You’re a school technology director and you receive a frantic call from a teacher whose desktop computer has just crashed in mid-lesson. From your workstation, you can see that the machine’s operating system somehow has been corrupted. With a few mouse clicks, you can automatically rebuild her desktop in a matter of seconds without leaving your officeand save the lesson in the process.
Or, you’re a district-level technology coordinator and you receive a page from your network monitoring server telling you that a router is about to fail. From your office, you’re able to diagnose and fix the problem before the device takes your entire WAN offline.
Or perhaps you’re a superintendent, and armed with concrete data about network traffic flow, you’re able to convince school board members why they should allocate $10,000 from the district’s budget to improve the network’s infrastructure.
With the tools on display at the eSchool News School Technology Management 2000 conference Oct. 17-20, these scenarios are entirely possible in today’s school districts.
School leaders who attended the conference, held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., got a hands-on demonstration of these and other advanced applications in a first-of-its-kind “Millennium-Ready School Technology Command Center,” the result of months of planning by practicing school technologists and some of the most powerful technology companies in the world.
Reminiscent of “classroom of the future” exhibitions unveiled at national technology conferences of the past, the Command Center took that venerable concept several steps further, revealing the leading edge of what is possible right now at the enterprise level in education.
The center offered conference attendees a unique, hands-on opportunity to learn about state-of-the-art tools and techniques that give a school district’s top technology managers maximum control of their technology infrastructureeverything from network administration and instructional systems to HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning), fire protection, and security systems.
The project began last summer, when executives from several leading technology companies were invited by eSchool News to participate in a steering committee to plan the Command Center. School network and systems integrator JDL Technologies took a leadership role in designing and building the center, and 16 other companies signed on to lend their expertise and the hardware, software, and other equipment necessary to carry out the collective vision.
The result was a working model of a school district’s entire technology infrastructure, neatly encapsulated in a 40′ by 40′ exhibit space and capable of being monitored and administered from a single operations center.
“What we wanted to show was the physical layout and the logical layout of a school-wide network, including everything from connectivity to the outside world, to the school district office, classrooms, the school administration area, the media center, and the computer lab,” said Al MacIlroy, vice president of marketing and strategic alliances for JDL Technologies.
“We wanted to give school administrators not only a visual image, but also the detail they would need to basically write a check to replicate it all in their own schools.”
One of the project’s goals was to bring together several disparate technology systems on a single network to show attendees the advantages of combining and converging all facets of school management.
John Fedora, project manager and network engineer at JDL, explained, “Currently, most school systems are set up with a lot of parallel infrastructures: a complete infrastructure for heating and air conditioning, a separate infrastructure for voice, another for data, and so on. The Command Center gives school leaders a chance to see the ‘big picture’: how all of the systems impact with each other, and how there’s a tremendous cost savings associated with combining those separate resources and infrastructures.”
The project’s network operations center (NOC), located in the district office, comprised the heart of the Command Center. The NOC served as the network’s hub for internet access and contained servers supplied by Apple and Dell Computer for running the network, student records, instructional, and energy management systems. Attendees could log on to any computer in the school administrative or district office and get instant access to the software that controlled each of these systems.
To integrate the various systems over a single network pipeline, JDL subdivided the main network infrastructure into virtual local area networks (VLANs), each with its own logical pockets of traffic. VLANs kept the network administration, student information, and energy management data apart from the student applications and outside internet requests.
“VLANs separate network access virtuallythrough software and programming instead of wiresso students don’t have access to the same materials as teachers and administrators,” Fedora explained.
Besides adding security, a VLAN also can increase network performance by streamlining the flow of data. When 30 students log on to the internet simultaneously from a computer lab, for example, the burst of traffic would be isolated to that lab’s VLAN, so the rest of the network wouldn’t be affected.
Mayline Network Products supplied two cabinets for holding the networking equipmentone for the NOC and one for the space that represented the school administrative office. Cisco Systems donated the routers, switches, and network firewall, Suttle supplied the patch panels, and Isolation Systems/ONEAC supplied a Universal Power Supply (UPS) for each cabinet.
