It’s no secret that easy-to-use, effective network administration software is essential to supporting the 21st-century learning environment. As classroom computers continue to multiply–and personnel budgets continue to shrink–school network administrators need the capacity to be in hundreds of places at once.

Effective network administration software allows school IT professionals to manage multiple computers across multiple platforms from a centralized location. Administrators must be able to secure those environments against digital threats and harmful internet content, while providing support to teachers in the classroom.

Fortunately for school leaders, the latest generation of network administration software allows you to do just that. Here are three examples of tools that are being used in schools with great success.

Remote troubleshooting–without interrupting the end user

CrossTec Corp., a provider of remote access, support, and training solutions, this past spring released a new version of its NetOp Remote Control software. Version 8.0 enables system administrators to remotely troubleshoot students’, teachers’, or staff members’ computers without actually controlling their machines. This way, computer users can work without interruption while an administrator troubleshoots their machine, or several machines at once, from a remote location.

The Remote Management Console, new to version 8.0, allows system administrators to check the Windows Event log, determine the amount of available disk space on a machine with the Disk Drives option, restart Services, and even run command files directly from the console.

“The Remote Management Console provides additional R.O.I. [return on investment] benefits to an application that already has a solid reputation for saving organizations time and money,” said Robert Rounsavall, technical product manager for NetOp Remote Control. “By eliminating the down time associated with remote troubleshooting, end users can remain productive without interruptions from administrators taking control of their machine.”

In an education environment, “you’ve got one or two people supporting 500 or 600 computers,” said Rounsavall, explaining why the product is particularly useful for schools. NetOp Remote Control saves the time it would take for IT support staff to visit each computer individually to check and see what’s wrong–and possibly provide a fix.

Besides offering secure remote access and network support, the software also provides inventory management, file transfer, and synchronization features, Rounsavall said. It includes cross-platform support for Windows, Mac, Solaris, and Linux operating systems.

“One unique thing about NetOp: A user can hit a link on the desktop that hooks up with any [remote management device or platform] that the school might be using. The school administrator is sent an eMail [message] and can connect to the teacher’s desktop and repair the problem right there, even from a Blackberry,” Rounsavall added.

Remote Control integrates well with two other network management programs the company offers: NetOp School and Desktop Firewall.

NetOp School is a classroom management program that allows instructors to manipulate student desktop computers down to the level of the individual user. Using NetOp School, a teacher can broadcast his or her screen, multimedia files, or any student’s screen to other participants. In addition, screen sessions can be recorded and played back.

Rounsavall said teachers can give individualized direction per machine, setting computers so that groups of students can access only certain programs. Teachers also can use the software to limit students’ access to the internet, making only specific web sites available.

“If it’s playoff season, you can block,” Rounsavall said. “Or, you can configure the system so that students learning statistics can access ESPN for those purposes, and nothing else.”

Rounsavall called Desktop Firewall “the next generation in endpoint security.”

“In the simplest terms, you can set up what programs and processes are allowed, especially in a high-security environment,” he said. “When a student brings a wireless laptop to school, the software can detect what network the computer is running on. The program identifies the school program and enacts a more restrictive policy. At home, a student can use what he wants.”

He also said the firewall can be centrally managed to direct student attention to where it needs to be–on the lesson: “You have the ability to import student schedules. If I have Mr. Smith’s class from 9 o’clock to 10 o’clock, then the firewall will restrict usage of that student’s laptop so that only Mr. Smith’s content will be available.”

Remote software deployment

NetSupport Ltd.’s Manager 9 software is a remote network control and management tool that also gives school IT staff the ability to deploy software to client machines from a central location quickly and easily. Version 9 now supports Macintosh and Windows CE platforms, in addition to Windows and Linux.

North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools–with 102 schools and four administrative sites stretching across 40 square miles, and an inventory of client machines that are mostly Windows 2000–use NetSupport Manager to allow the IT department staff (about 30 people) to work remotely from a central office.

“Previously, when a support call came in, the support staff had to travel to one of the 100-plus sites to investigate the computer problem. Physical site visits encompassed a large chunk of our work day,” said Patrick Figgatt, network administrator for the district. But now, “our technicians are able to do more work in less time–and our schools are being supported in real time.”

Figgatt added, “Most of the time, our support issues just have to do with remote software installs, file transfers, and updates–and using the remote software has made this job much easier.” It’s also saved the district hundreds of dollars in travel expenses, he estimates.

Besides remotely troubleshooting computers and installing software, NetSupport Manager also allows IT professionals to inventory their hardware and software from a central location.

“Our staffing numbers have not gone up,” Figgatt said. “Our computer numbers have gone up quite substantially. NetSupport Manager enables us to do the support we need to do.”

Like CrossTec, NetSupport also provides a classroom management program for teachers, called NetSupport School. The software gives instructors the ability to manage and remotely control students’ desktops. It also offers educators an attendance feature that streamlines the taking of attendance for large classes. “In a single click, you can print out an already formatted attendance register [that] allows you to view what students are present and where they are,” the spokesman said.

Figgatt said teachers appreciate this feature a great deal, because they don’t have to worry about figuring out multiple seating charts and instead can identify where students are seated as they are logged in at a desktop.

Most importantly for Figgatt, though, School is fully interoperable with Manager, giving IT support staff even greater remote interaction with teachers. “We are able to help teachers as they’re having issues. As we all know, the issue [often] is user-based,” Figgatt said wryly. “We can remotely show [teachers] a different way–or the right way–to do something.”

Remote software deployment and management: A new twist

According to Jeff Hibbard, vice president of Ardence Inc., his company is “changing the economics of how software is deployed over a system.” While CrossTec and NetSupport have found a way to make software manageable from a central location, the Ardence Server Solution takes a whole new approach by multicasting a “ghost” image of a computer’s operating system to each desktop.

This strategy permits the end user to use existing hardware that might not be powerful enough to handle the latest versions of software needed to prepare students for college or post-school success, he said. Computers can even run without a hard disk, because nothing needs to be stored in the computer’s memory for the solution to function.

“It only streams enough of the operating system to the desktop for you to get started,” Hibbard said. “More of the files, dynamic link libraries, and other applications come as needed. The computers think they’re working on a local drive, but they’re really being streamed out from a central server.”

The Bethel Park School District outside Pittsburg, Pa., uses the Server Solution. “The most time-consuming task when supporting computer labs or large computer implementations is updating the machines when a new piece of software becomes available, or a problem arises that needs to be corrected on each individual machine,” said Christopher Fox, network administrator for the district.

“What used to take us hours and hours of time to re-ghost a lab … we can now do in 20 minutes–and the PCs with Ardence are much more dependable than what we had previously,” Fox said. “Our trouble tickets are down 80 percent in the areas where we installed Ardence, compared to those same areas a year ago.”

See these related links:

CrossTec Corp.

NetSupport Ltd.

Ardence Inc.