Somerset Area Schools Select SSL-Based Solution to Connect to the Digital World


With budget cuts in education, many schools have a deficit in computers and equipment, as well as not enough resources to teach students how to use them. If students fall behind, they risk staying behind even later in college and in the workforce. In Pennsylvania's Somerset Area School District, students faced an uphill battle. We were 12 years behind the technology curve, which is more than a lifetime in the high-tech industry. With only 20 computers in a school district of more than 2,800 students — with an average of five computers functioning at one time — the district decided they needed to make changes fast.

Our school board understood that the district community had to overcome the technology obstacles, so in the summer of 2002 we presented a plan to the school board that recommended connecting the entire district to the digital world. Once the plan was approved, we received a budget of $1.8 million to ensure that the six schools in the district were networked and had enough computers to fully service the 2,800 students, 180 teachers, 70 school office and support personnel, and eight school administrators.

Within three months of getting the plan approved and budgeted, the school was completely rewired. We deployed 27 servers and over 460 new computers. We also created and migrated more than 3,000 e-mail accounts, installed a firewall, standardized operating systems to Microsoft Windows 2000 and applications to Office 2000, and changed all documents and databases into the proper format. In addition, we set up an integrated IP telephony system based on Cisco AVVID technology.

To fully realize the benefits of the new IP telephony system and high-speed network, teachers were asked to take attendance online, move their gradebooks to a computer application and create their syllabi through an online program. This was an entirely new way for our teachers to operate. Once all of our teachers and students got accustomed to using computers and the Internet for more tasks, we found them requesting even greater access to their systems, which led to IT discussions around security.

Teachers also wanted the ability to access their materials from home. Most teachers grade papers and tests in the evenings, so they wanted the ability to record grades then, rather than having to transfer grades and duplicate work at school in the morning. In addition, they wanted to do lesson planning and have access to course materials from home.

We immediately evaluated remote access options presented to us and decided to explore a solution based on a secure sockets layer (SSL). The Neoteris Instant Virtual Extranet (IVE) appliances turned out to be exactly what the district needed. It is a hardened network appliance that delivers secure access to networked applications and information over the Internet via any Web browser without requiring client device software downloads or installation, changes to the internal LAN servers, or constant maintenance. The appliance leverages the SSL protocol — the technology that revolutionized e-commerce — which is included with standard Web browsers.

Acting as a smart proxy device, the IVE appliance intermediates requests between remote teachers and internal Somerset applications and resources once authentication and authorization have been confirmed. Because the IVE uses SSL, the connection remains at the application layer, which keeps the production network immune from attacks by viruses and Trojan horses. The IVE dynamically transforms the networked content teachers and administrators need over a secure Internet connection to a Web-based extranet interface. On the backend LAN side, the IVE's native protocol connectors (HTTP, HTTPS, POP and SMTP) attach to the Somerset application servers seamlessly with no configuration.

In the summer of 2003, we created a portal where parents can check on their students' homework assignments and grades, as well as calendars of events and district updates. By making the information available online, while still protecting the privacy of the students, we are able to keep students honest with their parents about grades and homework. We can also help parents stay more informed of their child's progress by enabling them to get involved should problems arise.

— Julio W. Velasquez

Contact Information
Neoteris Inc.
(408) 962-8200

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.