Aug 17 2021

Network Monitoring: What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

IT leaders in K–12 must identify infrastructure challenges and threats before they impact learning.

K–12 schools depend on a functioning and performing IT infrastructure. In addition to the classic uses of IT, other areas of educational technology are becoming increasingly important at a rapid pace. Course materials and books are online, classes meet through web portals, and non-IT systems like building control and laboratory technology are beginning to shift to the IT department.

When IT is that critical to the educational mission, network failures or outages can have serious consequences. IT issues can prevent students from accessing course materials, endanger research projects and paralyze school administrators. The solution to preventing these issues is network monitoring.

IT leaders need a comprehensive overview of their entire infrastructure to ensure performance and availability. Due to the nature of the education sector, however, IT managers face unique challenges in addition to standard monitoring obstacles. With these challenges come increased complexity and reduced time for IT staff to dedicate to monitoring their networks.

Network Monitoring Challenges in Modern IT Infrastructure

K–12 school districts generally operate with a heterogeneous infrastructure caused by irregular growth. IT environments are not updated regularly, but in pieces and batches. Modern devices and applications must be reconciled with legacy equipment, which makes network management extremely difficult.

Laboratory technology, heat and air conditioning systems, and building technology all pose further challenges. Devices and systems like these, which were not traditionally allocated to IT staff, are increasingly intelligent and thus integrated into the central IT infrastructure. This allows the merging of responsibilities in a concerted infrastructure management structure, but it requires very different and much broader control capabilities. If IT leaders are unable to anticipate failures in this category, schools could experience problems with classroom temperatures, cooling systems for data centers, refrigerators in cafeterias and even building security.

A suitable monitoring solution continuously collects data on the state of the infrastructure. This information forms the basis for medium and long-term improvements. Bottlenecks can be identified and eliminated, appliances and bandwidth can be purchased as needed, and virtualization projects can be better planned.

MORE ON EDTECH: Navigate government funding to optimize network health.

A proper monitoring solution also provides a central overview of the entire infrastructure for IT teams of educational institutions. In addition, it has three main functions:

• Alerts to concrete failures or malfunctions

• Notifications of impending problems

• Database for medium and long-term IT optimization

IT Leaders Support Learning Anywhere with Monitoring Everywhere

Challenges in education and research IT environments are often distributed across multiple locations. School districts must maintain and monitor multiple buildings on various campuses, adding a unique layer of difficulty. Devices and applications must always be available at all locations and provide the required performance, data exchange and communication needed between these locations.

A consistent and reliable verification of the functionality and availability of devices, systems, services and data speed is time-consuming and prone to error. The level of difficulty increases with the addition of buildings or branch campuses, each with its own unique infrastructure that a centralized IT department must reconcile.

On top of this, many schools are rethinking the traditional way of onsite learning and offering virtual learning environments. This requires around-the-clock availability of online services. To ensure full availability, IT is usually required to work in shifts or designate someone as a standby, which burdens the staff. Tight staffing at smaller schools makes this extremely difficult and increases the risk of failure for core services.

Additionally, virtual learning environments have presented vulnerabilities that make them easier for cybercriminals to breach, potentially resulting in data leaks or loss. If IT teams aren’t receiving notifications of vulnerabilities, they won’t be able to head off attacks before they become problems.

RELATED: Upgrade and secure your network for students' return to the classroom this fall.

Monitor Networks for Continuous Improvement

Besides these challenges, which are typical for the education sector, all general requirements for a monitoring solution must also be met, from easy operation and a reasonable price-performance ratio to comprehensive mechanisms for analyzing and publishing monitoring data and alerting in case of faults and failures.

Systems that satisfy these requirements fall under the umbrella term of unified monitoring. However, many product offerings in this area are costly and complex, beyond the budget and capacity of many IT teams in K–12 educational institutions. That requires thorough research and an accurate weighing of requirements and benefits. Are the typical education criteria met? What about the general requirements for a monitoring solution, such as alarms, data processing, storage and publication?

For example, PRTG Network Monitor combines efficient and uncomplicated monitoring of distributed locations with vendor-neutral, “out of the box” monitoring of different devices and applications with maximum ease of use and a fair and transparent pricing model.

With multiple locations in K–12 institutions running separately using potentially different technology and monitoring tools, the risk for system failure at any location is higher, and IT staff might not realize it until it’s too late. System failures and slow response times can lead to disrupted instruction — and frustrated teachers, students and parents. A central monitoring solution can catch such problems before they impact the classroom.

gorodenkoff/Getty Images