Wednesday 1 February 2017

Wire, wire everywhere..

If you are planning a school network with a view to supporting mobility and a SaaS resource like G Suite for Education then one of the technical aspects that's often overlooked is the physical wiring. In this respect we are referring to the sockets on the wall that you plug your network cable into.

How many do you need, how are they connected and where are they best located?

At this point the thought might hit you: “What’s a network cable? I haven’t used one of them for years.”  You might also reflect that although everyone around you seems to be consuming the internet at a furious pace, your home and your favourite coffee shop doesn't come with any network sockets at all. So why does your school need hundreds and sometimes thousands of them ?

The fact is that most modern client devices are wireless based and the technology has progressed to the point where Chromebooks, iPads, Android tablets MS Surface devices don’t even have a standard RJ45 network port. Without purchasing an adapter you couldn’t plug them into the wall even if you wanted too.

When you consider that the cost of providing each of those sockets (after you have taken into account the cable, terminations, installation, testing and switching) is around £100 you get some idea of how much money was wasted by the ‘just in case’ approach that was common in the pre-wireless days but which is still around today.

It wouldn't be so bad if this was the limit of the wasted resources but it's not. In the UK guidelines require that all network points installed into a new build are active. This results in the bank of unused ports being matched by an even more expensive rack of unused switches all linked by underutilised but costly high bandwidth interconnects.

The irony of the situation is that most of the traffic is only heading towards the web anyway so after zipping across a 10Gbs backbone it’s then forced down a low bandwidth pipe because, after purchasing all the switching and redundant network sockets, the school doesn't have the budget for a decent internet link.   Crazy doesn't even come close.

While it’s clear that a new build school could save a significant amount of money by adopting a design with far fewer outlets that’s optimised for wireless, this strategy also has some lessons for schools looking to upgrade their internal infrastructure.

The normal approach is to launch an expensive hardware replacement program in the hope that bigger and faster will deliver the required change.

But how does this help when all the exciting, and transformative learning resources are no longer on the internal network?  You're just going nowhere quicker!

The aim should be to get clients onto the wireless network and then out onto the internet as fast as possible and this simple objective doesn’t require a mass of cabling and switching hardware.

So what's the plan ?

Invest in a good managed wireless network. For the features on offer there are some great deals around at the moment using the new IEEE 802.11ac standard. Check out vendors other than the established names. Don't pay for features unless you plan to use them.

Make sure you have quality cables running to high level locations. If necessary lay new cable to those sites pulling it back to a PoE capable switch at the core rather than spending money on maintaining low level ports that nobody will be using. Incorporate IP CCTV into this plan if you have it.

Look at the rest of the network. What else could be moved to wireless? Digital signage is a good candidate along with softphones on personal mobiles instead of fixed desk IP phones.

Where are the areas that still need fixed ethernet?  Administration offices, front desk, the teacher walls and maybe specialised technology and media devices. However your plan should be focusing on providing a solid wireless signal across the school before looking at areas that would benefit from a fixed network port.

If you have printers liberally scattered about you won’t have any money to fix the network anyway because the budgets already allocated to paper, laser cartridges, leasing contracts  and print management licences.

If you are still left with hundreds of devices still requiring an RJ45 socket (really!) there is a cheap solution - reuse some of the switches you already have. When your fixed clients are consuming SaaS resources, a 10/100 switch will be just as fast as a 1Gbs model because in a serverless school the internet connection becomes the constraining factor not the speed any particular switch or interconnect. Just don’t plug any wireless access points into them.

Now while some of these suggestions may not be practical or directly applicable to your situation the fact remains that one of the main reasons why networking is so expensive is because we are still patching like it’s 1999.

Just don’t do it.

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