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How to Update your Network on a Budget

Districts learn shortcuts in building an infrastructure that keeps up with demands for new technology, but doesn't cost a fortune.
Students in the Lee County Public Schools in Florida use an interactive whiteboard for lessons. Such technologies require a strong IT infrastructure.

Lee County Public Schools in Fort Myers, Fla., performed a full migration of its data center, complete with new storage solutions, more than three years ago. With a $500,000 budget for the conversion—one-third of what surrounding districts had spent for similar initiatives—Lee County couldn’t afford bells and whistles.

The old system couldn’t recognize and eliminate redundant files, creating a growing storage capacity headache, says Dwayne Alton, director of information technology support. Moreover, the 93-school district needed a reliable data center that could withstand severe weather and be reliable. “We needed to design something that was rock-solid,” he says. “We were able to focus on core needs” around power stability and redundancy.

The district purchased and remodeled an old shopping mall to consolidate what had become a sprawling patchwork of offices around the county, locating everything except maintenance and transportation in one facility. It needed central information technology as well, and the data center housed finance, human resources, compliance, security, student information, old emails and documents.

The district also has tightened its focus on virtualization, which began before the data center move and saved about $130,000 the first year. The data center is now 90 percent virtualized, and all secondary schools are running in the “cloud”.

Prior to the migration, the district had three storage area networks (SANs) of different generations. But during migration, CDW-G helped it merge the SANs into one, much more manageable SAN. If you’re trying to provide service on a budget, virtualization, storage and eliminating redundancies are “the big ones,” he says.


Three-Step Process

During the economic hardships of the past few years, school districts across the country have faced similar situations and sought also to build a strong infrastructure that keeps up with the demands for new technology and the storage needs that go along with it. CDW-G typically recommends a three-step process, starting with a high-level network assessment, figuring out how to most economically broaden bandwidth, and then “Virtualize, virtualize, virtualize,” says Joe Kurtz, CDW-G’s director of sales for K12 education.

The network assessment, Kurtz continues, “can range from device-level assessments that account for all equipment used within the network, ensuring that access controls are properly set, to data roadmap assessments that capture metrics and provide an overall assessment of the health of the network.” This will reveal to what extent a district’s data center is straining under the weight of all it’s being asked to do. “What’s running well? What’s putting a drag on your network?” he says. “It shows you what your options are with limited resources. It could be an annual assessment, like going to the doctor.”

Depending on what new technologies a district has added to its plate, Kurtz says, broadening bandwidth might make sense. This can take anywhere from one to four months. Using the analogy of a garden hose, he says that bandwidth essentially equates to how much water can go through the hose at once. To add bandwidth, one can increase the number of Internet lines—add hoses—or change the type of line, to a hose with a wider circumference. “We work with a lot of districts to look at what they’re using, what might be wasted, and whether it makes sense to potentially broaden the bandwidth to allow for more efficiency,” Kurtz says.

A virtualization strategy can help reduce the costs associated with a new server and reduce network demand from desktop and notebook users without keeping anyone from accessing content. “They can do more with less,” Kurtz says. “Virtualization is about efficiency, which is why—whether it is computing or data storage—districts recognize cost savings.”

Virtualization offers multiple efficiencies that can provide savings on hardware and support costs, including power and maintenance, he adds.

To further make the case on savings, Kurtz cites a 2010 report from the market research and analysis firm International Data Corp. that says for every $1 spent on hardware, companies spend $3 on managing PCs. If an organization can cut in half, it will show substantial savings, he says.

To overcome any concerns about whether those might just be nice-sounding talking points, he advises district leaders to set up a forum with top stakeholders in information technology and across the district. A forum is probably advisable anyway, as districts generally plan upgrades on a budget to have a top-down leadership view, such as from the superintendent, Kurtz says.

Cloud Nine

The move to the “cloud” environment causes many IT professionals to bristle, according to a CDW-G survey of 1,200 of them in U.S. businesses, government agencies, education and health-care organizations taken earlier this year. More than half—53 percent—said their organization’s management does not trust data security in the cloud, and 45 percent of those not using cloud computing cited security concerns as a roadblock to further implementation, compared with only 32 percent of those who are using cloud computing.

The survey also showed that those using the cloud could be doing more to protect their data—54 percent encrypt transmissions, for example, while half manage staff access. “As more organizations test the cloud, CDW-G expects security concerns to dissipate,” Kurtz says.

