When it comes to your network, expect the unexpected!

With Independent Schools becoming increasingly reliant on technology for delivering lessons and running the administrative side of the school, network reliability and resilience is one of the hot topics that I often get asked about by the schools we work with. 

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Download The Education White PaperWhile many Independent Schools enjoy stunning countryside locations, there can be some pitfalls in terms of technology! Over the years, most schools have bitten the bullet with the "excess construction charges" that BT and similar organisations levy to connect these locations to the Internet. But many schools still suffer from Internet reliability issues. I noticed in the press just this week that Myddelton School which has just opened in North Wales enjoyed a challenging first few days when their Internet circuit was severed, and I know many other schools have been in the same boat over the years, when something as simple as a bad storm took down overhead cables, resulting in a lengthy Internet outage. 

And when it's not the great British weather causing havoc, it can be the local wildlife creating chaos, as one school I spoke to recently had found to their detriment. They first became aware of a problem when one building could no longer connect to the network. After much troubleshooting, it was discovered that a local rodent had nibbled through the fibre-optic cable that ran between two buildings! 

And of course power problems have been a common cause of downtime for many schools over the years. 

Coming from a business background, where there has been a reliance on 'always on' ICT for some years now, I am well versed in ways to overcome these challenges, so I thought it would be useful to share a few pointers:- 

  1. Uninterruptible Power Supply(UPS) equipment is important, not only to protect your servers but also other connectivity equipment such as Internet routers, firewall, network switches and Wi-Fi access points. Just having a UPS isn't enough though, it is important that they are sized correctly to provide an adequate run-time in the event of a power outage and that they are tested periodically and batteries replaced when indicated.
  2. Some resilience can be built into Internet connectivityby having a backup line – where practicable routed differently from the main line – which will provide a failover in the event of the main line experiencing an outage. Again, just having a backup line is not enough though, as there are some technical intricacies involved in swapping from one line to another, therefore the firewall or router needs to appropriately pre-configured to enable a seamless switchover to take place. We are currently implementing solutions for many of our customers around this technology, and the good thing is that with ever-falling Internet connectivity prices, in some cases we've been able to provide them with a new main line and a backup line for a similar cost to their current main line only.
  3. Inter-building connectivitycan be made more robust by undergrounding cables where possible and providing diversely routed connections between buildings so that there is more than one route by which network traffic can travel between building A and building B.
  4. In terms of server hardware, it tends to be the components that contain moving parts - things like power supplies and disk drives - that are most prone to a failure, so it's important that equipment has redundant power supplies and redundant arrays of disk drives. Or of course you could consider migrating to the cloud to negate the need for in-house servers at all – but that’s a big topic for another day!
  5. Server monitoring softwarecan also provide a valuable insight into the health of the network, allowing problems to be addressed proactively before they cause disruptive downtime. I would caution though, that it is vital this type of software is configured correctly, as there is a tendency for it either to over-alert and cry wolf too often, in which case real problems can be overlooked, or to under-alert resulting in vital problems being missed.

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