In spring 2014, officials at the Spencer-East Brookfield Regional School District in Massachusetts sought to overhaul the school system’s antiquated wired network — a messy hodgepodge of ancient and slightly less ancient cabling, switches and servers — with a new, state-of-the-art wired and wireless environment. The solution they envisioned would have enough speed and capacity to support such evolving K–12 technology trends as bring your own device (BYOD) and online testing. Despite an obvious need for infrastructure upgrades in the district, administrators knew the process would be more complicated than simply ripping out the old technology and replacing it with something new.
“Our biggest problem was that, because of the age of everything, it was very hard to design a solution that would plug and play,” explains Steve Torrey, district technology supervisor for SEBRSD. “Fortunately, we had a good team, a good partner, a vision for what we wanted and a lot of persistence and patience, and that helped us succeed.”
Severe budget restrictions didn’t stop Torrey and his team from thinking big. The district chose a scalable unified wired and wireless Cisco network. Though the solution was more expensive than some of the alternatives under consideration at the time, administrators felt the choice was more robust and capable of meeting the district’s evolving technology needs.
New hardware included a selection of scalable Catalyst 2960-X Series switches, 5508 wireless controllers, dual-band, controller-based 802.11n and 802.11ac access points and the Cisco Prime management console, which would enable IT administrators to more effectively monitor and control the network from a single remote location.
Administrators say the installation, implemented in summer 2014 at David Prouty High School with the help of interim principal David Bachant, will soon be rolled out districtwide.
“The network finally brought us into the 21st century and gives us the foundation we need to enable BYOD in the classroom,” Torrey says. “It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it.”
Plan to Scale
Whether a school or district chooses to completely overhaul its network or simply revamp its existing infrastructure, the process is complex and often fraught with challenges.
That’s because it’s difficult for schools to accurately predict the need for bandwidth, says Bob Moore, founder and CEO of RJM Strategies, a technology consultancy that serves K–12 schools. “You’ve got to take a really comprehensive view of all the possible things that could be running over your network,” he says.
It’s important to conduct in-depth upfront research and work closely across instructional departments to choose the right network solutions. Setting expectations helps IT staff plan and configure the network so that it’s robust enough to handle near-term needs and scalable enough to support future demands, Moore says.
The speed with which technology evolves can turn the traditional IT decision-making process on its head, adds Melony Surrett, technology coordinator for Johnson City Schools in Johnson City, Tenn.
“Usually, you have an application first and match the technology to that application,” says Surrett, “but in this instance, you have to anticipate your future needs and match your capacity to that, even if you don’t know all the applications you’re going to be using.”
Johnson City Schools, for example, envisioned a network that would accommodate BYOD in the classroom; online testing; and use of Office 365, a cloud-based version of Microsoft’s suite of productivity tools.
To enable immediate and future capacity, the IT team implemented a Cisco wireless network in 2013 featuring Cisco Aironet 2602 802.11n access points in every classroom, Cisco 5508 wireless controllers and the Cisco Prime Network Control System, as well as the Cisco Identity Services Engine, which segregates network resources according to individual log-in credentials.
“The thing to keep in mind is that technology and user demand are moving so rapidly that your network will be outdated before you even get it implemented,” Surrett says. That’s why it’s so important to get the design right, “so it’s stable, and able to scale to handle more users and all their devices.”
The Right Choice
When the Oyster River Cooperative School District in southeast New Hampshire decided to replace its existing network with a new wired and wireless configuration, IT Director Josh Olstad and his team were deliberate in their review of possible solutions. They watched vendor demonstrations and visited other schools.
That process enabled administrators to outline a very clear set of goals for the project, which were then written into the RFP process. The new network needed to be high performing but easy for Olstad and his team to set up, manage, troubleshoot and upgrade. The new technology also had to provide adequate visibility into ongoing operations, including what types and the number of devices connected to the network, how much bandwidth was being consumed, and what applications students and teachers were running.
Olstad and his team mandated that the network ensure smooth connections and provide adequate security measures to keep the district’s online environment safe. In the end, he says, the goal was to build something that everyone in the district would feel comfortable using.
The district ultimately chose to install an Aruba network built on the company’s Mobile Virtual Enterprise architecture. The solution included Aruba instant controller-less 802.11n access points, Aruba Mobility Access Switches, the AirWave Network Management System and the ClearPass Access Management System.
Before IT administrators installed a single device on the network, the staff sketched the entire process out on paper.
“This was critical because when it came time to install, we knew exactly what we were doing,” Olstad says.
Rather than rely on internal staff, the district partnered with a consultant possessing relevant K–12 networking experience. Olstad credits the consultant with providing the supplemental expertise and hands-on help needed during each phase of the project.
Johnson City and SEBRSD also engaged outside consultants to help with their respective network build-outs. In both cases, administrators say adequate upfront planning, combined with the extra help, enabled them to get new networks up and running in a matter of weeks, as opposed to months.
“While the implementation had some bumps along the way, we didn’t have any major issues that we couldn’t handle or overcome up front because our vendor-partner was very good,” says Surrett.
Outside help is useful. But it means little without the presence of a strong internal team that knows what the school or district needs, says Torrey, who adds that these relationships are what has “allowed us to work through the stressors and the deadlines and through all the blackness that is a project like this.”