Robust and reliable: why networks matter

In an age where so many tools in schools and universities are online, robust networks play a vital role in supporting the infrastructure. But how can network managers ensure their best usage?

Outsourced, managed ICT

Outsourcing managed IT seems like a nice, clean option and can include any number of services, including student records, email systems, business applications, and Management Information Systems (MIS). Most outsourced, managed IT covers traditional infrastructure management and can also include storage, desktop and communications, mobility, helpdesk and technical support.

Budget, of course, can affect how successful, and secure, a network is.

Dave Kenworthy, director of digital services, CoSector, University of London, says: “Spend in HE has, in recent years, come under heavy scrutiny. But today, universities across the UK are seeing significant ROI in digital, thanks to their partnerships with industry vendors.” In fact, says Kenworthy, “Some technologies have become so ingrained into the education sector, that it would almost be impossible to complete even a simple task without one.”

For universities, one of these ingrained tools is the virtual learning environment (VLE). VLEs are established within the infrastructure of every university building and used by every student. For many, outsourcing responsibility for key IT functions, such as hosting and managing its VLE, comes with concrete benefits, including, crucially, great flexibility and efficiency elsewhere. Kenworthy says: “When IT responsibilities are outsourced, in-house staff can focus on the more pressing day-to-day concerns of business.”

“New technologies are constantly emerging and thus changing the learning landscape”

There are a variety of options when it comes to network management, depending on an institution’s specific needs. A small institution might be able to function perfectly well on some of the free network management systems available on the market, or, says Julian Lee, CoSector’s senior network administrator, “could even rely on a home-brew system built and managed internally.”

Alternatively, he adds, “they could deploy a ‘Rolls-Royce system’ such as Solarwinds, which has many modules and is highly configurable, so it offers flexibility and elasticity.”

Technological innovations are a great boon in the education sector, but this brings rising costs, whether constantly upgrading software and hardware, or employing specialist staff, and this often leaves schools and universities unable to progress their digital transformation plans. Outsourcing the underlying infrastructure and the human resources required to use it, can reduce costs. Moreover, if you have a vendor on your side, you virtually eliminate the possibility of downtime or cyber-attacks.

“For any network manager, auditing the existing network before any edtech investment is made helps to ensure that the current network set up will meet the school’s needs,” says Dave Smith, from the school improvement team at Havering Education Service (HES).

“There has been much debate about whether we still need networks in schools or if we should instead be more cloud-based,” Smith says, “but this debate ignores a couple of key points. The first point is that schools will still need the underlying infrastructure in place to make sure there is no lag when accessing cloud-based files. Secondly, a local area network (LAN) can still be important for establishments, particularly those with a media focus, as file transfer is often faster for larger-sized files on a LAN than in the cloud.”

Smarter and more agile networks are needed to respond to the demands of today’s digital learning environment. Todd Kiehn, GTT

Smith also points out that bringing in external providers can enable growth at your institution’s required rate, and, in many cases, allow access to insight from multiple professionals to get a more rounded point of view. He adds: “However, one drawback is if the external provider changes your point of contact. There is real value in having support from a person who knows your school, its challenges and its infrastructure well, and if this person needs to change then it can leave schools in a difficult position.”

Back to basics

Security has been top of the agenda for the last couple of years. Many schools completed their GDPR compliance in 2018, reporting to the School Leadership Team (SLT) and Full Governing Body (FGB) on progress. However, says Des Ward, information governance director at Innopsis, the trade association for suppliers of digital infrastructure and services to the UK public sector: “There has been a great deal of confusion from consulting organisations in the education space about what has to be done, and this has led to significant disruption to both the teaching processes and the use of technology.”

In 2019, the DfE Data Protection toolkit requires that schools and academies understand their current maturity against the Cyber Guidance from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). Ward adds: “While this guidance has been presented as five areas for education, it merely condenses the 18 areas identified within the 10 Steps to Cyber from the NCSC. The Network Principles from the government show that understanding the needs of the network is crucial, especially given the increased drive towards cloud and hosted applications and services.”

