Summer Technology Update

Between the craziness of the end of the school year and a week with my four-year-old between the end of preschool and the start of day camp, I haven’t managed to post for a while.  I have much more coming, but here’s a quick update of what’s happening in the ICCSD technology & innovation department this summer. 

New Building Deployments

One of our big projects for the summer is preparation for the Fall, 2017 openings of Liberty High School and the new Hoover Elementary School.  These projects are coming along – Liberty in particular looks close to completion – and we’ve been working to make sure that the technology is set to go in both buildings.  The wired network is basically complete at Liberty, and wireless access points will go up soon throughout the building.  

We’ll do the same at Hoover as soon as we’re able to get in to complete that work.  Further, our physical plant has done a fantastic job at Liberty of already implementing our classroom technology suite in the rooms; we just have a few calibration steps and one additional piece of equipment to install in each room before they’re ready to go.  

Full-Building Upgrades

In addition to Liberty and Hoover, we’re also doing full-building technology upgrades at Twain Elementary and Hills Elementary, which will include new student-accessible devices and new classroom technology.  At Hills, we’ll also be upgrading the network connection to the building – which is currently just a radio connection – to provide the same bandwidth to our internal network that our other buildings receive. 

6-Year Device Replacements

While we’re doing full-building upgrades at a handful of buildings (and working towards getting everybody on a four-year, full-building upgrade cycle), we’re also replacing 6-year old devices throughout the district.  These replacements include a portion of the computers in about half of our buildings, and are mostly being replaced by newer devices that we’re pulling out of the full-upgrade buildings, as well as newer, recently-replaced staff devices, and devices we’re pulling out of City HS and West HS (due to our 1:1 implementation).  With this approach, we can upgrade older devices while minimizing (and hopefully eliminating) any extra new device purchases that wouldn’t fit well into the four-year replacement cycle to which we’re transitioning.  

Reimaging Existing Computers

Currently, half of all Windows computers in the district run Windows 10, while the other half run Windows 7.  This summer, we’ll be reimaging all building-assigned computers to standardize to Windows 10, which allows us to streamline our support while providing for compatibility with wireless projection, which we’re beginning to offer in the district.  This project will also allow us to standardize software versions and to ensure that computers are problem-free for the start of the year. 

Liberty High School Schedule Development

This is going to be the thing that’s not like the other in this list.  Julie Willman and Mike Haverkamp have devoted a great deal of time to implementing scheduling for Liberty High School within our PowerSchool student information system, which has been a challenge in a number of ways.  With a brand new building – and a building that has disproportionately few juniors and seniors – getting schedules to line up, especially for upper-classmen – has involved a lot of massaging of the schedule rules built into our system.  Mike and Julie have been working closely with Liberty HS Principal Scott Kibby, and expect to have this project completed within the next couple of weeks. 

Staff Desktop Upgrades

In an effort to improve efficiency, we upgraded all staff laptop computers simultaneously toward the end of the school year.  This reduced the number of supported staff device models by roughly a factor of 6, replaced a staff computer fleet with an average age of about 5 years, and provided some newer devices to allow for upgrade of 6-year old building-assigned devices.  This summer, we’ll be doing the same thing with staff desktop computers, which will also serve to standardize our deployment while providing some newer devices for redeployment.  In the end, we’ll be supporting three staff device models, a huge improvement over our reality a couple of months ago.  

Network Core Upgrade

The district network supports use by over 14,000 students, 2,000 staff members, and thousands of personal devices, but until now, we’ve been operating the entire network with a 1Gb backbone.  To put it in perspective, 1Gb is probably the amount of bandwidth that you get between your computer and your home router if you connect them with an ethernet cable.  Further, rather than simply having a 1Gb connection to each building from our core at the district’s Educational Services Center, we use aggregate sites – our junior highs plus the physical plant – to create a more efficient topology.  This means, however, that we can have as many as 10,000 devices – between district devices and personal/guest devices – connecting through a single 1Gb connection back to our core.  

