Shape, Throttle, and Roll
Bandwidth management technology enables school districts to keep their networks running free and easy.
- By Charlene O’Hanlon
When online state testing becomes mandatory in Florida in 2015, Chris Bress foresees school districts having their hands full simply trying to access the exams.
“If even only 50 percent of the schools statewide are testing at a time, that could be a million requests to [the Department of Education’s] server,” says Bress, executive director of learning through technology and media for Charlotte County Public Schools in Port Charlotte, FL. With so many schools fighting for a finite amount of bandwidth, trying to enter the same website at once, Bress says latency and access will be critical problems come testing season.
The solution lies in bandwidth management software, which can help districts control their networks by caching, filtering, and throttling sites in whatever way optimizes the educational process. As the technology applies to state testing, once a district downloads the exams off the state’s server the initial time, the software can then cache them on the district’s local server for repeat, instant access. The only information going back and forth between the state and district servers are the individual student credentials (social security number, transcript information, etc.), which flow from the state to the district to ensure the student is taking the right test, and the student’s answers, which head back the other way. That exchange eats up much less bandwidth than would be needed to download the entire test again and again and then send it back each time to the state server.
Although online testing won’t begin for another five years, Bress says the state is encouraging school districts to implement technology to help avert traffic jams when the time comes. “It’s going to become critical,” he says.
What bandwidth management software does is offer a window into the network, lending a real-time view of how traffic is moving about while calling attention to bottlenecks and bandwidth hogs. Armed with that information, IT staff can use the dashboard to perform a kind of bandwidth triage, “shaping,” in IT terms, bandwidth flow to make the best use of what’s available: blocking some sites, allowing total access to others, and “throttling”—enabling reduced bandwidth to—still others. That ensures proper delivery of essential web-based content while controlling the delivery of nonessential but permitted content, as determined by the district, such as social networking or gaming sites.
“There are sites that should never be gotten to, and there are sites that are okay to go to but you don’t want to overwhelm the network,” Bress says.
To help it dole out its bandwidth wisely, Charlotte County employs software from Blue Coat Systems, a technology provider based in Sunnyvale, CA. As an example of a nonessential website that could clog the network if afforded more bandwidth than it warrants, Bress references a site that demonstrates how to play the drums and features a lot of streaming video. “If you don’t monitor that site and throttle the bandwidth allowed for it, you’re going to overwhelm the network,” he says. “And that prevents access to the curriculum management sites.”
As more applications move to the cloud or are delivered via the web, bandwidth management technology is proving to be a critical piece of the network infrastructure of many districts, including those supported by the Pennsylvania Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit. IU5, as it is known, serves school districts in Erie, Crawford, and Warren counties. Although the districts are connected to a state-run, regional wide area network (WAN) that gives them access to large amounts of bandwidth, latency due to the prevalence of so many web-based applications is starting to rear its ugly head.
“Internally, districts are having issues with viruses, network design, old equipment,” says Vince Humes, IU5’s director of technology. “But when you look at the services they are getting, practically everything they want exists in the cloud somewhere, so latency is becoming an issue. For some applications and sites it’s not a problem, but some use a lot of video, so you notice when things aren’t as they should be.”
IU5 uses software from another Silicon Valley-based provider, WildPackets, to help districts troubleshoot their networks when performance is lagging. The technology can analyze traffic and look for high bandwidth usage or other factors affecting network speed, such asviruses or improper network design. “We provide services when the school districts want them,” Humes says. “If they have enough staff they normally can do it on their own, but sometimes if they’re having network issues they ask us to help them out.”
Bandwidth management also brings the benefit of cost savings. By shaping the network through blocking and throttling, districts can wait longer before buying more bandwidth. “If we didn’t have bandwidth management technology in place, we would require at least twice as much,” Charlotte County’s Bress says. “It saves us $80,000 to $100,000 in physical costs.”
The faster network speeds also generate savings in “soft costs,” such as employee productivity and student use. “If a task only takes 25 percent as much time, it allows the employees to be more productive. And if I can have 100 students at a time using the web versus 10 students, that’s huge.
“If you didn’t have shaping and caching in place, you wouldn’t be able to have as many people utilizing the network simultaneously,” Bress adds. “If you do, you can have more people having the same experience.”
He references the Compass Learning online educational programs to illustrate his point. Districts pay a fixed cost for access to the streaming media-intensive programs, but without shaping and caching, fewer students would be able to access them at the same time without experiencing a drag on the network. “If we only have 10 kids using the programs versus 50, it’s not as cost-effective,” Bress says.
Watching over those bandwidth-intensive programs—and recognizing the other applications that run over the network concurrently, such as back-office or HR programs—is necessary to keep networks working at optimal efficiency, Bress says. “We came to the conclusion that we wanted to provide anytime, anywhere access to curriculum, but the only way to do that successfully is to be proactive in managing traffic across the network. You can load a program onto your server and say you have enough bandwidth, but oftentimes people don’t think about all the other stuff running on the network. That’s what causes the slowdowns and latencies.”
While bandwidth management can help schools solve immediate problems with their network, Kirk Damron, director of systems architecture for Tulsa Public Schools (OK), says it helps to be forward thinking in assessing your technology needs.
“Traffic is something that grows exponentially; as more bandwidth-intensive applications become available, managing that becomes a necessity,” Damron says. “We’re now doing IPTV, and when you start streaming in high-def you’re moving around large sets of data. But bandwidth is expensive to buy and to maintain. You can’t just go out and buy more fiber.” By using software from F5 Networks to manage the bandwidth it already has, Damron explains, the district can better accommodate those large sets of data that high-def involves.
Tulsa operates on a three- to five-year bond plan for its IT purchases, so the district is always looking ahead. “If we’re not thinking at least three years down the road, we’re going to be behind,” Damron says. “We are constantly looking at how to use the funds and have a plan in place to get those funds.”
The effort to acquire more technology intensifies the need for a plan to cope with it. “Technology is going through an evolution,” Damron says. “As more things go online and with more web-based services available, as an IT group we are struggling with how to manage that: what rules to use, what to allow, what to block, what devices we should use to throttle. Because of the exponential growth in media, [bandwidth management products] are extraordinarily important tools. If you have no visibility, you can’t control the network.”
Bress agrees: “You want to be good stewards of the budget you’re being entrusted with, so you have to say, ‘Do we want meaningful things on our network, or do we want the Wild West?’ This technology allows us to look at the network and allow the good stuff and not allow the bad stuff. We know what is running over our networks is meaningful and appropriate.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of THE Journal.
Charlene O’Hanlon specializes in technology reporting and is based in the New York area.