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New computers are great but bandwidth is better

Brand new computers are largely useless in the 21st century without high-speed Internet access.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

As we're thinking about how to spread around some very limited resources this coming year, it's important to ensure that our network infrastructure is up to snuff.  Brand new computers are largely useless in the 21st century without high-speed Internet access.  Infrastructure costs (everything from switches and routers to T1 lines) are eligible for E-Rate reimbursement, potentially reducing costs considerably.

Having just read the articles on Student Information Systems acquisitions (Pearson buys Apple's SIS software, PowerSchool and Pearson acquires Chancery, formerly No. 2 in SIS market ) and witnessing firsthand the move to web-based systems like PowerSchool and Chancery SMS, I'm all too aware of the need for bandwidth. We will all be using these systems shortly if we aren't already.  While they're delightfully kloodgy in their own right, network bottlenecks make these programs downright painful (if not impossible) to use.

Similarly, the explosion in student Internet usage and the network load presented by unchecked malware (which crops up occasionally even on well-secured networks) means that a robust network is more important than ever. Slower computers (as long as they are lifecycle-funded and reasonably reliable) are more than adequate in this environment; their ability to access the Internet quickly is a truer measure of their utility than their clock speed at this point. It doesn't take a dual core Opteron to research To Kill a Mockingbird on SparkNotes.

So what are some specific upgrades that give you the most bang for your buck?  Although they tend to be expensive, bigger pipes coming into your building and connecting the schools in your district are always helpful.  Whether you add an additional T1 line (or upgrade to full T1 speeds), you should see considerable speed increases in terms of Internet access. 

Multiple high-speed connections (such as dual T1s) can either be coupled for maximum bandwidth or can be used to segment your network at the router.  We recently added a second T1 and will be physically segmenting our student and teacher/staff networks this summer, isolating mission-critical staff traffic (primarily on the web-based SIS) from less critical student traffic.  This will also hopefully reduce the effects on staff of lab computers which invariably accumulate bandwidth-hogging malware and peer-to-peer software over the year, despite our best efforts to the contrary. 

In this case, it also pays to shop around, contacting your local cable and phone providers, as well as large-scale ISPs (many of whom deal specifically with educational and/or public institutions).  Often, they will compete for your business and cable is increasingly able to deliver T1+ performance at a lower cost than more traditional options.

You can actually get a pretty good idea of your current bandwidth by using the CNET Bandwidth Meter. If your measured speed is considerably below the connection speed for which you are paying, then you probably have some internal network upgrades in your future.  For example, when we first added the additional T1, it was simply bonded to our initial T1 and we expected to measure connection speeds between 1500 and 2500Kbps.  However, initial measurements placed us at just better than dialup speeds.  We were able to isolate a number of problems:

  • 2 student labs with a number of computers generating traffic from malware and P2P software,
  • Bad cabling connecting a lower floor to the network backbone, and
  • A bad wireless router generating traffic.

The latter 2 relate to this blog post.  High end cabling is a must, and, if your school is anything like mine, Ethernet has been pulled through holes in concrete, around boilers, and draped over flourescent fixtures.    Similarly, many of these networks have grown slowly over time with little planning, resulting in countless hops between small switches and hubs.  Rerunning home runs to your backbone and consolidating connections to larger switches can be helpful in terms of both bandwidth and manageability.

Speaking of hub and switches, still have any hubs lying around?  Replace them!  Switches are a cheap and easy upgrade on any network and hubs do nothing to manage traffic.  Switches come in 2 flavors: managed and unmanaged.  If you are looking at network upgrades, 1 or 2 large, managed, high-speed switches can replaced a backbone of unmanaged switches and allow a far greater degree of software-level manageability, as well as provide inherently better control of traffic.

Finally, take a look at your router and firewall solutions.  These can also be fairly pricey, but your router is like the doorway into and out of your school.  Would you rather have 1000 students filing in every morning through a single door, or would you prefer a big bank of open doors?  If your router is your bottleneck, then all of the internal and external upgrades will be of very limited utility.

Talk back below and let us know the network upgrades that have been most useful to your school/district over the past couple of years.  Even better, let us know where your worst bottlenecks are.

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