BYOD | Feature
Facing Down Network Issues in a Massively Mobile District
Eanes ISD's director of instructional technology urges districts to shore up their WiFi infrastructures before doling out iPads or other devices to students and teachers.
- By Bridget McCrea
With nearly 8,400 school-owned and bring-your-own devices (BYOD) running at any given time, the IT team at Eanes Independent School District knows a thing or two about the value of high uptime. In fact, this Austin, TX-based district has spent the last three years tweaking its WiFi setup to the point where it currently boasts 99 percent uptime and widespread access across nine schools.
Eanes ISD's focus on WiFi infrastructure dates back to 2010 — the year the district began planning for a 1:1 iPad rollout across its schools.
"We looked at our data and realized that we were running out of IP addresses," said Carl Hooker, the district's director of instructional technology and Hooked on Innovation blogger. "We also experienced crashes and couldn't figure out why that was happening; we only had about 100 school-owned laptops and devices at the time."
Further inspection revealed a large-and-growing stable of 2,000-plus BYOD users on campus — each of whom was soaking up his or her own piece of the district's bandwidth. Well into the planning stages of its 1:1 iPad initiative at the time, the IT team took a step back and gave its 100 megabit WiFi infrastructure a good, hard look.
What it saw didn't sit well with Hooker or the district's network administrator.
"We knew at that point that our current setup wasn't going to work with this big device rollout," said Hooker. Video streaming, for example, was particularly worrisome for Hooker, who knew the WiFi infrastructure would have to support a growing contingency of users accessing video online.
Tackling its bandwidth issues in phases, the district's first step involved Hooker, the network administrator, a wiring technician, and the district's building maintenance department. Together, the group came up with a plan to increase the WiFi setup to 300 megabits. The positive effects were immediately noticeable, said Hooker, but the benefits waned when the iPad rollout started.
"The system started capping out on us," said Hooker. "We knew we needed to do more."
Next, the district ramped up its WiFi to 500 MB, but not before assessing "every access point out there," said Hooker, who investigated the wireless options currently available on the market before enhancing Eanes ISD's current setup. Already using Cisco on the back end and Aruba for access points, for example, the district decided to stick with its current product lineup for the upgrade. "The access points were working pretty well for us," said Hooker. "We just needed more of them."
As part of that upgrade, wireless access points were added inside and outside of every classroom. A higher concentration of them was also added in the schools' libraries and common areas. On the back end, the district added a $50,000 controller to "help with traffic and ensure redundancy," according to Hooker. In total, the district has spent roughly $350,000 getting all of its schools to the point where 99 percent uptime is now the norm.
The buck doesn't stop there. Hooker said a move to 1 gigabit WiFi is in the works and will roll out by the fall of 2013. "By that time every student will have a device — that's roughly 8,400 across all of our campuses," he said. The district's fiber network is also due for an upgrade from its current 1 gigabit to a new 1 gigabit powerhouse.
"All of our campuses are using 1 gigabit switches, and we're talking about moving them up to 10 gigabits," said Hooker, who pointed to lower prices on the latter as a key driver of that move. By the fall of 2013, he said, the district will also increase its WiFi bandwidth from the current 500 megabits to 1 gigabit.
Hooker said the time and money spent overhauling Eanes ISD's WiFi network is paying off for the district.
"I think we've managed to stay ahead of the demand pretty well, but you can really never have enough bandwidth," he said, noting that the district has only had one outage since assessing and enhancing its WiFi infrastructure. "For the most part it has been 99 percent uptime."
For example, video streaming — an early worry point for the IT team — is now seamless for users.
"I was really concerned about that based on the high number of people who are using the school's WiFi for video," said Hooker, whose concerns were assuaged this past January when the district began allowing students to access YouTube while on campus. "Thanks to the 500 megabit WiFi and the increased number of access points, our teachers were well braced for that onslaught."
Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.