that had newer infrastructures,” noting that Massachusetts schools can accept students from other districts as long as they also allow students to transfer elsewhere. “The technology piece is a factor in the decision process as to whether or not kids stay in the district.”
The new network infrastructure now provides David Prouty High School with the foundation it needs to retain and attract students, and that ability will hopefully increase as the school improves its technology capabilities.
Although a formal BYOD program isn’t yet in place, many teachers already support the use of student devices in the classroom. What’s more, heavy network use by students and faculty, whether on personal devices or on the Lenovo devices in the computer labs or library, never affects or degrades performance.
Initial efforts are now under way to help SEBRSD teachers understand how to incorporate technology and digital resources into their curriculum and classroom activities, and school officials expect to begin conducting online testing this year.
Meanwhile, thanks to the success of this project, the district has received additional funding from the community. Torrey’s team and CDW have begun extending the new network to other schools in the district. All schools and districts should be up and running on it by this summer.
“This network project has been the first building block in our effort to bring our students into 21st century computing as opposed to the 20th century learning environment we had before,” Torrey says. “What we’ve been able to accomplish is really incredible, and while there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done, we think we’re on our way to our end goal, which is to be seen as one of the technology leaders among Massachusetts schools.”