School systems are big spenders in the land of LANS

Certain industries adapted to LANs quicker than others, but almost everyone eventually jumped on board. Nowadays, you would be hard-pressed to find a business that operates without some sort of LAN in place.

The educational market has always been a little behind the times when it comes to state of the art. Schools are just now beginning to catch up with everyone else. Colleges and universities have used LANs for years, but mainly for operational purposes, not educational. But, again, times change.

Educational institutions, our main source of knowledge and learning, are finally catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to using and understanding technology. Odd, since schools are where the basics of computers are first taught.

LAN 101

All schools, from elementary to post-secondary, have found themselves having to endure crash courses in information technology. Just a decade or so ago, most schools were in a technology funk of sorts, relying heavily upon outside consultants for what they did and did not need in relation to technology infrastructure. Consulting for a school or university was a hot profession for a while. Some contractors jumped in on it, and their gambles paid off. Such work was strictly on a consultation basis, but if the school opted to implement some of the recommendations, they most likely used the contractor who the consultant referenced.

This system did not endure; more and more schools have gone on to hire their own in-house technology staff. Most began by expanding the duties of those in charge of the school’s administrative/operational technology. Then E-Rate came along in 1996 and things started to change. It helped curb expenses and helped give infrastructure upgrading the push it desperately needed.

Because of evolving curricula, schools needed to start teaching technology in a hands-on manner. This meant expanding the systems that were already in use and adding on others as well. LANs are commonplace, since they are meant to facilitate organizations in operating and sharing information and systems. All of these features are essential in a school environment.

Because of strict budgetary constraints, many educational facilities have found that retrofitting helps them stretch their IT budgets a little further. According to Marin Saidi, sales director, new business development for Avaya, “Budget plays a big role in what schools choose to do. Often times, it is more important to consider the life expectancy of the facility and see how long the structured cabling has to last.”

Because retrofitting, at its core, uses whatever existing components still have life left in them, schools found that this helped them in this endeavor. The problem with this option is that many parts of a LAN can be completely replaced as opposed to being reused. Items such as jacks, faceplates and patch panels can just as readily be swapped for newer, more powerful pieces.

Aging buildings usually need lots of work. “Adaptive reuse” is a way of life for non-profits such as schools and universities that need to do the best with what they have.

“In our world, if a school needs to upgrade their infrastructure or structured cabling due to a need for greater performance or bandwidth, we may, due to budget requirements, leave some parts of a working network alone and put in a new cabling solution for the new applications,” Saidi said.

Though retrofitting is not a perfect solution, it is less expensive than completely rebuilding. This holds true for the LAN portion as well, since often times some of the old cabling can be reused in various ways.

All about expansion

Retrofitting has become increasingly popular because it allows for simultaneous expansion, meaning that while the LAN is being upgraded, ancillary systems and features can be added at the sample time as well.

Expansion in an educational setting has various meanings. Increasing classroom size coupled with growing curricula means applications must keep up to support such growth. All of this translates into an expanded network to house and support the expansion.

That is a good thing, since technology changes so rapidly, speed and reliability demands increase as well. Many have found that this alone is a driving factor behind many LAN renovation projects.

In a school environment, time and cost restraints limit what can be done and when. In the world of retrofitting LANs, wireless has become a leader for various reasons. The most prevalent seems to be that fewer wires are needed, which means less expense.

This is not to say that wireless was always the favorite. Schools used to shun this option because of various concerns: security, reliability, interference and bandwidth capability. But, as the technology advanced and usage increased, many of those fears were stymied. There are essentially two ways in which wireless can be deployed—by using wireless for certain applications or for renovating the LAN itself.

Wireless allows schools to get their students online and networked at a record pace. Because many wireless applications can be added right on to existing networks, they are the choice du jour. Expanding on that theory, many opt for WLANs (Wireless Local Area Networks) as a solution to their LAN problems.

As the world turns

Schools are not immune to the word’s changing landscape. Because of increasing requirements for security and safety systems, LANs are being taxed more now than ever before.

As schools create and implement disaster/crisis plans, they find that technology plays an even bigger role than what was initially anticipated. Newer, more enhanced security and life safety systems are being requested and installed in record numbers. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education has mandated that emergency communication systems should be a part of every school’s overall crisis plan.

It seems as if schools are building new buildings at a record pace, but the LAN issue remains a burden on the educational community because of the number of existing buildings. School districts and universities cannot afford to rebuild every building that they use and need.

Perhaps this segment really would benefit most from a hybrid or customized solution, since there is some debate surrounding what portions of a LAN are worth “saving” and which are not. Contractors and consultants need to seriously analyze existing equipment, as well as what the school is hoping to accomplish via a retrofit project.

Outside of a comprehensive system analysis, start by asking what both parties think is the definition of retrofitting. By having this discussion upfront, many hassles can most likely be avoided. Since retrofitting, renovating and adaptive reuse are all hot topics right now, they are interpreted in varying ways. The best thing to do is to be flexible.

Many have a skewed understanding of what retrofitting actually achieves. Therefore, one should be prepared to spend a little extra time and energy in communicating and illustrating what the possibilities and associated costs really are. You may end up ripping out everything embedded in those old walls after all and building the LAN from scratch. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at