There was a time when IT staff scrambled to identify the source of problems reported by teachers to the DeKalb County School District’s help desk.
Tasked with managing a network the size of those in many Fortune 500 companies, IT personnel in this massive Georgia district have their hands full ensuring students and staff have constant, reliable Internet access.
“Network monitoring is important to K–12 schools because it gives us a layer of network security and allows districts to strategically plan ahead,” says Gary Brantley, chief information systems officer for the DeKalb County (Ga.) School District. “We can conduct business proactively and anticipate, in a way that we couldn’t before, now that these tools are available to us. Simply put, network monitoring allows us to keep eyes on the engine that runs the ship.”
Previously, when issues would arise, “our server team would look and say, ‘That’s not us,’ ” says Ken Marshall, the district’s enterprise services manager. Other IT teams would check the gear they were responsible for, but the district did not have access to a simple, big-picture view allowing technical support staff to isolate a problem quickly.
All of that changed a few years ago, when the district invested in Visual TruView, the network monitoring system from Fluke Networks. IT staff can now check the performance of every appliance on their network from a single console, easily identify a network problem — whether stemming from a failed switch or an overwhelmed server sustaining a denial-of-service attack — and rapidly respond.
As K–12 schools come to rely on their networks for mission-critical applications, such visibility “is more important than ever,” Marshall says, and DeKalb County isn’t alone in its thinking.
“It used to be OK to have the network down for a few hours, but that’s no longer acceptable,” says Marie Bjerede, project director for the Consortium for School Networking’s Smart Education Networks by Design initiative. Network monitoring is essential to delivering high-quality Internet service in schools, she says.
Bandwidth use in K–12 schools is skyrocketing, CoSN’s research suggests, in turn placing greater demands on network capacity. Tools such as Visual TruView, Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold, HP Network Node Manager and IBM Tivoli Monitoring can help IT managers better monitor the health of their networks and respond accordingly.
“It’s not uncommon for districts to see 60 percent year-over-year growth, which means the capacity that schools need is doubling every 18 months or so,” Bjerede says.
IT officials in DeKalb County have picked up on the trend as well.
“The educational access through our network has magnified over the last 10 years,” Marshall says. Students and teachers in DeKalb County stream video and deploy Skype with other classrooms throughout the country, while tapping Microsoft Office 365 to save files to the cloud or collaborate online.
Visual TruView allows IT to analyze the network’s performance, as well as the performance of any application running on it, Marshall says. IT can visually troubleshoot problems, monitor network response times and determine how often certain applications are used, which ultimately helps with capacity planning.
The program also offers automated alerts showing IT managers any failure points on the network, but DeKalb has yet to set up that feature.
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Like Marshall, John Kohlmorgan says he is a big believer in using network monitoring software to make school IT teams more efficient.
“Corporate America would never run a network as big as I have with the number of people I’ve got,” says Kohlmorgan, director of network services for the Austin Independent School District in Texas. “The only way we’re able to do that is with very effective network tools.”
Kohlmorgan uses several tools, including Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold, to manage Austin ISD’s 300-mile fiber network that spans 130 campuses.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort getting it fine-tuned over the years so it can proactively alert us to any incident on the network or potential incident about to take place,” he says.
For instance, the system will send alerts when power is lost or when the battery in an uninterruptible power supply is about to expire. Network monitoring tools prove especially valuable in environments where dollars are scarce.
“IT staffing often is seen as overhead, which school districts are trying to keep at a minimum,” Kohlmorgan says. “Network tools allow me to supplement my staffing levels without having a real body here. They’re like a team member, but we don’t have to pay them benefits, and they don’t collect a paycheck.”