School prepares for Computing curriculum

New Mills School overhauls its IT infrastructure developing its students digital skills and preparing them for the world of work

As a Business and Enterprise College, New Mills School needed to provide students with an outstanding ICT experience to develop their digital skills – meeting demands of the new computing curriculum and preparing them for the ‘world of work’.

As part of this approach, New Mills evaluated its existing IT infrastructure and, working with ICT experts Stone Group, made a series of enhancements which included refreshing the server estate to speed up performance and usability for students, increased storage capacity to cope with pupil created content, and enabling Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).

In 2013, Keith Lutener was appointed to manage the IT network at New Mills School. Part of his role was to overhaul the ageing IT environment. As it was being used more and more, it was beginning to slow the school down and failing to keep pace with learning demands.

For the last 10 years, the school’s PC network was managed using RM Community Connect 3 (CC3), a proprietary management layer built on top of Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP. With the imminent de-support of Windows XP by Microsoft in April 2014, the school needed to upgrade away from XP, but deployment of newer operating systems with CC3 was problematic. 

Also, with students using newer operating systems such as Windows 7 and 8 at home, it was difficult to upload their homework at school and make it compatible with the existing set up.

In light of this, the school had two options. Attempt to solve this by upgrading to Community Connect 4 (CC4), which would continue to be supported under contract by RM, or replace the server infrastructure with a ‘vanilla’ install.

To avoid vendor lock in, New Mills decided to make the transition from RM, opting for a vanilla route, deploying a standard Windows set up where they could regain control.

The school realised that it needed help from an education specialist to design, and implement the solution so after recommendations from other schools turned to Stone Infrastructure Services, a division of Stone Group, to support the project.

After consultation from Stone Group, New Mills decided that the best approach would be virtualisation so all applications could be consolidated on less hardware saving valuable physical space and considerable costs.

The first job was to replace the three physical servers with two new ones. Windows Server 2008 and 2012 were installed to host the entire network between them. Also, by installing VMware vSphere virtualisation directly on top of these physical servers meant that multiple virtual servers could run on each physical server simultaneously, sharing the resources.

The school now has the ability to run numerous virtual servers on each physical server if they so wish, making the system extremely powerful and future proofing investment as the cost of virtualisation is a fraction of the price compared to buying more physical boxes.

“The benefits have been remarkable,” said Keith Lutener, network manager at New Mills School.

“Behind the scenes, we have a new and improved network which is extremely powerful that also delivers fantastic end user results. The students are offered the latest applications and can access these quickly which improves productivity.”

With the introduction of two new Dot Hill Storage Area Networks (SANs),the network is now capable of holding up to 32TB of information compared to the 500GB capacity of the previous solution. Also, the network performance is much quicker. Cat6 Cable has been installed increasing transfer speeds from 100Mbps to 1Gbps. A faster, larger and more reliable network means that the school is set for the impending new computing curriculum in 2014. A key element to the new framework will focus on the creation of technology, rather than the use, so this will mean teaching children to code. Whereas previously, installing new programming applications was difficult due to the slow network and, complications with Windows XP, the school is now able to deploy and run any application easily. This enables students to use the latest programmes and keep up with the changes in this digital world.

Due to the value of the data, disaster recovery was an important factor to the school. So to ensure the entire PC network is constantly backed up, the school deployed Microsoft Data Protection Manager (DPM). The SANs can each accommodate 20 backup cartridges, with each cartridge having the capacity to hold up to 3TB and uses a fully automated backup to reduce admin time. The school’s old cartridges could only hold up to 300GB each, meaning that they had to be constantly, manually swapped out.

With the entirely new network set up, New Mills decided to also refresh its PC estate. With 500 devices in total, the school had budget to lease 150 new desktop and notebook devices from Stone Group, and plans to refresh the rest of the estate in the near future to ensure all 500 devices are renewed. The leasing scheme allows more flexibility to meet the needs of students by getting access to the latest technology while spreading the costs over a period of time to suit budgets. The cost of leasing is also less than the equivalent costs of buying the devices outright and all equipment is under warranty for three years.

As part of the service, Stone Group has also re-imaged each device with Windows 7 and installed all the newest editions of Microsoft Office software. The introduction of Windows 7 has meant boot up times are much quicker. It now takes seconds compared to 15 minutes with the old system so they are more productive, and the students are using the most up to date software which prepares them better for the world of work.

Finally, BYOD is now fully supported at New Mills. Prior to this virtualised environment, the RM system was very closed and they could not run just ‘any device’. Now students and teachers, can bring any device and connect automatically – allowing flexibility, home working and diversity.