We recently completed a network roll-out at a primary school in Lincolnshire that had to support 120 iPads, nine interactive displays, 15 laptops and 13 desktops to support 200 pupils and staff. That’s admittedly an extreme use case where primary schools are presently concerned, but it does illustrate how much dramatic growth there’s been in assisted learning and EdTech designed to support learning skills.
At the other end of the scale, you might have a smaller school with fewer resources that requires networking for a couple of interactive screens, and a complement of Chromebooks that need wireless connections. There might also be a trolley with some iPads that visits different classrooms throughout the day.
Having been selling into the education sector now for around six years, I’ve seen the network infrastructure in primary schools managed in a number of different ways. If you go back around half a dozen years or so, it was often the case that a school’s system administrator would be someone who simply ‘knew a bit about computers’ and got lumped with the task, because they wouldn’t tend to have dedicated IT people.
The IT network in a school typically consists of three elements – a series of access points, some form of switch and a gateway. You’ll likely find wireless access points (WAPs) in every classroom, or at least several of them in corridors. How many you have and where they are can depend on how the school’s buildings are constructed, how old they are and the extent of any pre-existing cabling infrastructure. The WAPs will typically be attached to cabling that runs inside the building’s walls and roof spaces back to a switch.
The switch controls the distribution and flow of data across the school network to and from the WAPs, and will come in one of two flavours – a standard or a PoE (Power over Ethernet) type. The latter does as it sounds, supplying power via data cabling to devices at the other end, and tends to be the sort normally used in education settings, as they remove the need to seperately cable out electricity alongside the data infrastructure, or provide power points for each of the WAPs.
The switch in turn connects to the services in the school’s ICT bank, be that a server or a gateway to the wider internet and the outside world. This should, of course, always be a securityenabled gateway that allows some form of control over the school’s internet. Some might blacklist certain websites, or whitelist only certain websites they they want people to see. It’ll also provide the means of putting in place other firewall functions, such as providing protection against viruses and spam and detecting intrusions.
Some primary schools may well prefer to appoint someone internally to carry out elements of their system administration – configuring the network in a specific way, managing the registration and access of users, overseeing the processing of pupil admin. It’s usually the case that the more technical aspects of managing a school network – applying firmware updates to hardware devices, installing patches for applications and operating systems – will be either passed on to a reseller that’s supporting the school, or to an LA that’s responsible for managing the networking of schools throughout the area.
What we’ve seen in the education sector over the last year, however, has been a rapid adoption of cloud network management products. A growing number of schools are concluding that there’s a low cost of ownership and manageable level of involvement in terms of the technological complexity – but also that if they want to step in and manage specific areas, doing so is relatively simple.
In this case, outsourcing the work or giving it to someone else to manage doesn’t necessarily mean relinquishing all control entirely; it just hands responsibility over the network to someone who actually knows what they’re doing and can manage it reliably.
Maintenance from anywhere
Our own offering in this area, which we call Nebula, allows for cloud control of a school’s access points, switches and gateways. That means you could be anywhere, while still be able to supervise your school’s network infrastructure, while the likes of patches and updates are automatically carried out.
It used to be that a school would need someone familiar with how to use a command line interface to roll out software patches, or download the latest firmware to multiple WAP devices and ensure everything’s working. All that can now be done through cloud control.
Another advantage is that it makes it easier for schools to track their network’s performance data over time. Staff can analyse previous issues, see how they were fixed and be reassured that they won’t happen again. It’s all made accessible, without them having to shoulder the responsibility of managing and supervising the system itself.
Control and longevity
What I’ve seen is that schools want to maintain a sense of control. That ties in to broader shifts in recent years of schools parting ways with LAs and converting to academies – but at the same time, we’ve seen some LAs relax their formerly tight control and requirements when it comes to network management in favour of going with a more flexible approach. We’ve also seen some examples of schools building direct partnerships with resellers who have strong track records in supporting schools in their local area.
What we’ve learned from working with our reseller partners is that the ‘IT people’ based in academies and trusts tend be much more knowledgeable (and have larger budgets) compared to those in primary schools. On the whole, trusts will have a good grasp of the infrastructure they currently have, what it needs to grow and what they need in the way of support.
Interestingly, what we’re starting to see now is more established academies – those that have been around for three to five years – that are in the process of reviewing networks and systems they’ve had in place since they were first set up. I can recall meeting with trust representatives at the Bett show who had rolled out costly networking systems at a time when they were relatively flush with funding. Some have since found that their costs are no longer manageable once their hardware comes up for renewal, or that the licences for their switches and WAPs are more expensive than the capital costs of replacing it all with different equipment.
The final area schools should therefore look at is the likely longevity of the equipment they decide to go with, and whether it might be worth procuring via a three- or five-year lease. The school might not own the kit at the end of that period, but it can be assured of always receiving new equipment each time their network is refreshed.
Pete Hannah is head of channel, UK and Ireland at Zyxel.