That's not a hub, is it?

One of the elementary schools in our district had been without Internet service for almost a week. While this is actually more of an issue for staff than students at the elementary level, it obviously had to be taken care of.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

One of the elementary schools in our district had been without Internet service for almost a week. While this is actually more of an issue for staff than students at the elementary level, it obviously had to be taken care of. The technology "paraprofessional" who floats between the elementary schools couldn't figure it out and neither could the school's fairly savvy principal. That left me, just an email away over at the high school, so I grabbed a line tester and hopped in my van (prep periods are for sissy teachers, right?).

Many larger districts have dedicated staff or contractors for this sort of thing. There are an awful lot of districts, however, that have retrofitted aging facilities, elementary and otherwise, with a hodgepodge of networking equipment as computing needs have grown faster than building budgets. Staff come and go, but all invariably seem to add some new networking bits, bringing a lab online here, connecting a classroom there, or moving an office somewhere new.

This was certainly the case at the high school when I started there four years ago. I live at and lobby for the high school, though, so I made short work of crappy hubs, ridiculous daisy chains of Ethernet cabling and hardware bits, and every other networking no-no I stumbled across. With the exception of one relatively new elementary school, every elementary in the district has had no such live-in advocate who knows that switches are good, hubs are bad, and homeruns aren't something the Red Sox get (at least in this context).

It should come as no surprise, then, that the problems at this particular school were directly related to network infrastructure. I walked through the door and, fortunately, the principal at least knew where the DSL modem came in to the building and plugged into the firewall. A quick look showed that earlier attempts to fix the connectivity issues had resulted in some crossed cables. Once the correct patch cables were plugged into the correct ports, the computer in their "head-in room" was suddenly online! Had I fixed a week's worth of problems in a record-breaking 30 seconds? No, of course not. Nobody else was up.

The principal then showed me to another router (and I use that term very loosely; this was one of the little Linksys broadband routers that you might give to your grandmother so that she could share a connection between a couple of computers). Needless to say, it was handing out DHCP addresses, none of which looked much like the firewall was expecting (since it was also handing out addresses). I yanked out that box and started tracing cables. The aforementioned router was plugged into a 4 port hub a couple feet away, the first port of which had died. Yes, a hub. No, I don't think you can buy those anymore. And no, they won't be missed.

The principal did manage to produce a spare 8-port hub (complete with optional coax uplink!) from a box of parts so I could at least replace the router and consolidate some cabling. Voila! The front office and the computer lab suddenly sprang to life. Then the principal's eyes lit up and she said, "Wait, we have more of those little hubs. Do you want to see them?" I could hardly wait. So we traced more cables, finding hundreds of feet essentially spliced together with hubs. Ethernet standards don't mean much to the average elementary school teacher; making sure that they can write IEP's online while the kids access online math tutorials does mean something.

I did what I could to reduce collisions short term and sent her to Staples with a shopping list for some real, honest-to-God, 100MBps switches. While the school needs a complete overhaul, at least eliminating the hubs and the extra router and adding a few homeruns to something that now resembles a backbone will buy them some time.

I'm relating this little story as a reminder about your aging facilities. Switches are cheap, cable can usually be donated, and just don't tell anyone what you and a few parent volunteers are doing with those power drills. Even larger, well-funded districts often have back offices, alternative programs, or hidden labs sitting on networking hardware that will make somebody's week a little less pleasant when network loads finally overwhelm a dying switch or aging Cat 5 strung just a little too far. If you haven't finalized next year's budget, see if you can squeeze in some line items to get these networks up to snuff. It's only a matter of time before you don't have a choice.

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