Pennsylvania school district tackles network modernization

NASD upgrades its campus core to be the foundation for digital learning.

A network of digital connections extend broadly across layers of city highways / routing paths.
Wenjie Dong / Getty Images

Success in business and education today starts with infrastructure modernization. In fact, my research has found that digitally-forward organizations spend more than twice what their non-digital counterparts spend on evolving their IT infrastructure. However, most of the focus from IT has been on upgrading the application and compute infrastructure with little thought given to a critical ingredient – the network. Organizations can only be as agile as the least agile component of their infrastructure, and for most companies, that’s the network.

Manual processes plague network reliability

Legacy networks have outlived their useful life. The existing three+ tier architecture was designed for an era when network traffic was considered “best-effort,” where there was no way to guarantee performance or reserve bandwidth, and delivered non-mission-critical applications. Employees and educators ran applications locally, and the majority of critical data resided on workstations.

Today, everything has changed. Applications have moved to the cloud, workers are constantly on the go, and companies are connecting things to business networks at an unprecedented rate. One could argue that, for most organizations, the network is the business. Consider what’s happened in our personal lives. People stream content, communicate using video, shop online, and rely on the network for almost every aspect of their lives.

The same thing is happening to digital organizations. Companies today must support the needs of applications that are becomingly increasingly dynamic and distributed. An unavailable or poorly performing network means the organization comes to a screeching halt.

Yet network engineering teams working with legacy networks can’t keep up with demands; the rigid and manual processes required to hard-code configuration are slow and error-prone. In fact, ZK Research found that the largest cause of downtime with legacy networks is from human errors.

Given the importance of the network, this kind of madness must stop. Businesses will never be able to harness the potential of digital transformation without modernizing the network.

What’s required is a network that is more dynamic and intelligent, one that simplifies operations via automation. This can lead to better control and faster error detection, diagnosis and resolution. These buzzwords have been tossed around by many vendors and customers as the vision of where we are headed – yet it's been difficult to find actual customer deployments.

NASD modernizes wired and wireless network to support digital curriculum

The Nazareth Area School District (NASD).recently went through a network modernization project.

The Eastern Pennsylvania school district, which has roughly 4,800 students, has a bold vision: to inspire students to be innovative, collaborative and constructive members of the community who embrace the tenets of diversity, value, education and honesty. NASD aims to accomplish its vision by helping students build a strong worth ethic and sense of responsibility and by challenging them to be leaders and good global citizens.

To support its goals, NASD set out to completely revamp the way it teaches. The district embraced a number of modern technologies that would foster immersive learning and collaboration.

There's a heavy emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM), which drives more focus on coding, robotics, and virtual and augmented reality. For example, the teachers are using Google Expeditions VR Classroom kits to integrate VR into the classroom. In addition, NASD has converted many of its classrooms into “affinity rooms” where students can work together on different projects in the areas of VR, AR, robotics, stop motion photography, and other advanced technologies.

NASD understood that modernizing education requires a modernized network. If new tools and applications don’t perform as expected, it can hurt the learning process as students sit around waiting while network problems are solved. The district knew it needed to upgrade its network to one that was more intelligent, reliable and easier to diagnose.

NASD chose Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, to be its wired and wireless networking supplier.

In my opinion, the decision to upgrade the wired and wireless networks at the same time is a smart one. Many organizations put in a new Wi-Fi network only to find the wired backbone can’t support the traffic or doesn’t have the necessary reliability.

The high-availability switches are running the new ArubaOS-CX operating system designed for the digital transformation era. The network devices are configured through a centralized graphical interface and not a command line interface (CLI), and they have an onboard Network Analytics Engine to reduce the complexity of running the network.

NASD selected two Aruba 8320 switches to be the core of its network, to provide “utility-grade networking” that is always on and always available, much like power.

“By running two switches in tandem, we would gain a fully redundant network that made failovers, whether planned or unplanned, completely undetectable by our users,” said Mike Fahey, senior application and network administrator at NASD.

Wanted: utility-grade Wi-Fi

Utility-grade Wi-Fi was a must for NASD as almost all of the new learning tools connect via Wi-Fi only. The school system had been using two Wi-Fi vendors, neither of which performed well and required long troubleshooting periods.

The Nazareth IT staff initially replaced the most problematic APs with Aruba APs. As this happened, Michael Uelses, director of IT, said that the teachers noticed a marked difference in Wi-Fi performance. Now, the entire school has standardized on Aruba’s gigabit Wi-Fi and has expanded it to outdoor locations. This has enabled the school to expand its security strategy and new emergency preparedness application to include playgrounds, parking lots and other outdoor areas where Wi-Fi previously did not reach.

Supporting gigabit Wi-Fi required upgrading the backbone network to 10 Gigabit, which the Aruba 8320 switches support. The switches can also be upgraded to high speeds, up to 100 Gigabit, if the need arises. NASD is planning to expand the use of bandwidth-hungry apps such as VR to immerse students in subjects including biology and engineering. The option to upgrade the switches gives NASD the confidence it has made the right network choices for the future.

What NASD is doing should be a message to all schools. Digital tools are here to stay and can change the way students learn. Success with digital education requires a rock-solid wired and wireless network to deliver utility-like services that are always on so students can always be learning.


Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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