The classroom, lab, and media center spaces were connected to the network through fiber and copper lines. In addition, a RadioLAN 10 megabit-per-second (Mbps) access point in the school building office provided high-speed wireless connectivity to a laptop computer in the classroom.
Another goal of the Command Center was to demonstrate how current technologies can provide administrators with a proactive way to manage their schools’ resources. “What we’re showing is that there is a way, through the tools available today, to set up a network management system where you can see problems on a network before end users even know they have a problem,” Fedora said.
With intelligent software from Honeywell’s Home and Building Control division, for example, even a school’s smoke detectors and fire alarm systems can alert the network that they need maintenance before they fail to operate when needed.
“The Command Center is an ideal representation of what can be done, how simply it can be deployed, and how effective it can be in managing a school’s intranet for reliability,” said Thomas Lapping, JDL president.
The center demonstrated “off-the-shelf technology that’s available, but not being marketed to schools effectively, that will help schools use their existing infrastructure to proactively watch what’s happening on a network, ensure better overall productivity, and improve learning outcomes for students.”
Challenges involved in set-up
On a smaller and more compact scale, the challenges involved in building the Command Center reflected the challenges an actual school district might face in implementing the technology, MacIlroy said.
One of those challenges was how to incorporate cost-based compromises into the network planning phase. Cisco Systems, which provided the network routers and switches, was only able to donate a fixed dollar amount in equipment. As a result, JDL had to settle for a lower-level switch than it wanted, making the installation of VLANs more difficult.
“We were looking for the next step up in switches, because with the lower-level switches, you can’t create a VLAN,” said Bruce Spicer, a senior network engineer at JDL. “We had to go to a router instead to do the same thing.”
In a switched environment, less administration is needed; you can go right to a control screen and turn on a switch’s VLAN capability in seconds, Spicer said. But with a router, set-up is more difficult; you have to program the router cables to create a VLAN, which takes more effort.
“That’s the kind of trade-off that schools face all the time,” Spicer said. “Schools might save money on hardware, but spend more on the configuration effort.”
Another challenge was making sure the system had an adequate power supply. “The racks take up quite a bit of amperageit’s going to take two or three breakers just to feed the battery back-up unit, all the gear, and the potential for two or three servers,” Spicer said. “Trying to daisy-chain off two power cords to power the two cabinets isn’t going to work.”
JDL needed a dedicated outlet running back out to a breaker. Network engineers had to pull down a trunk line from the exhibit hall ceiling to get a dedicated outlet for the project.
Inadequate power supply is a common occurrence in schools as well, Spicer said: “Most schools are grossly underpowered for what they’re looking to do.
“A lot of times they find they’re undergrounded, too, meaning they don’t have a proper ground for the electricity they’re running, and they find that their computer equipment freezes because of spikes and drops in power. We then have to go in and do a survey to tell them here’s where the ground is inappropriate, let’s fit it so your equipment will quit locking up.”
A third challenge involved getting internet access up and running in time for the exhibit. To provide T-1 access, the Omni Shoreham had to get Bell Atlantic to raise up a router at the nearby Hilton. But the telecommunications company was swamped with work orders.
In a situation that wasn’t typical of most school districts’ experience, President Clinton happened to be visiting the Hilton the same weekend as the conference. An Omni employee used the president’s visit as an excuse to push the work order through, citing “national security issues” as the reason.
While other aspects of the Command Center’s implementation might have presented some problems, setting up the furniture was a snapliterally. Synsor Corp. supplied its unique ShuttleSystem changeable computer furniture for the classroom, lab, and media center. A self-aligning, push-button connection system called ShuttleLatch lets you combine or separate the modular units, as needed, to create different types of learning environments quickly and easily.
With just a few basic shapes, you can form rectangular clusters, circular or oval clusters, or horseshoe-shaped furniture arrangements. Each unit also can be used as a stand-alone workstation. A convenient wire management raceway running along the back of the workstations keeps wires organized and out of sight.
