Thursday, June 25, 2015

Summertime is Busy Time in a School System...

I know it's been a while since I've posted anything, but I'm focusing on quality over quantity...or, at least, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Actually, things have been busy at work and I didn't feel much like writing once I got home. Many people think that school system employees love the summers because students are gone; let me tell you, in the Technology Department, summer is our busy time. Many big projects are in progress and there is only a short amount of time to get them done before the teachers and students return. Couple that with the fluid access availability to the schools thanks to the 'Floor Nazis' (a.k.a. - custodians), and the best laid plan is a wreck within the first week of summer break.

The voters in our county continued their support of the district by passing a bond referendum last year. As our school system is one of the largest in Georgia, and among the fastest-growing in the country, property and sales tax revenue alone is insufficient to keep pace with the rampant growth (we add, on average, nearly 1,800 new students EVERY YEAR). This bond is to fund, among other things: technology improvements, new schools, and expansions at pre-existing schools. As soon as teachers were done with post planning, in came the construction workers, HVAC contractors, and staff from the Technology Department ready to commence on a summer full of work.

One of our (and, by 'our', I mean the Technology Department) largest summer projects is to upgrade the district's wireless networking hardware. We have been using some form of wireless technology in our system since 1998, and have been at the forefront of instructional implementation of wireless hardware. Sometimes, though, that cutting-edge nature can sometimes "backfire". Our last, large technology bond (in 2007) was to provide building-wide wireless coverage...for notebook computers. Tablets and smartphones weren't really a "thing" then (sidenote: Has it really been 8 years since the iPhone was released??? Wow.), so the design for device placement was for the more robust antennas found in laptops.

With the proliferation of handheld devices used for Internet access, the wireless design quickly became inadequate. Unfortunately, providing more coverage isn't as simple as heading to the neighborhood electronics store to pick up a new access point - there is a finite amount of usable RF (radio frequency) spectrum that can be used for wireless networking, so one must be careful when designing the layout so that the spectrum isn't made *worse* due to poor design. Additionally, security and quality of the hardware/software was a critical concern. This meant that only enterprise-grade hardware would suffice...which translates to higher cost, and since this all occurred at the height of 'The Great Recession', funding was in short supply. Therefore, we had to hobble along with an insufficient design until the budget supported augmentation/replacement.

Over the past few months, we have pored over multiple designs in an attempt to find something that strikes the right balance of client performance, cost, and manageability...all while moving to the faster, but shorter-range, 802.11ac standard. We believe we've found that 'perfect' combination and hope to be providing faster and more pervasive wireless network for our nearly 48,000 users and their nearly 60,000 unique wireless devices. Yes, those numbers are correct - we have more devices on our network than we have users, which means that some students bring more than one device with them. Supporting such a large number of devices, ranging from handheld gaming systems to full laptop computers...and everything in-between...can be a Herculean task if not properly designed and managed.

Students and teachers of Forsyth County Schools - yes, we know that wireless coverage has been a major point of complaint over the past few years. Unfortunately, there wasn't much we could do about that until the passage of this latest bond referendum. Thankfully, the voters of the county see and understand the need for us to maintain/expand our technology so that the district can continue to provide an exception instructional experience. This will be a summer-long project, and it's only one of the many important projects we'll begin when the buildings are "empty". Thank you for your patience.