IT departments at school districts have to make some tough choices. Most have limited budgets, yet must support online standardized tests, offer the latest mobile devices and provide the technical skills for students to compete in today’s economy.
Tack on the growing cybersecurity threat, and IT managers must become laser-focused on affordable technologies that can help them manage all these challenges.
Jeff Dietsche, systems and infrastructure manager for South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minn., says the district’s path to a software-defined network (SDN) stemmed from the need to secure the district’s growing use of mobile devices. Mobile device use jumped from about 1,000 in 2010 to more than 20,000 devices this year.
“There was really no way I could secure the network and keep up with the growth using the district’s existing infrastructure,” Dietsche says. “And buying a traditional intrusion detection/protection system would cost close to $2 million, so that was out of the question.”
Dietsche began talking with HP about its SDN offerings, and in the spring of 2014, pilot-tested three switches. For roughly under $200,000, the district deployed an HP SDN controller and installed HP’s Network Protector SDN software.
The percentage reduction in time that organizations can expect for provisioning network services with SDN
SOURCE: Gartner, “Beyond the Hype: SDN Delivers Real-World Benefits in Mainstream Enterprises” October 2014
The SDN Controller, which runs as a virtual machine on an HP c7000 blade system, serves as a base for applications that reside in software. Dietsche says the controller handles 24 million DNS requests a day, roughly 3 million of which are malware. Network Protector lets him set policies that block the malware, keeping the network safe in a way that wasn’t possible in the past.
Dietsche says the latest version of Network Protector supports the creation of customized quality-of-service profiles for voice and data. The profiles are automatically communicated to all switches through the SDN controller, enabling the district to handle Voice over IP traffic from an IP-based phone system, such as Microsoft Lync or others. And since installing SDN with Network Protector, all phishing and incidents of attacks have ceased, Dietsche says.
“The reality is that we could not have supported mobility and techniques like the flipped classroom without SDN,” Dietsche says.
The district also stands to save on operations and capital expenses. Dietsche has been able to roll out SDN without hiring more people, and because all the intelligence resides in the controller, he can replace servers and switches with low-cost commodity products.
Andrew Lerner, a research director for Gartner, says software-defined networks (SDNs) can help IT departments run more agile networks that are easier and less expensive to manage, but the technology’s real potential lies in its ability to set up the network as a center of innovation.
“There’s great potential for the networking market to innovate in a similar manner to smartphones, where IT departments set up a central SDN controller and run apps for functions such as authentication and security,” Lerner explains. “Whether that happens in the next three to five years is not clear right now, but the potential is there.”
A Focus on Students
Kenny Wilder, director of network infrastructure for Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, says much like South Washington County Schools, the district deployed SDN technology to improve security and network management, and create an environment to deliver digital learning. “Security is huge,” he says. “We don’t want to wind up on the news.”
The district deployed VMware’s NSX technology in June. Wilder says NSX delivers numerous benefits — for one, enabling him to provision network equipment much faster. Network switches can be deployed in software, dramatically reducing cabling.
Second, NSX lets Wilder perform on-demand testing. He can take a snapshot of a server and create an instant sandbox segment that lets him test a new application or quarantine and ultimately block malware.
Third, because NSX delivers greater visibility into the network, problems can be managed from a centralized console, eliminating the need to send a technician to physically inspect the wiring closet at one of the schools. This greatly reduces operations costs. The district also saves on capital expenses because it can purchase lower-cost hardware and save on licensing costs for new routers.
“We spent the better part of the past couple of months deploying NSX,” Wilder says. “We expect to be fully deployed some time in July.”