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Gigabit Ethernet backbone switch allows school to digitize classes

Thanks to a Gigabit Ethernet backbone, a private school delivers digital learning and streaming media on interactive whiteboards in every classroom.

At a private school in the Deep South, students use their fingers to drag and drop organs into a virtual chest cavity on an interactive whiteboard's touch-screen during a science class's virtual dissection. It's just one use of more than 100 such whiteboards in the school that deliver interactive graphics, audio and streaming video to students, enabled by replacing an antiquated 100 Mbps legacy network with a Gigabit Ethernet backbone.

"Before the digital whiteboards, a lot of teachers had a very small [number] of files on their computers. They didn't really have video presentations," said William Hale, network administrator at UMS-Wright Preparatory School in Mobile, Ala. "Teachers are now generating almost 100 times, maybe a thousand times, more digital content."

As the demand had grown over the years for more interactive teaching tools, so came the digital SMART Boards into every classroom. But no one had anticipated such a "gigantic spike" in network utilization as teachers streamed heavy amounts of online video, according to school headmaster Tony Havard.

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"We discover a new application practically every day," Havard said. "[Before] we upgraded our infrastructure, we could not use all of our SMART Boards at one time during the school day or it would've crashed the system, so we were forced to ration the use … which was not very popular."

The school, which offers kindergarten through 12th grade, first tackled the increased network demand by centralizing its storage system and upgrading the bandwidth three times, Hale said. But storage alone wouldn't cut it. The legacy network switches -- many 10 years old, some as much as 15 -- just couldn't stream gigabits of video fast enough to dozens of classrooms at once.

Until the overhaul, the school's network didn't have a typical edge and core design, Hale said. The buildings that house kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms were running on 10 Mbps switches "daisy-chained together," he said. The rest of the network throughout the middle and high school buildings followed a similar design with 100 Mbps switches.

"It was a couple of switches deep," said Hale, whose legacy network had comprised mostly Cisco Systems, as well as some older gear from Japanese vendor Allied Telesis. "I had trouble just moving files across the network -- just doing patches."

With Gigabit Ethernet backbone, opportunity for 10 Gigabit Ethernet in place

Although he had few complaints about the quality of his legacy Cisco equipment, Hale said that he had been underwhelmed by the networking vendor's lackluster customer service, despite having paid extra for its SMARTnet Service support offering.

In shopping around for a new vendor, Hale approached Brocade Communications last summer because of its reputation of "more performance for [lower] cost," he said.

Hale said it was clear UMS-Wright would need to upgrade to a Gigabit Ethernet backbone -- with Gigabit Ethernet edge switches as well -- to meet the immediate need from classrooms, where the interactive whiteboards were straining his legacy network.

At the pace network utilization was moving, however, Hale could see that Gigabit Ethernet switches would carry the network only so far. The school has begun to tether its security cameras to the network and will deploy voice over IP this summer.

We have the capability to move to 10-gig in a heartbeat.
William Hale
Network AdministratorUMS-Wright Preparatory School

Within the next few years, UMS-Wright plans to operate a network-based digital video recorder so that teachers can store and stream video clips in class with less hassle.

"We felt that [10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE)] was going to be the next thing around the corner, and we didn't want to get into the situation that the technology gets outdated so fast," Hale said. "'Future-proof' is a word [vendors] throw out sometimes, which is impossible to do but … we felt our backbone would need to be upgraded soon."

Upgrading a Brocade FastIron SX Gigabit Ethernet core switch to 10 GbE requires installing new blades in the chassis, according to Harry Petty, director of product marketing. Brocade's 48-port FastIron GS edge switches have two port slots for 10 GbE uplinks.

"All we have to do is change out the [optical fiber to the switches]," Hale said. "We have the capability to move to 10-gig in a heartbeat."

Faster network, fewer complaints with Gigabit Ethernet backbone

Upon returning to school in the fall, teachers saw instant improvements as they used the interactive whiteboards, Hale said.

With a Gigabit Ethernet backbone, a UMS-Wright music teacher displays oversized piano keys on her interactive whiteboard so that students can play the musical scale just by tapping the screen.

Another teacher who knew she would be out on long-term leave videotaped and emailed administrators her lessons, which a substitute teacher can now play and pause as students ask questions.

"We're not even utilizing 10% of our internal network, and I have teachers storing [and streaming] 20 or 30 gigs of video," Hale said. "After the upgrade, everybody started creating more digital content. It's like a snowball effect."

But with more than 15 buildings across the school's campus and only one person running UMS-Wright's network, Hale worried that enabling more robust utilization might be more than one person could handle if troubleshooting became a full-time job.

"I can actually count on one hand in the last six months if I've had to do any [troubleshooting] because the network has been that solid," he said. "That's also where Brocade's customer service comes in. We have a regular engineer that comes in from time to time to check up on us…. If there's a major configuration change or a major push-out I need to do, I can talk to him."

For problems that have arisen, Hale said, using Brocade's Web-based network management solution, IronView Network Manager, to remotely troubleshoot any glitches has made "running this network like a part-time job -- not a full-time job."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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