Education All-Stars

Education must secure a highly PC-literate and demanding user base while supporting bandwidth-hungry learning applications and a free flow of ideas. These challenges make the seven Enterprise All-Star projects chock-full of great connectivity initiatives and cutting-edge security strategies.

An IDEAL education

Arizona State University gets an A+ for building a unique portal that promises sweeping educational change.

When 3-year-old Elias Hinojosa goes to kindergarten in Tucson, Ariz., he'll have more than crayons, paper and paste at his disposal. He'll also have access to a host of interactive educational tools, thanks to a state-sponsored Web portal built and managed by Arizona State University.

From kindergarten through 12th grade, Hinojosa will head to the Integrated Data to Enhance Arizona's Learning (IDEAL) portal for math and reading practice tests, supplemental online courses, interactive learning exercises and state-required advanced-placement tests. He'll also turn to IDEAL for learning materials, coursework and video resources his teachers have placed there to supplement their classroom presentations.

Ultimately, Hinojosa and as many as 1 million other students will have access to the IDEAL portal, enabled with the open source uPortal software. For now, 300,000 students are authorized to log on to IDEAL to check out sample tests; coursework is not yet available but will be soon.

In addition to the students, the state's 60,000 K-12 teachers have access to the portal, not only to provide supplemental coursework but also for links to student demographics, improvement guidelines, grades and benchmarks. Teachers manage coursework on IDEAL through Sakai, an open source course management and collaboration application.

The focus of this innovative educational initiative is to use technology to enable lifelong learning, says Sam DiGangi, assistant vice provost for IT at Arizona State University (ASU), in Tempe. "IDEAL is not just access to a Web site, but accounts that will stay with students through their schooling and, conceivably, their entire career," he says.

ASU is building the IDEAL network per a contract with the Arizona Department of Education, which has invested $5 million in the network. ASU contributes technical and staffing resources. The university is phasing in access on a rolling basis, with all students expected to have authority to use the portal by next August.

Arizona State’s All-Star project leaders Jack Hsu (left) and Sam DiGangi

For its leadership role in this groundbreaking K-12 learning network, ASU earns recognition as a 2005 Enterprise All-Star.

The IDEAL network

With more than 1 million potential users, IDEAL necessitates a heavy-duty storage infrastructure. At the heart of that infrastructure are two Network Appliance FAS3020 file servers, each hosting 7T bytes of structured and unstructured data. An open source MySQL database, which runs on two Sun Fire v40z servers, hosts the IDEAL data repository. The NetApp file servers and Sun database servers connect via ASU's Gigabit Ethernet network, to which the filers connect using iSCSI. ASU hosts the IDEAL application servers and portal software on five Linux-based IBM xSeries 336 servers, and relies on switches from Cisco and F5 Networks for load balancing and network connectivity.

"The biggest challenge is managing the authentication and authorization of students and teachers," says Jack Hsu, director of IS and network management at ASU. "We have 350,000 users authenticated and authorized, but have over 1 million overall users to authorize."

To authenticate portal visitors, ASU uses the open source Central Authentication Service, developed at Yale University. To authorize them, it uses an internally developed program called Enterprise Dynamic Network Authorization. ASU expects to dedicate as many as four servers to the authentication and authorization tasks.

For redundancy and fault tolerance, ASU has situated the NetApp file servers 1,000 feet apart. Although the file servers are at different data centers, ASU plans to further separate the two for fuller redundancy. Next fall, the university will move one of the file servers to a facility in downtown Phoenix, 18 miles away, DiGangi says.

The file servers run NetApp SyncMirror software, which mirrors data to the remote server in real time. If a failure occurs, users and teachers are switched to the remote system without disruption to client applications. From one file server, ASU also uses SNAPmirror to mirror data to a NetApp NearStore R200 for archiving purposes.

ASU has equipped each filer with Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) drives instead of more expensive Fibre Channel drives, and protects those drives with NetApp's RAID-DP (double parity) technology for increasing data fault-tolerance.

But the configuration is flexible enough that if ASU decides the SATA drives are not up to par, it will be able to pop in Fibre Channel drives instead, Hsu says.

ASU keeps costs in check for the IDEAL network by using technologies such as iSCSI and open source software.

"Everything in this project is open source, so that in itself is a huge cost savings, not just in initial but in ongoing costs," Hsu says, noting that ASU has been running Linux for three to four years. "Then we used iSCSI, which really makes our costs go down. All the Fibre Channel expenses add up. We've saved a few hundred thousand right there."

iSCSI also will save money in support costs, Hsu says. "ISCSI is just like Ethernet from the support perspective - and we already have people who know how to manage Ethernet."

So for Hinojosa, if all goes as planned, a lifelong relationship with IDEAL is in the future (or at least as long as his parents stay in Arizona).

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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