Doing More With Less
Despite a ‘peanut-sized’ budget, Georgia’sWorth County Schools finds a tool to manageand improve network application performance.
Worth County Schools is atypical midsize school districtin Sylvester, GA, a town proudto be known as the “Peanut Capital of theWorld.” As is the case with many of our peerdistricts, Worth County’s networkingbudget often seems like peanuts comparedto the demands of our mission—accountability,security, and operational efficiency—requiring us to do more with less.
Our IT department serves 4,099students at five schools: Worth County HS,Worth County MS, Holley ES, SylvesterES, and Worth County Primary. In additionto configuring, maintaining, and fixingour district’s hundreds of PCs and softwareapplications, our IT team supplies connectivityto and within each school,as well as tothe administrators, teachers, and students.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
We are responsible for ensuring highperformance from our networked applications—from student information andeducational software, to accounting andpersonnel systems—performance thatmeets user expectations, no matter wherethose users are. We also maintain internalnetwork security, enforcing access policiesto sustain the integrity of administrativeand educational information systems.
Finally, we must not only guaranteeconnectivity, but also restrict illicit use ofthe Internet, which can put us in a catch-22situation in our middle and high schools.These students are often very computer savvy,but are still in the process of developingan ethical awareness. Ultimately,we’re responsible for keeping them out ofmischief, but the better they’re taught—which is the district’s fundamental goal—the harder our job becomes.
Our existing suite of tools gave us a fragmentedview of network and applicationperformance, making it difficultfor us to see the real sourceof our problems. We hadalmost no view of actual trafficother than what was reportedfrom router and switch interfaces.What’s more, the view we had stopped at theedge of the Internet. As a result, although weupdated our antivirus and firewall settings,we had difficulty judging the effectiveness ofour security, which made it virtually impossibleto be sure only approved applicationswere running on our network.
But all that changed when Systems &Solutions Inc. (SSI; www.systemsandsolutions.net), a Georgia-based technologyintegrator, installed a NetSensory NP-500network application performance managementappliance from Network Physics(www.networkphysics.com) in our district’sdata center. SSI is Network Physics’exclusive partner in the educational arena.
Among the first things SSI’s CTO CoryMartin identified were two variants of theSasser worm that had infected WorthCounty’s network, unbeknownst to us. Hequickly recommended appropriate action.
A Newfound Visibility
The NP-500’s deep probing into theresponse times of application componentsrevealed the cause of application slowdowns.Furthermore, the fact that the appliance’srich mix of charts, tables, topologymaps—as well as both automatic andprogrammed alerts—can be accessed usinga Java desktop application, allows us to troubleshootproblems from anywhere. Thisend-to-end view saves us a lot of time sincewe typically don’t have to go out to the schoolin question to figure out what’s happening.
The NP-500 showed us how much ofthe district’s bandwidth was being eaten bynon-educational applications such as AOLInstant Messenger and Gnutella. We couldalso see students trying to bypass ourInternet filtering using proxy sites, and byusing the classroom logs, we were able toidentify the students who were responsible.Students now know that they’re nolonger invisible on the Internet whenthey’re using school computers. It’s likegiving the teachers in our computer labseyes in back of their heads—somethingthat’s needed for our job anyway!
The appliance’s ability to group networktraffic by school, lab, or other logical divisionusing IP addresses, or applications by port, isa critical part of network monitoring. Bydragging these groups into the NetSensoryTopology window, we can immediatelyidentify all traffic between the groups andthe Internet. Filtering by application identifieswhat is running on the network; drillingdown through the top “talkers” shows whothey are,where they’re going, and how muchbandwidth they’re using.
Going forward, we anticipate improvingour network security with theinformation furnished by the NP-500. SSI ishelping us design security zones to segmentadministrative, educational, lab, and otherusers so there’s no physical way to access thewrong resources. The real-time and historicaldata from the NetSensory appliance letus see actual traffic relationships betweenthese groups, and will enable us to track theeffect of the routing as we implement it.
Pam Haney is assistant technology directorfor Worth County Schools, where she alsoteaches first grade. She holds a master’s andan educational specialist degree in educationfrom Valdosta State University in Georgia.
This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.