A new build

May 2016

School children using laptopAlastair Wilcox, an independent consultant to construction companies and UK Government agencies, shares his strategic approach to IT infrastructure in new school buildings.

Back in 2011, the UK Government began a programme to rebuild or refurbish the buildings for 260 English schools. These structures have a design lifetime of several decades, hence presenting the perfect opportunity to consider how IT is used in these environments.

Most organisations rarely get an opportunity to stop and re-think their approach to the use of IT. The daily treadmill of user support, fixing broken or defective equipment or adding new services can get in the way of finding the time to pause and take a long-term strategic view of how IT is used to the benefit of the organisation.

Budgetary constraints dictated that a complete re-implementation of IT systems would not be possible. The funding level for the IT element of the building projects was set at a level to enable the infrastructure (cabling, switches, Wi-Fi etc.) to be implemented, but with the expectation that rebuilt schools would continue to be able to derive value from their existing hardware (such as PCs, tablets, laptops and printers). They would then be able to evolve the hardware that they had over their normal purchasing cycles.

Getting started

To initiate the process, a variety of questions were asked including these:

  • What categories of users are there now or will there be in the future?
  • What does each type of user need or want to do now or in future?
  • What software will they need now or can we foresee them needing in future?
  • What types of hardware do they have now or will they need in future?
  • What infrastructure will they need to support them now and in the future?
  • How will it be implemented?
  • What training will be needed?
  • How will ongoing support be provided?

Analysing the responses

The answers derived from the previous questions identified key categories of user and a wide range of software including websites, cloud-hosted applications, applications hosted in on-premises servers, applications hosted on a local device. A need was also identified for a mix of LAN-based storage and cloud-hosted storage.

The hardware needed can be categorised as fixed PCs for specialist applications and then a range of laptops, tablets or smartphones as required.

Strategic development #1 - enhancing the opportunities for wireless working

It would have been an easy option simply to implement an IT infrastructure that replaced what was in place in the previous building. However, in a number of cases, the wireless systems had evolved over time without any strategic planning; perhaps with domestic wireless access points plugged in at a few locations to add a small amount of wireless coverage in pockets around the school building. These gave variable coverage and often had limited capacity. This led to a lack of trust in the wireless system and reduced usage. There was then an unwillingness to invest in mobile technology and hence a deadlock over the development of the use of mobile technologies. 

It was therefore decided to put the implementation of a high quality wireless system at the heart of the ICT infrastructure, but with sufficient wired data ports to support the current needs of the schools.

To deliver the wireless coverage required every teaching space, office space or shared workspace has to be covered with a high capacity Wi-Fi system. The standards for Wi-Fi are defined by the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and there are a variety of standards available. By installing wireless systems that can support 802.11a, b, g, n and ac standards, then devices that support these standards can exploit that capacity to the full.

However, it is no use installing high capacity wireless access points (WAPs) if the cabling connecting the WAPs to the switches or the switches themselves constitute a bottleneck in the system.

Strategic development #2 - forecasting future cable bandwidth needs

Cabling is probably the aspect of IT systems that has the longest lifespan. It is often warrantied for 12, 20 or 25 years and it is relatively expensive to re-cable a building. Therefore, it make sense to put the highest capacity cables that are economic into a new building. Typically today, these are Cat 6 or Cat 6a cables which have a capacity of 1Gbps or 10Gbps over 100m runs.

With the expectation that over the lifetime of the cabling, the bandwidth demanded by wireless access points will increase significantly, then dual data ports have been installed so that the capacity of the cabling can be increased to 2 Gbps or 20 Gbps in future. In addition, the work being done by switch manufacturers may raise the capacity of the cables with more efficient encoding.

Strategic development #3 - switch infrastructure

The switch infrastructure can be a costly element of ICT systems. Therefore maximising value for money has been crucial here. The switch infrastructure design has been developed to minimise total cost of ownership without compromising the resilience against component failure and ensuring that the system provided does not present a bottleneck to the network traffic. Capacity for enhancement has been designed into the system in this area.

Strategic development #4 - changing ways of working

Schools have always looked to derive best value for money from the IT equipment that they buy. Traditionally, this has been achieved by allocating a room as an IT suite, installing a class set of desktop PCs and timetabling a class to use that room as needed, thereby attempting to maximise the use of what have been expensive assets.

This remains a useful model in secondary schools where pupils move to specific rooms for each lesson, but in primary schools it has limitations. These include that, particularly in small schools, the IT suite sits empty for significant parts of the school day and that the PCs are not available to pupils all the time. E.g. to take a photo, edit it and print it out for use in another piece of work.

The advent of portable devices such as laptops and tablets has enabled teachers to take the technology to the pupils and use it as needed, without necessarily needing full class sets in every room.

The implementation of a robust, reliable wireless network across the school enables this model of working and, as a side-effect, liberates space within the school to be used for alternative purposes.

Strategic development #5 - allocation of space for IT infrastructure

In buildings where IT has been added as an afterthought, there are often no server rooms, and data cabinets are mounted high up on walls to keep them out of reach. With new building designs, it has become possible to allocate spaces for server rooms and data cabinet spaces which are dedicated, secure and appropriately cooled. This makes ongoing access and maintenance easier for IT staff as well as increasing the reliability of the switch infrastructure.

Implementation, training and mechanisms for ongoing support

These have all been included in the design of the systems with a formal handover process between the construction companies together with their ICT sub-contractors and the schools as users of the new buildings. For many of the schools that are now open, the ICT infrastructure has been a key element of transforming their pupil’s experience.

About the author
Alastair Wilcox works as an independent consultant to construction companies and UK Government agencies. He advises them on the integration of IT into new school buildings during procurement and construction. His insight into the world of education is informed by his role as a school governor.

Image: iStock/000054615438

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