Planning a School Network

Since ICT has become a major part of the school curriculum, the use of computers and IT resources has grown exponentially.  Almost gone are the days of running a few standalone PCs, or running a Peer to Peer Internet enabled network.  It is time to embrace the centralised server environment.  It isn't as complex as it seems.  This guide will help you to plan for your new network and give you some things to look out for when discussing a network with a third party company.

When I first started to manage a School network, everything was already in place, there were servers, network cables and computers.  The computer rooms pretty much ran themselves mainly due to good design on the network software and management tools.

Over the following years I learnt quite a bit about what I wanted from a networked system.  I was then given the opportunity to design and implement a new networked system that would initially run along side the existing network, then eventually replace the old network.

Of course having a limited budget ensured that I made the best use of the resources that I had at my disposal.  There was all sorts of things that I needed to take into account.  New hardware, new network infrastructure, new software licenses and of course integrating the older software so that it would run correctly with minimal downtime to the school.

To try and make things a little simpler, I am going to break this guide down into chunks, so that you can think about some of the steps that are involved.  The key aspect is that you end up with a reliable network system that means the demands of the curriculum.

Defining the needs of the School.

Your use of ICT in school will ultimately steer any decisions that you take, so it is important to take stock of everything that you currently have and use.  You will need to engage your staff to find out how they might like to use a new ICT system.  Talk to your colleagues so that you can understand where weaknesses might exist.  Not everyone is keen to use ICT in the classroom, and not everyone can use ICT for everyday tasks.  I still use a pen and paper, instead of typing directly into a word processor.

1.  Undertake a Survey/Audit of your existing ICT equipment and where it is used throughout the school.

2.  Address the staff asking for suggestions of how ICT might make a difference to the quality of teaching in the school (remember that no Idea is too big at this stage)

3.  Visit other schools in your area.  This will give you an understanding of the systems and suppliers that they use.

4.  Get in contact with other ICT co-ordinators.  This might be your neighbouring Primary School, or perhaps Secondary School or College.

5.  Contact your LEA for advice and support.  After all they will have specialists that can help.

Now that you have gathered some basic information about what the school already has, and perhaps what other schools are already using, you can now start build your plan.

What do you need.

Every Networked System will need something.  Listed below are the essential areas that you need to spend some time getting familiar with.

1.  Space – You will need space for a file server and monitor, not to mention secure storage space for a laptop trolley (if you get one) or ICT Suite.  You may even need space for Networked printers or photocopiers around the school.

2.  Electrical power points – May seem silly putting Electrical sockets in your list, but each computer requires at least two 13 amp wall sockets.  Most schools have baned the use of multi-gang extension leads.  It is also important that any power circuits that you have are able to cope with the load of X number of machines all starting up at the same time.

3.  Network Infrastructure – This is the bit that joins everything together.  Most school networks will have evolved, usually by schools daisy-chaining network hubs and switches, gradually extending the network over time.  In practice this is a bad idea, as problems can be introduced which are not always easy to find.  Where possible get new suites re-cabled to a single location where better quality network equipment can be located.  A Comm's cabinet will also require electric.

4.  Wireless – Do you need a Wireless connection for your laptops.  Wireless networks are more than capable of suppling a home Internet connection, but school networks are a lot more demanding.  Some manufactures suggest that for every 10 laptops there is 1 wireless access point.  You will also need to do a survey (see the Networking Section of this site).

5. Building layout and construction – When planning a major project, try to take into account the layout of your building.  How thick are the walls?  Would the room be large enough to comfortably teach in?  Is the room used for other purposes? What are the lighting conditions of the room?  Is there lots of Sunshine?  Might you need to get Air-Conditioning fitted.  In the case of Server Cupboards, is the room well ventilated and has enough electrical sockets.

If there is anything that you are unsure about – seek advice, your local electrician may be able to offer suitable advice about most things.  Usually your LEA will have a call-off contract for suppling data cabling and electrical works – again always good to seek support and advice.

Now that you have planned where everything is going to go and how it might be serviced by electric and data points, you can now think what you need.

Desktops

Desktop computers are a great investment.  They are relatively cheap to buy and will come with everything that you need.  Desktop computers come in a range of sizes and can go under the desk or behind an LCD monitor.  There are also integrated models that have the Computer and Screen built into one unit.  If you are just after a standard workstation that doesn't need to be a power horse then something like an RM One or Viglen Omnino make perfect classroom computers.

Desktop computers generally have faster processors, larger hard disks and more memory making them ideal for Video Editing as well as the usual Word processing and Internet surfing.

Laptops

Laptops/Notebooks are great for space saving, particularly if you don't have room in your school to make a purpose built ICT suite.  They can do everything that a Desktop computer can, however there are some things you should consider.  Laptop computers have a finite battery life, this means that you might be able to get up to 3 hours of usage before the batteries would need a recharge.  Recharging the batteries would take a long time.  You might be luck to get a morning and afternoon computer session.

Over time, the laptop batteries will begin to fail, holding less and less charge than they did before.  Ideally you should budget to replace the batteries at least once a year – or make sure your supplier has a battery replacement policy.

Laptops are generally are designed with medium range processors and smaller hard disks so that they can make power savings.  However they can still be used for intensive video editing as well as Word processing and Internet Surfing.

Software 

Schools generally have a lot of software that they will want to use on the computers.  It is essential that schools are aware of the license conditions that exist on the software that they use.  Most computers will come with a Windows License; this might be Windows XP or Windows Vista.  If you intend to connect the computers up to a Windows Server you will also require a Client Access License for each computer.  If you want to use Microsoft Office on all of your computers you will also need the correct licenses for each version of Microsoft Office that you intend to use.

Many schools make the mistake of referring to their Microsoft software as having a Site License.  Let's make it clear that there is no such thing as a Microsoft Site License.  There are of course subscription based annual licenses from Microsoft that can cover all of the computers in the school, but you will need to budget for this type of license.
Much of the older CD-ROM titles may not be compatible with Windows XP or Windows Vista.  Be prepared to bin these old titles.  It may not be worth the time or effort in trying to get this software to work.

Most educational Software is designed for Standalone use and may not work well in a networked environment.  You need to sacrifice some of the benefits of a managed network for some of the features in the software.

Windows XP or Windows Vista?  Many new computers these days will now arrive with a Windows Vista license.  The chances are that the version of Windows Vista will be a Home version, such as Home Basic Edition or Home Premium Edition.  These versions of Windows Vista are NOT able to be managed by centralised file server.  To get the full benefits of a centrally managed network system you will need to purchase an additional upgrade license for Windows Vista Business Edition.

For the time being Windows XP Professional might be the most sensible choice for most Schools, until Windows XP is no longer available.

Where possible when buying new software for your network, try to make sure that the software has been designed for network deployment.  This type of software can be installed across the network from a centralised location, often unattended and pushed from the servers Active Directory.

Training

With any networked system you will need to make sure that there is training support available.  Otherwise you will be left with a network that you haven't a clue how to manage effectively.  It is your responsibility to find and organise training for yourself.  Even if you just got a pile of books and practice for the skills that you need to acquire. 

After Thoughts

It is going to be impossible to plan for everything, but after reading this article, hopefully you will have some understanding as to the things that you need to consider.  There are plenty of sources of information that will make planning and deploying a networked system much easy. 

If your local LEA can support you then make the best use of there support.  It may appear to cost more on paper when you buy in additional support for the running of your network, but think about all the time that you will save from having to learn advanced skills to manage a networked environment.

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