Following the conference, Synsor further demonstrated its corporate good will by donating the command center furniture to the Baltimore County Public Schools.
Leading-edge network management
The highlight of the finished Command Center was the power it gave school administrators to monitor network connections and manage the flow of data. Engineers from JDL Technologies demonstrated the equipment for conference-goers by monitoring and controlling the flow of network traffic across the entire exhibit floor directly from the command center NOC.
According to Lapping, network management is a concept that is largely misunderstood in schools.
“When you ask most educators if they’re managing their network, they’ll say yes, I have a Novell Netware or NT Server or AppleShare networkbut that’s simply the operating system that’s running the network,” Lapping said.
“True network management involves monitoring data and traffic flow in real time, recognizing problems before they occur, and managing desktops and servers to keep them operating during class time. I don’t think many educators realize this can be done over a school district’s intranet fairly simply.”
Inside the Command Center NOC, an Apple PowerMac G3 hosted Dartmouth University’s InterMapper software, and a Dell PowerEdge server hosted CastleRock’s SNMPc network management software. A second Dell server, which was supposed to host Hewlett Packard’s Open View, was damaged in shipping; as a result, Open View was unavailable for viewing.
SNMPc consists of two separate applications: a control piece called Remote Console, and an informational database called Server. Together these applications, which run on Windows NT, cost about $2,000.
The Server application gathers and reports information, such as how much data is flowing between the hosts it is monitoring and how healthy these connections are. The software also can map trends; for example, it can tell you that at 3 p.m. every day, the computer lab generates X amount of traffic.
Remote Console allows you to control the network access ports on equipment from vendors that publish their Management Information Base (MIB ), such as Cisco. For example, you can turn Cisco switches on or off, or you can force them to go “full duplex,” which means opening network traffic two ways, thereby doubling bandwidth.
SNMPc Server requires its own dedicated server, but Remote Console does not. Visitors to the command center got to see SNMPc Server displayed on a large-screen color TV/monitor supplied by Zenith Electronics Corp.
InterMapper runs on a Mac server, but it can monitor both PCs and Macs. InterMapper provides a more graphical representation, or map, of a school district’s entire network and its connections.
Every few seconds, the program sends out a “ping” to all devices on the network. If a device is still there, it shows green on the map. If a device goes offline, it flashes red.
The map draws links between interconnected devices. The darker a link appears on the map, the larger its pipeline. If you click on a link, you get further details about what percentage of the pipeline is being used for data traffic.
InterMapper is priced around $400 for schools. “It drills down deep for $400I was really surprised,” Spicer said. “It can monitor trouble by portthat means it can monitor the actual processes in the switch.”
The overhead needed to operate these programs is fairly small, Spicer added. Sending updates over the network generates very minute traffic, and putting devices on the map is simpleall you need to know is their IP addresses.
Both SNMPc Server and InterMapper can tell you where the bottlenecks in your network are, when they occur, and who’s creating them. Armed with that knowledge, you can plan your network use accordingly.
Both products also can be configured to automatically page or eMail you when a device goes offlineso if you’ve got another application open, you’ll still be able to receive warning when something goes wrong with the network.
HP’s Open View, though it was not displayed, is probably the most popular of the three network management solutions among businesses, because it can manage the equipment of virtually any vendor. But it also is the most expensive solution by farwith all its components, it can run up to $20,000.
Failing to monitor your schools’ network is like building a city and not monitoring the traffic patterns on the streets, Lapping said. To minimize downtime and maximize the time that students spend on task, it’s really essential.
“Most schools today are buying electronics that repeat and switch signals that are intelligent and already manageable; they just haven’t put the tasks and the discipline together to take advantage of these systems that, for the most part, are already paid for,” he said.
Managing the desktops
In the Command Center’s school administration office, Altiris Inc. representative Mike Dunham showed conference-goers how Altiris software could enable them to manage all the PCs on their networks remotely from the school’s server.
