#Edtech for #Edleaders: Network Planning and Installation

An information technology network is much like other technologies as the expertise needed to design and build it is much more specialized and expensive to than the expertise needed to manage and operate it once it exists. Consider how an IT system in a school is similar to an automobile. Planning and building each requires engineers and designers who have detailed expertise and expensive tools, but they are not needed after the automobile exists. Technicians who keep them operational have lesser (but still considerable skill) and tools. Users can take some minimal steps to keep both operational.

When designing new networks or major upgrades, most technology managers in schools will contract the services of network engineers. Typically, these professionals work for companies that also sell, install, and service the devices included in the engineer’s plans; so installations and upgrades tend to find schools entering into extended contractual relationships for service and repair work on the infrastructure. While these services are very expensive, after school leaders consider the cost of the devices and the potential liabilities of insecure networks, they recognize the value in this expense.

Network installation and upgrade projects are labor-intensive and may cause interruptions in network availability and usually necessitate technicians work throughout the building. To minimize the disruptions caused to teaching and learning, network projects can be scheduled during the times when the school is largely empty of students. The vendors whose engineers plan the installations and upgrades will also have large numbers of technicians available, so projects that require many hours of labor can be accomplished in small lengths of time through many workers.

Engineers design and technicians build IT networks. System administrators operate and manage the networks once they are installed. Serious problems are brought to the attention of the engineers who have more complete knowledge of the system to identify a solution, but most functionality can be sustained by individuals who have been properly trained and how have adequate resources.

A key aspect of planning and installing a network is mapping and documenting the network. IT networks are very interesting systems. From the inside (when connected to the network on a computer that has network sniffing software installed and running), the network addresses of devices can be located with precision and very quickly, but the physical location cannot be easily determined. From the outside (when looking at the physical device), there is no way to know with certainty its network address or the purpose it serves. A good network map will identify both the network address and physical location of devices (the devices will also be labeled with appropriate information) as well as an indication of the functions it serves. Most network devices (switches, routers, security appliances, access points, printers, and most other devices which are given static IP addresses) include a web server installed on a small computer in the device. By pointing a web browser to the devices’ IP address, system administrators can log on to a web page located on the device and that displays information so the system administrator can monitor its operation, change its configuration, and otherwise mange its operation. This interface can be used to supplement a network map, but it does not replace network documentation.

Network planning, including mapping, is an important part of managing IT resources is schools, but it is often not given the attention that it needs. IT professionals are typically overworked, so they spend much time addressing technology problems that are very pressing; the work of documenting the network can be left undone. While this is seemingly a necessary approach to resolving technology problems in schools, it can lead to greater difficulties later. When outside agencies need to access the network (perhaps because the system administrator is unavailable) or when the school seeks to document network resources and budget for network replacement, a network map can save many hours of work that is billed at a far greater rate than is earned by an IT professional employed by the school.