Related feature: How to cost-effectively improve your school’s IT infrastructure

It’s important, says Ward, “that schools therefore ensure that they not only review their current needs for cybersecurity as part of their annual review, but also consult with their teaching staff to determine what their needs are for application security, and the reliability of the network connections.”

Best usage

For university management, security is always the primary concern, closely followed by speed and reliability for students. Ensuring best usage really comes down to knowing and understanding what your customer base wants. “With students, however, that can be a challenge because they don’t always tell us what they need, or want,” laughs Lee. He adds: “As a network manager, it is not often possible to interact with or talk to our customers, other than when a ticket comes into the helpdesk, or when we are onsite fixing something we already know about.”

John-Paul Williams, sales director at Ortial Technologies, a UK manufacturer of memory, storage and networking upgrades, says: “With bandwith requirement constantly evolving, there is regular need for upgrades and replacements, so the cost-saving opportunities are significant.

“Such savings can be made by using non-branded versions of SFPs [small form-factor pluggable network interface module]; essentially the same, but without the out-the-door prices; typically 80–90% lower than list prices from major manufacturers.”

Some technologies have become so ingrained into the education sector, that it would almost be impossible to complete even a simple task without one. Dave Kenworthy, CoSector

Installing more memory and SSDs (solid state drives) can be an efficient way of improving student and teacher performance without exhausting your IT budget. “In the first instance these upgrades instantly increase system speed,” says Williams. “For example, if the operating system is placed on the SSD it enables laptops to boot in a fraction of the time meaning no more waiting for laptops to boot at the beginning of the school day. Increased memory allows you to seamlessly open multiple programs and browser windows and switch between them without any slowdown, especially for the more media-intensive applications teachers may use.”

The influence of BYOD (bring your own device)

While BYOD doesn’t affect network usage, it does affect the security of your network and the possibility to connect a multitude of different devices. Allowing people to do what they want but still do it securely is no mean feat, so how can universities ensure a robust network infrastructure to support a smart campus?

System Technology’s head of innovation, Simon Thomas, says: “Public internet made available with traffic shaping, security gateway and monitoring is an option, which public internet should separate from administrative systems.” Kenworthy adds: “Student needs and requirements are changing all the time, and new technologies are constantly emerging and thus changing the learning landscape.”

For university management, security is always the primary concern, closely followed by speed and reliability

Todd Kiehn, VP product management at GTT, says: “Smarter and more agile networks are needed to respond to the demands of today’s digital learning environment. As a result, we are seeing a displacement of legacy WAN [wide area network] architectures with SD-WAN across schools and universities.”

SD-WAN [software-defined wide area network], says Kiehn, “allows network managers to harness the power of the internet with software-based control to ensure applications performance is maximised, network reliability and stability is improved, and security and privacy is assured. Through this approach the network can flex to meet the demands being placed on it.”

Collaborate to innovate

Solid partnerships are key, says Thomas: “Engaging with a good ITMS (IT Management Service) that specialises in education support should provide access to a wider technology skill set and experience.

When IT responsibilities are outsourced, in-house staff can focus on the more pressing day-to-day concerns of business. Dave Kenworthy, director of digital services, CoSector

“Partner with an ICT that fits your organisational culture, your direction, and vision,” says Thomas. “If not, the relationship could be painful and counterproductive.” Contract management is key: “Without these skills, it can be hard to make an ITMS a sustainable success.” And if you don’t have CapEX [capital expenditure] or a refresh budget for IT, then let your ITMS know upfront: “Some ITMS providers may shy away from education organisations with little or no CapEX or refresh budget for IT.”

5G could be a game changer for a smart campus, Thomas believes: “Why invest in costly network infrastructure when there could be a ubiquitous 5G network available soon with connectivity speeds that will more than support a smart campus setting? There is a lot to consider if this is actually a viable approach, but the next technology revolution in connectivity does appear to be coming from the introduction of 5G.”

The current pressures on schools and colleges are plentiful. Having a robust and reliable infrastructure in place can make a huge difference.

* This article was amended on 01/08/2019 to correct the definition of ITMS from Integrated Task Management System to IT Management Service

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