In the K12 district environment, one thing is clear: Whether or not district leaders want it, the cloud environment is here to stay, says Perry Correll, marketing director at Xirrus. And the cloud brings bottom-line benefits. “Freeware on the Web, students bringing their own tablets—that helps a lot if your IT budget just got cut this year,” he says. “We are going in that direction. I’m not the greatest believer that the cloud is going to solve the world’s problems, but there [are] definite advantages. I ask the question in seminars, and half the group says, ‘I’m not going to allow that stuff.’ I can’t really say it, but you’re not going to have a choice. Give up. It’s here.”

Xirrus worked with Plano (Texas) Independent School District during the summer of 2008 to blanket the district’s 80 schools with a wireless network for the first time, which presented numerous challenges, says Dan Armstrong, director of technical support. The technical staff needed to install between 6,000 and 7,000 wireless access points, ensure that multimedia and other heavy-bandwidth use worked from one end of each building to the other, and learn how to support a wireless network going forward despite being “a bunch of guys who cut their teeth and grew up on a wired connection,” Armstrong says.

Last but definitely not least, the district needed to quickly think through, with the help of staff, how to lay out acceptable use guidelines for the wireless network, given that students would be bringing their own devices—as many as 7,000 to 10,000 each day. “You think about it from a technology standpoint,” Armstrong says, “but the biggest issue with putting it out wasn’t even technical—it was the policy issues with the public network.”

Seven-Year Plan

Cisco has seen customers extending the life cycle of their existing network from four or five years to more like six or seven years, says Joel Conover, Cisco’s director of market management. Those with older systems won’t have the most bells and whistles, so districts need to decide when to upgrade systems, even though they’re still working, to take advantage of new opportunities like video editing and distance learning, he says.

Districts face a tradeoff there: When do they fix what ain’t broke strictly because it’s out of date, and when does not having the new features become so intolerable that it’s worth spending despite financial limitations? There’s no one right answer, and each district may have a different answer.

Conover says that those who are ready to upgrade should think in terms of another six- to seven-year cycle and map out a game plan for what they’re going to invest partway through the cycle once they prioritize what’s needed.

Alton of Lee County agrees with Conover that after undergoing a network assessment of the sort CDW-G recommends, districts need to prioritize and chip away each year, addressing new vulnerabilities and opportunities as they arise.

“The network assessment is going to be overwhelming,” Alton says. “They’re going to find 2,000 things that need to be tweaked; 1,200 of them are going to be that way for a reason,” strong enough to trump the reasoning behind the recommended tweaking. “You have to dig down beyond the low-hanging fruit [and] address the big gaps. … You can get creative on how you structure costs on a year-in, year-out basis.”

As one example of getting creative on how to structure costs, Alton says that rather than purchasing specialized software to block certain kinds of content, a district on a budget might set up the bandwidth system to allow those types of content zero bandwidth. That provides a similarly effective way to keep out said content.

What gets the biggest bang for the buck will vary by district. In Lee County’s case, it was improving the operating system and desktop management to guard against malware infections and stepping up end-user training to prevent them from taking shortcuts that increase such vulnerability.

The 802.11n Generation

The fastest and latest wireless technology, called 802.11n, can stretch bandwidth and then reduce the cost of stretching it with additional hardware that compresses and caches data. A $3,000 investment in routers can produce five times that amount in savings in bandwidth the district would otherwise have needed, Conover says.

Districts first need to figure out how they want their wireless network to be configured, Conover says: “Do you need guest access? Do you have separate networks for students and teachers? You can take a more integrated approach and know exactly who is plugged in where. A student shouldn’t be allowed to access a record server with student grades,” for example.

The added security provided by the latest generation of wireless networks means that they have reached the point where they can replace wired networks, Correll of Xirrus says. But due to their familiarity with wired and scars from hit-or-miss experiences with earlier generations of wireless, he adds, “most IT directors are hesitant about going to an all-wireless solution.” His company, however, is focusing on wireless. “We believe wireless can replace wired,” he says. “It’s reached that point.”

Going wireless can mean significant cost savings for districts, since running cables to classroom Ethernet ports costs $200 to $500 per cable, Correll says. “Most people don’t think about the capital expense advantage of going to wireless versus wired out of the box,” he says. “It’s a tremendous cost savings.” Indeed, he says the savings can reach up to millions for large districts.

Ed Finkel is a contributing writer for District Administration.