The company’s LabExpert is a suite of products designed to make managing software installations on a PC as easy as drag and click, Dunham said. LabExpert lets you load applications or rebuild desktops on multiple machines simultaneously from a single point on the network, saving you the time, hassle, and expense of having to load the software manually onto individual machines.
LabExpert allows you to create profiles for different software installations, or “events,” such as “restore PC image,” “rebuild desktop,” or “install PowerPoint.” Setting up an event is simple; a wizard walks you through the process.
You can configure an event to occur automatically at a specific time or set schedule, or you can set it up as a one-time event. If your virus protection or filtering software comes out with weekly or monthly updates, for example, you can set up LabExpert to deploy the software automatically whenever the new version is released.
You can make each event as simple or complex as you want it to be. You can even ask the system to back up your registry files automatically from day one.
You can also set up groups of PCs based on your own lab or classroom layouts. Installing new software in a classroom is as easy as dragging the desired event to the classroom group and clicking “reboot.”
By clicking on an event, you can see exactly when it was deployed and to which machines. This can help you manage software licenses; for instance, if you have a license for 50 desktop copies, you can click on the profile for that software and see instantly how many copies you have already deployed and how many you have left on the license.
LabExpert lets you keep track of software installations by client as well as by event. Icons for each client machine appear on the LabExpert Control Console; by clicking on an icon, you can see exactly what has been done to the machine so far and also what the status of each scheduled event for that machine is (red
means a deployment failed, yellow means in progress, green means it worked, and white means it’s not scheduled).
Another Altiris product, Vision, lets you monitor and take control of desktops remotely from your computer. You can also project your own computer screen to other desktops.
Vision is promoted as an effective solution to teaching and training with networked PCs. Using Vision as a classroom tool, teachers or trainers can project their computer screens to students’ desktops in either full-screen or window mode.
In window mode, students can view the teacher’s screen in a window that can be resized, moved, or minimized, allowing students to work along with the teacher. The contents of the window scroll automatically so the teacher’s entire presentation is visible.
In full-screen mode, the client computers’ keyboards and mice are locked, giving teachers each student’s undivided attention. A marker tool lets you edit the screen, highlight, circle, or spotlight areas of interest.
But Vision isn’t only useful for teachers. Technology directors can use the software to monitor teachers’ desktops to make sure they are working properly.
For example, if you got a call from a teacher who said she was having trouble with her copy of Word, you could take control of her PC, see what she sees when she tries to use Word, and remotely diagnose the problem. If you determine that her version of Word has been corrupted, you could launch into LabExpress and load a replacement version of Word instantly from your administration office.
With Vision and LabExpert, Dunham said, “you can play help desk for the entire district, so teachers in the classrooms don’t have to be their own technicians.”
Energy, fire safety, and security management
Honeywell provided the hardware and software necessary to monitor and control a school district’s HVAC, fire protection, and security systems remotely over the network. The Honeywell equipment consisted of a three-tiered infrastructure: district-level server software, school office-level programmable control panels, and hardwired sensors, wall modules, and control units at the classroom level.
The company’s Excel Building Supervisor software runs on Windows NT and uses TCP/IP protocol. It integrates fire management, life safety, and HVAC controls, allowing you to set climate control parameters and monitor smoke detectors, pull stations, thermostats, and so on. A pulsing red area on your computer screen alerts you to a fire, breach of security, or other emergency.
The software communicates with the programmable control panels, which in turn communicate with the wall modules in classrooms. The microprocessor-based modules demonstrate a remarkable degree of intelligence; for example, the Signature line of smoke detectors use algorithms stored in their memory chips to compare sensed data with known fire profiles to identify true fires while filtering out false alarms.
Each smoke detector also maintains an up-to-date history database which includes its type and location, number of alarms and troubles, and time and date of last maintenance.
Distributed intelligence allows the smoke detectors to perform self-diagnostic routines and operate in a degraded mode if they lose communication with the control panel.
