Big Three in a K-12 Network Revamp

By Dan Johnson, Network Administrator, Rochester Public Schools

Are you considering a rework to your network? Rochester Public Schools just installed a new network and backup system for our K-12 school district and it’s working very well. I wanted to share three big steps that were essential to our success:

1. Satisfactory network power and performance

2. High levels of reliability and redundancy—we needed to keep our network up so we could always get to our data

3. The right equipment—we identified when to spend more, instead of going for a band-aid fix or the least expensive option.

The last was the hardest for us. After all, network administrators are always tempted to find equipment that meets minimum criteria and is inexpensive. But we’ve learned that you get what you pay for. “Value” and “good buys” may not translate into workable long-term solutions and often result in poor decisions that can ultimately backfire.

These are the lessons we’ve learned from revamping the IT infrastructure of the Independent School District 535, Rochester Minnesota Public Schools. To start off, we reviewed our requirements and priorities. We are responsible for all of the district’s data—six terabytes total. This includes accounting and insurance data, office documents, e-mail files, and file sharing. We need to protect the data over the long-term, with weekly full backups and daily incrementals. We also need to be able to get at stored data. I receive several calls daily asking me to retrieve files that have been overwritten by high school students and staff e-mail messages that have been “lost.” This takes about 20 percent of my day.

After considering our workload and the big three, above, the Rochester network has upgraded and updated so that it now includes Linux and Microsoft Windows 2003/2008 servers, Cisco and HP switches, Lefthand/HP SASA and SATA disk arrays for primary storage, Legato Networker backup software and a new Spectra Logic T50e tape library with LTO-4 drives and tapes.

One reason we chose Spectra Logic is that a large hospital in our region runs the identical network configuration as we do at Rochester Public Schools— and they had a glowing recommendation for Spectra tape automation. The Spectra T50e library protects all of our data in a reasonable timeframe, and has the capacity to grow with our data over time. Its encryption feature is one our data absolutely requires. We are a self-insured school district, so we need to encrypt our insurance-related data to adhere to HIPPA regulations. T50e is encryption-ready through its LTO-4 drives and the library’s integrated encryption software.

We are preparing to open a disaster recovery (DR) site. At that point, we’ll replicate with our SAN at the primary site and set up VM clusters and cloning to bring snapshots from the primary SAN storage and backup data to tape. We’ll then rotate encrypted tapes from the T50e offsite.

We’ve been very pleased with our library and our entire upgrade. The lessons we learned? Strategic project planning and selecting the right products with the right features and performance provide rewards over time.

My final suggestion to K-12 network administrators is to track virtualization to stay ahead of the technology curve. Rochester has seen consolidation, centralized management, added redundancy and energy savings thanks to virtualization. We are currently migrating utility and e-mail servers into the virtual world to take full advantage of its benefits.

I hope this helps with your next network rework.

Independent School District 535 is located in Rochester, Minnesota, a growing city of 93,000 residents in the southeastern portion of the state. The District’s pre-kindergarten through grade 12 program serves approximately 16,300 students in 16 elementary schools, four middle schools, and three comprehensive high schools. Dan Johnson is a network administrator at Rochester Public Schools and can be contacted at