One-to-One Student Computing

Okay, so the word PAM does refer to the non-sticking cooking product, has nothing to do with data networks, does not belong in the title; but it rhymed. We know that PAM works but how do you know what type of network connections work best for your district? Is wireless in your future? We review the networking approach of three educational organizations and how their LAN (local area networks), WLAN (wireless local area networks) and WAN (wide area networks) implementations affect how they connect their computing devices for students and teachers.

Allen Independent School District
Allen Independent School District is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, just north of Plano, Texas, and represents a more fortunate district with a strong tax base and patron support. They are also located in Texas, where the state legislature founded the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund in 1996, which has some secondary aspects of requiring local telecom providers that have fiber in the ground to provide those districts with 3Gbps circuits at extremely low prices.

Allen ISD ran a pilot project at one of their elementary schools in 2003 using a Layer 7 network analyzer, and determined that the majority of the computing devices used by students would work fine as wireless devices running virtualized applications based on the Citrix Winframe product. They found that the typical student application and Internet access required much less bandwidth than expected. Only teacher workstations and computer labs were hardwired to the data network, based on the download/upload requirements of those devices. Teachers were encouraged to use digitized content, which in 2004, would have clogged up a WLAN. In addition, computer labs have heavy storage download and upload requirements at the beginning and end of each class period.

Even with their lower WAN speed in 2004 (300Mbps), Allen ISD ran approximately 70 percent of their computing devices on the building-level WLAN network connecting to their WAN, which in turn connected the devices to the servers running virtualized applications on the WinFrame product. While virtualizing student applications increased security and reduced the number of IT personnel required keep the various computing devices operational, the annual licensing fees for the Citrix solution is substantial. (You pay one way or the other).

The solution to Allen ISD’s connectivity and network efficiency issues was a combination WLAN connection for computing devices to application virtualization (we did not call it that back in 2004), which requires sufficient WAN connectivity from the individual campuses back to their network operations center (NOC). They continue to upgrade and increase the bandwidth of their wireless networks, but even with their 3Gbps connections between each district facility and their NOC, Allen ISD is not running all applications on the wireless network or in virtualized mode. WLAN technology can deliver today, but the application virtualization software for graphics intensive use is not there yet.

Chesapeake Public Schools
Chesapeake Public Schools located in Chesapeake, Va., while large with over 40,000 students, is typical of most K-12 organizations across the county where their options for connectivity are limited by the cost of WAN connections between the district office and their campuses. The high costs of WAN connections limit the connection speeds between the district NOC and individual campuses, which in turn forces the IT department to locate servers at each school facility to reduce the response time of system-to-user demands. While a few facilities have been, or are being, outfitted with WLAN coverage for multiple users, the majority of computing devices in the district connect to a hardwired LAN at the local campus level.

It is of note that in the high schools where high-speed wireless networks have been installed, most teachers use the wireless connections for their administrative activities, but use hardwired connections at a “teacher cart” for streaming of digital video content.

There is one activity that is driving the district to implement more WLAN installations. The Department of Education of the Commonwealth of Virginia requires intensive student assessment every year. During those testing times, standard classrooms are converted into testing areas for 24 students at a time. The amount of work required to relocate workstations to those spaces for the testing represents a major amount of effort.

In response, the district has piloted the use of laptop carts with integrated wireless access points for the assessment testing. The cart connects to a hardwired data port and all of the computing devices used for testing connect to that cart. The tests are online to Department of Education servers, which connect through the WAN to the Internet and to the DOE servers. To facilitate the use of those laptop computers when not configured for testing, the district actually purchases smaller carts with only 12 laptops, which makes them easier to move around the facility.

The new Colonel Smith MS and STEM Magnet HS for the Fort Huachuca Accommodation School District, serving school-age children located on the Fort Huachuca military post near Sierra Vista, in southeastern Arizona, represents a state-of-the art implementation. Every student will have a wireless computing device, teachers will have laptops and workstations running graphic-intensive applications (Photoshop, Corel, AutoCad, Audio/Video editing software) will be located in grade-level student collaboration areas and the central Research Commons.

Implementation of one of the newer wireless technologies will actually increase the network security and reduce the number of data ports in a typical classroom to two ports — one for the wireless access point and one for the VoIP phone (with a network printer connected to the phone). Even the IP video decoders used for video streaming will be on the wireless network.

Imagine a district with only 1,300 students, two IT employees and a new facility that will contain at least 750 computing devices. It requires a really different approach to ensure everything works when and where it should. The new facility will be set up for intense server and application virtualization in a “private cloud” configuration, with external augmentation services providing the high level of expertise required to keep it running.

While the Internet connection for the district is adequate, the NOC is at a different campus, and the connection between facilities is only 1Gbps, which is quite slow for the number of computing devices slated for the new facility. Therefore, the private cloud will be created in the headend room of the new facility and connect to the wiring closets at 10Gbps. The wireless access points can deliver up to 1.5Gbps each, which actually requires two 1Gbps circuits per access point.

Even though the majority of the computing devices are wireless, eventually everything must make a hardwired connection to the network and the private cloud, and the network supporting those connections will need to interconnect at 10Gbps.

More and more schools are moving towards WLAN implementations, but they do require a stable and high-speed LAN back in the closets. As districts place more computing devices in the hands of their students, it is fairly straight forward to upgrade the LAN and WLAN operation at the building level. However, the upgrading of the WAN represents a much tougher problem dependent on where in the country your district is located, and that is the largest roadblock for most districts regarding implementation of the more state-of-the-art networks that support one-to-one student computing devices.