The Forgotten Link

The Forgotten Link

As part of my job I get to travel around and see various different School IT systems. Every so often I find myself in a school that either rolled out a 1-to-1 scheme or is in the process of launching one. I noticed that a lot of these schools haven’t thought about one key area which is vital in the success of a 1-to-1 scheme.

 

So what are the main things that I notice between 1-to-1 schools?

 

  • All schools have thought about what device they are going to offer students.

 

  • Some schools have (increasingly) thought about upgrading their wireless and wired infrastructure to support the increasing numbers of devices.

 

  • Hardly any schools had paid enough attention to their internet connection, and this is why I am here now writing a blog post on this ‘forgotten link’

 

If we take a step back and look at how schools have ended up where they are today, most schools started off using dial-up or if they were lucky ISDN. In late 90’s local councils started to pay attention to the needs of their schools and whilst upgrading their networks between council buildings they also created large networks and offered the schools the opportunity to buy into these services. These were further formalised as ‘Regional Broadband Consortia‘ across wider areas.

So why am I reminding you of this? if we look back to the 90’s and take an average secondary school, it would probably have quite a few PCs installed in ICT suites, a business studies classroom, the library and others spread out to support teachers / support staff with their jobs. If we then compare it with a secondary school in more recent times the type of  IT hardware may have changed (ie laptops rather than desktops) but the actual number of devices being used probably hasn’t grown all that much, at most maybe an additional 200 machines. So throughout that time you may have upgraded your wireless and storage servers a few times over but there is a good chance schools may not have even had to think about the internet connection, as it slowly grew from 2Mbps to 10, 20, 50 and probably now 100 for most large schools. This growth in bandwidth was a response to changing behaviours (e.g. streaming video) rather than necessary more devices.

So if the internet connection has remained pretty much untouched for the last 10 years you can see how easily it is for schools to not regard it as a serious problem to just upgrade it a little for their 1-to-1 project. This is compounded by the issue of how earth to decide on the level of capacity required.

 

So, how can schools go about working out their requirements?

I usually start by dissembling the network and prioritising services requiring the internet connection.  The last thing you want is your new 1-to-1 scheme to be detrimental to existing services. In the past I have created a quick priority table like the one below:-

Service Why Amount of bandwidth required Priority
IP WAN Telephone system To ensure good quality external calls. Small <5Mbps Critical
Servers’ VLAN Do we have any services that require external bandwidth to operate? E.g. AD replication or windows updates. Small(ish) <10Mbps Medium
Teachers’ VLAN Teachers need to be able to rely upon YouTube without buffering, etc High >50Mbps High
Students’ Browsing Can Students browse the internet quickly enough to avoid frustration? Medium >30Mbps High
Student app downloading Can students download apps quickly? High >50Mbps Medium
Student OS upgrade Students try and download OS update in school (e.g. iOS8 this Autumn term) Extreme >1000Mbps Very low

This is an example to give you an idea, your table will probably be 4 or 5 times the length of this.

 

So you understand your priorities but how do you work out what speed do you need? Use SNMP monitoring tools and set up small experiments so you can see the impact devices/ software are having on your network / internet connection. Your web filter may have reports allowing you to determine bandwidth use by domain. iCloud.apple.com is a good one to start with alongside phobos.apple.com (their app store). I would begin by monitoring existing tablets that are being used heavily around the site and then look at other services such as your server VLAN. An SNMP monitoring tool will not only be useful in planning a 1-to-1 scheme but if it is set up correctly it will show you bottlenecks internally and also help you gauge when key bits of kit need upgrading, be it internal switches or links to the internet connection.

Once you have a rough idea of the amount of bandwidth required for each of your items within the table you can start to look at a number of things which might help.

To put some flesh on these bones, at one of the secondary schools I look after, around 70Mbps is required for the student 1-t0-1 scheme, with another 30Mbps dedicated and ring-fenced for our infrastructure and telephony. Thus you can see, living within the headroom of 100Mbps is possible in a 1-to-1 environment, with some careful thought about how to manage this capacity….

1 – Looking at all the bandwidth required, could you simply buy an internet pipe big enough to allow all of the requirements to run at the same time? At a guess this is probably going to be a big ‘no’ as it will be way too expensive, but at this point you will probably get an understanding of what you need compared to what you can afford.

2 – Using your list you can look at what can be done to your network to prioritise these services. An example of this would be for your network manager to prioritise internet traffic for the Teacher Wireless VLAN as more important than the Student Wireless VLAN so that no matter what, the teachers will always have faster internet ensuring teaching resources are not affected (whereas students may not get the same experience).  Settings like this can often be configured on your school’s core switch or router.

3 –  You may want to look at blocking all Operating System updates as these can cause huge issues across the whole school. This doesn’t mean to say that devices shouldn’t be upgraded, but it would make far more sense for the students to be upgrading from home than by using up all your bandwidth all at the same time. I have personally witnessed the chaos caused when a manufacturer decides to release an upgrade in a site with 1200 students, it was a bad few days! Most updates platforms work via standard HTTP or HTTPS traffic meaning that with a little bit of digging around you can usually use your web filtering platform to block the URL leading the to upgrade.

4 – Will your web filter  be able to deal with the expected traffic requirements? Filters do have bandwidth/ processing limits and may need to be upgraded to a higher-spec appliance.

5 – Are you going to allow services like iCloud backup to run whilst in schools? If you are using a good MDM platform you could simply disable this or potentially with some clever filtering you could simply stop it from working whilst students are connected to your network.

6 – Does the  tablet platform you are looking at support any caching facilities?  A good example of this is with Apple and their Caching Server system. It works by monitoring app downloads and once one device has downloaded an app it retains a copy of that app and then any device that follows to download the same app is automatically redirected to the local caching server therefore easing up the pressure on your internet connection. This also works for downloads that multiple users need – e.g. 1 copy of iOS8 is downloaded and then distributed 1200 times… It’s worth noting that Android devices do not take advantage of caching technology, a point often missed by those deciding between platforms.

Most of the above can be controlled with existing systems such as your web filter or by configuring core switches. Your internet provider may be able to place Traffic Shaping Rules that will allow you to specify the maximum total bandwidth available by domain/ domains.

 

So there you have it, the forgotten link, sadly there isn’t a nice easy answer as to what to buy for an internet connection, but as long as you spend some time looking into what your requirements are and look at some of the steps mentioned above you will certain miss some of the pitfalls plenty of others have fallen into.

 

Image credit

 

Link to Educate 1-to-1 book

1 Comment

  1. Great article!

    The only thing I’d expand on slightly is that as the person ‘looking after’ this in school, you’re not alone – there ARE some great suppliers out there who will work with you to ensure you can set this up right for you (and there is no one right way, each schools’ needs are likely to vary).

    I have no commercial link to them but we went with SuperFast Schools (@SuperFastSchool) who are specialists in providing broadband for schools, making sure it’s fit for purpose and I couldn’t be happier. At my Academy we are a very small team and are stretched quite thin! As a result it was vital we had a partner rather than just a supplier – regardless of who you use, you shouldn’t have to deal with a faceless service desk but a real person that has experience of working in schools and the unique environments we operate in.

    As a result, we’ve been delighted with our move away from a ‘Grid’ and would recommend to anyone getting a greater level of control over this sort of stuff in-house.

    Cheers,
    James (@ButtonBashing)

    Reply

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