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Networking

Making IT Work for You

District technology departments can avoid employee burnout and optimize operations by letting automated solutions take over some of their more tedious tasks.

What happens if the work of maintaining a district’s technology systems becomes more than an IT staff can handle?

It’s a common scenario with the K-12 community still struggling from the weakened economy, as the purchase of new computing equipment doesn’t necessarily prompt the hiring of new IT staff to help with its maintenance.

The solution: Let the technology work for the department instead of against it.

That’s what Lee Duvall, technology coordinator at Tully Central School District, did when he began using Kaseya’s IT Management Suite to keep the district’s 400-plus computers running at optimal performance. Located in central New York state, Tully CSD serves 1,200 students in two schools separated by a football field, and employs only one full-time technology coordinator (Duvall) and two teaching assistants, who are in charge of student use of the PCs.

“Software deployment had been one of our biggest issues with such a small staff—just trying to get to all of the labs in both of the locations,” Duvall says. “When I first started here, there was less technology in the district, so it was manageable. But as the years have progressed, the TA’s and I have seen our workload increase. We needed something to help try to speed up the process.”

The district was originally using Microsoft’s Windows Server Update Services, which automatically updated all Microsoft software installed on Tully computers. All of the computers’ non-Microsoft applications, however, had to be updated manually, which drained valuable time and resources from the tiny IT department. Implementing the Kaseya system has eased that burden by automating pesky tasks such as software updates and installations. The system also chips in by helping the techs troubleshoot when software downloads cause problems with other programs.

“We ran into an issue recently where we had an automated deployment with an Adobe package,” Duvall says. “It turned out that one of the components of the package was blocking access to the server, but not for all of the machines. Kaseya was able to pull the error logs for all the machines so we could look through them to figure out what the reports meant, compile the information, and then do a custom install.

“If we had to do that manually with each machine,” he explains, “it would have taken us days. Instead, it took only a few hours.”

Drew Lane, director of technology at Derby Public Schools in Derby, KS, a suburb outside Wichita, credits automation technology with organizing his district’s network, which was, according to Lane, “a mess” before the implementation of the Kaseya IT management solution two years ago.

“We didn’t know what we had deployed reliably, and we had no way of checking; everything was manual,” Lane says. That’s a tough situation when your staff is dealing with 5,000 machines spread out over 12 locations, he adds. “Our people were scrambling just to put out fires. Users suffered because of it—we couldn’t support even the basics.”

The district is now using the software to automate network patch management and software updates, and the technology also has been helpful in ensuring that all of the machines are up to date and ready for the school year come September.

“We have seven techs and three full-time IT administrators, and our techs are not 12-month employees,” Lane says. “We lose them in the summer. But life doesn’t stop because the school year ends; patches still happen. And without anyone here, they weren’t getting put out, so the beginning of the school year was always horrendous. We never had enough time to get the computers ready. We needed a way to have our human resources work more effectively.”

Lane says the automated management software has made the transition from summer to fall much less frenetic. “The beautiful thing about where we are now is our core staff can get into Kaseya and push out the patches and updates ourselves anytime, not just during the summer. The techs now can concentrate on supporting the users when they get back from summer vacation.”

Helping the district support users more efficiently is Kaseya ticket reporting, which tracks how promptly the IT department solves problems and highlights areas of concern over user training. “It has become one of our core services,” Lane says. “Our speed in fixing individual problems is better. We are more nimble.”

Some school districts are seeing the benefits of taking automation technologies beyond the purposes of software maintenance and network patching. Academy School District 20 (ASD 20) in Colorado Springs, CO, employs Kace’s Kbox automation appliance for the usual updates, but it also has programmed the system to perform an automatic shutdown of its networked PCs. The decreased energy use has saved the district money while making a real contribution to its conservation program, says ASD 20 CIO Shelley Kooser.

“We have about 9,300 machines districtwide,” Kooser says. “With our sustainability efforts, we have to make sure the machines are powered off each night, so we created policies on the Kbox to automate that process. We started this in January to make sure all the machines are shut down by 8 p.m., and so far we’ve saved a significant amount of money.”

The district, which has been using Kbox for four years, has a technology coordinator at each of its 29 schools to attend to in-house service issues. Because ASD 20 covers about 140 square miles, Kbox has been essential to keeping the machines updated. As Kooser explains, it has also aided the district in the different tasks asssociated with handling its inventory, including life cycle management.

“If we have machines that are older, we can target the ones that need to be upgraded and determine who will be impacted,” she says. The system also lets the IT staff know who has applied all the security patches, as users have the ability to abort the updates if they are operating the PCs when the downloads begin. “We can get a snapshot of how the changes have affected the community and what still needs to take place,” Kooser says.

“In addition, we can identify which machines are nearing their end of life and get a replacement date, as well as know about software that needs to be purchased or moved. And that sure beats having to identify each of the machines manually.”

Derby Public Schools also uses automation technology to track its machines and locate lost or misplaced laptops when necessary. “The Kaseya agent is installed on every laptop, so we can see it and it can see us,” Lane says. “The agent will tattle on the laptop for us. We can touch all those computers as long as they can connect to the network.

“We had a couple of laptops turn up missing, and through the agent the laptops told us where they were and who was using them based on the login information, so we sent a message to the computers asking the users for the return of the laptop. For the most part, it was a teacher who had borrowed the laptop and hadn’t let us know.”

As resources remain tight, ASD 20 and other school districts can be expected to continue to turn to automation technology as an integral part of their IT departments’ wide-ranging maintenance work. Kooser says her district is looking to see how it can extend the benefits of Kbox’s functionality. In particular, the techs are investigating ways that the system can further support sustainability efforts.

“We’ve started looking at how we can set up standards to take advantage of its features,” Kooser says. “We are looking at copiers and anything else connected to the network to see if we can perform automatic shutdowns on those as well.”

Such forward thinking may become the norm as more automated technologies are deployed at K-12 sites. But even just using the tools for basic installations and updates can help a district save time, money, and energy—and, most importantly, the well-being of its IT staff, who now can more comfortably be at all places at once.

“It’s very easy to apply one label to an entire school with a mouse click,” Kooser says. “It’s not a huge burden to take on ownership of touching every machine.”

LINKS

Kace: kace.com

Kaseya: kaseya.com

Microsoft: microsoft.com

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of THE Journal.

About the Author

Charlene O’Hanlon specializes in technology reporting and is based in the New York area.

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