The detector can even reprogram itself to compensate for rising dust levels inside; when the dust level gets to be too high (or when its history tells it that it’s time for routine maintenance), the detector can report back to the wall-mounted control panel that it needs to be cleaned. (Now, that’s detection.)
The control panel alerts the Building Supervisor software that the detector needs maintenance, and the software updates its reports for scheduling maintenance.
Honeywell also has teamed up with AWS (formerly Automated Weather Source) of Gaithersburg, Md., in an innovative program for schools that use AWS’s AirWatch Weather System. Schools can use the data collected from the AirWatch system to help monitor their energy needs.
AWS donated an AirWatch system to the Technology Command Center. The Weather System allows students to collect information on wind speed and direction, temperature, air pressure, humidity, and precipitation for use in the classroom and dissemination to local and national weather sources.
Student data and instructional systems
Back in the Command Center NOC, an instructional management program from PlaNet Software, called PlaNet Manager, occupied another district-level server.
PlaNet Manager provides a user-friendly desktop interface from the network to the students. When school districts use PlaNet Manager as a launching pad for their instructional applications, the software automatically tracks student use and “time on task” for each application, compiles results and scores, and saves the data in a back-end database and student reporting system.
PlaNet Manager is a web-based application managed with a browser. In a typical implementation, a school district will load PlaNet Manager onto a web server, and many clients allow their students and teachers to access the system from home, according to Steven Curtis, president of PlaNet Software.
When new users enroll in the system, it automatically creates for them a network account, portfolio directory (where information is stored in the database), and seemlessly grants them network privileges based on their user profiles.
An Assignment Builder application provides a tool for teachers to create assignments and schedule them for students. The program automatically bookmarks lessons in progress, so students can pick up where they left off. Results are transmitted in real time to the student reporting system. (Gradebook and attendance applications are not included in the system but are available from the company’s partners, which include Alpine Media.)
The Reports section lets teachers and administrators abstract student data and format it according to different “order by” criteria, such as assignment, grade, teacher, class, or time on task, in order to compare different criteria to guide the evaluation and decision-making process.
You can also export data directly into an Excel spreadsheet or Word document, or you can eMail data to parents or colleagues. In addition, PlaNet Software will be releasing a parent desktop version by the first of the year that will give parents access to the information on their children, Curtis said.
“It’s a huge advantage to get reports through a web-based application, because it’s accessible anywhere through a web browser,” he added.
An Apple PowerMac G3 administrative server in the Command Center NOC, meanwhile, housed an internet-based school management system called PowerSchool, from the California-based company of the same name. PowerSchool maintains student schedules, grades, and attendance for schools and districts of any size, on any platform. Grades and attendance are automatically collected every class period over a school’s network.
Changes in a student’s schedule and attendance are automatically communicated to the classrooms, updating teachers’ class rolls immediately. Other features include the handling of school transfers, homework, lunch programs, and more.
Parents with internet access can see current grades, attendance, and teacher comments in real time simply by accessing the school’s web site. The system is complete with password-protected security. Also included are automated progress reports via eMail and online class registration.
The PowerSchool server includes the ability to handle an automated telephone information line for parents and students who don’t have home access to the internet. The system incorporates a password and PIN number for security, and the information is kept up to the minute, just like the web system.
Finally, SMART Technologies demonstrated its SMART Board interactive whiteboard in the classroom area of the Command Center. The SMART Board allows teachers to access and display information from the internet, run live video from a camera, deliver CD-ROM presentations, and control software all from a single location, simply by touching the board.
The board allows teachers to tap into the school district’s network and run a variety of multimedia materials from a single location, thereby enhancing the delivery of content and maximizing classroom effectiveness.
The technologies showcased in the Command Center, the convergence of disparate systems into a single network infrastructure, and the emergence of a proactive model of management all could have a profound effect on the education enterprise, participants in the project agreed.
Less network downtime can lead to higher learning goals, and increased efficiencies can save money while helping overburdened school staffs.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to come from the project, Fedora said, is that the technology to achieve these goals is already here: “If school districts can overcome organizational issues, they can really transform the way their schools operate.”