This is an untenable situation, as I wrote about here, so this summer we’re upgrading our equipment to take advantage of our existing fiber to offer a 40Gb backbone to our aggregate sites, with 10Gb from those aggregate sites to our edge sites (most schools).  This upgrade doesn’t require us to upgrade any of our fiber, only the receiving equipment at the ends, which makes it a very economical way to increase our bandwidth by 10x to 40x.  Once this project is completed, our ability to push software installations, updates, support streaming media and virtual applications, and to support an ever-increasing number of devices will be substantially improved. 

Wireless Network Installations / Upgrades

In addition to our core upgrades, we’re also upgrading the wireless networks in all of our high school buildings, along with installation of new wireless networks at Liberty HS and the new Hoover Elementary.  These installations / upgrades will bring these buildings to the current 802.11ac Wave 2 wireless standard, which supports a roughly six-fold increase in bandwidth compared to the district’s current 802.11n standard.  While speed is critical, the biggest benefit of this performance increase is the ability to support a much greater number of usable, concurrent device connections.  

Wireless Architecture Update

Even beyond the improvements of our 802.11ac implementation mentioned above, we expect that all buildings will see substantial improvements in wireless network performance once school resumes in the fall.  When I arrived in the district in the fall, a wireless speed test – even on, say, a weekend – would yield fairly abysmal performance of about 3Mb/s to 6Mb/s, far below what should be achieved with 802.11n wireless equipment.  We identified some workarounds that allowed  us to improve average speeds to around 30Mb/s – 100Mb/s, a much more acceptable number, but the root of the issue was architectural.  Specifically, our entire wireless network – including all traffic – was being handled by and routed through a single controller in our core, which was being asked to support around 2,000 access points and over 10,000 concurrent users.  This summer, we’re implementing a distributed controller architecture that will allow us to split that load, which will also allow us to turn off some of the workarounds which were non-optimal (but necessary, given our architectural limitations).  We expect to see speeds of 100Mb/s and greater as the norm throughout all of our buildings after this change is implemented. 

Citrix XenApp Deployment

As I’ve written about here, we’ll be offering Windows software to our district Chromebooks through Citrix XenApp, which essentially allows us to stream software over the network/internet to any device with a Citrix receiver.  This allows us to provide access to full Windows software regardless of the device being used by a student or staff member, and allows us to provide access to specialty software on any connected device, without students being limited to working in a special lab (i.e., industrial tech or music composition).  Further, we’re able to reduce the number of Windows labs that we support in our 1:1 schools – including high schools in 2017 and junior highs in 2018 – which offers space and cost savings.  Our system administrators are working right now to implement this platform, and we expect to have it fully operational within a few weeks.  

Server Infrastructure / VMWare Deployment

In part this upgrade is designed to support our virtual application delivery needs (above), but our server infrastructure was due for an upgrade by age (6 years) and performance/specification limitations already.  We’re currently transitioning to new server hardware, which hosts virtualized servers managed through the VMWare platform.  For those of you who aren’t familiar, this approach basically allows us to run multiple virtual servers on a single cluster of very powerful physical servers.  Since we can spec the virtual servers as needed, and they only make use of physical resources that they’re actually using at a given time, we can get far more bang for our buck this way, while dramatically reducing power consumption, space requirements, cooling requirements, and management overhead.  The new servers that we’re installing have specialized graphics cards specifically for delivering graphics-intensive virtual applications – such as AutoDesk – and have the processor and memory specifications to support our existing server offerings and the new services we have planned. 

One-to-One Laptop Deployment

While our 1:1 Chromebook initiative is a huge project, the logistical portion is actually pretty easy to manage, at least until students arrive in the fall.  The devices will arrive in the district having already been enrolled in the ICCSD Google domain, and configured to connect to our wireless network.  Really, they’ll just need to be handed to students in the fall and will be ready to go the first time they’re turned on.  Google’s management framework allows us to set policies, deploy Chrome applications, and implement security remotely, such that the devices will get the current set of policies and apps as soon as they connect to the internet.  Deployment of Chromebooks will occur in the high schools during the first couple of days of school, during each student’s language arts class period.  More detailed information regarding this deployment will be coming out shortly.