CTOsRole – Top 5 Tips for Overcoming Network Challenges


A few months ago, I asked colleagues in Texas what their top 5 network challenges–and tips to overcome those–might be. Invariably, the responses came back containing one word–bandwidth. Given that BYOD, iOS devices are flooding school systems, it’s only natural that bandwidth be a top concern. What challenges would you add, or what would you elaborate on below?

Source: http://goo.gl/IA1JQ 

This is one in a series of blog entries exploring the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Director of Technology. Please be sure to read the whole series!


Below, please find a list of challenges and tips to deal with those offered by Texas Technology Directors and others around the country.

Tip #1 – Increase bandwidth.
If you’re fortunate, you work in a school district that has gauged its demand for initiatives that guzzle bandwidth like an old car does gas and made sure to have a little bandwidth left over. Unfortunately, launching that iPad initiative sounds great until the 1 to 1 pilot at the middle school decides to watch educational videos simultaneously from YouTube for Schools. I actually heard a story where this happened as students and staff–receiving shiny new iPads–managed to max out the outgoing pipe.

Some of the strategies that CTOs are implementing to increase bandwidth involve having external consultants assess the network in place, from switches to hubs, fiber, wireless access points, and design. Also, to ask one self, who is your Internet Service Provider (ISP)? Sometimes, changing your ISP can result in significant savings that can be applied to increasing your bandwidth with the new provider.

Tip #2 – Filter access.
Source: Mercury News

How do you balance providing the electronic resources needed for teachers and students,” goes the interview question often asked of CTOs, “while maintaining a secure network?” The answer can be tough if we treat it as an either/or scenario. That’s the temptation, isn’t it? We really need to reframe this question, bring both constituent groups (e.g. Instruction and Technical Support) into the same room to push for a harder question, like this revision:

How can we provide electronic resources we need to enhance instruction AND maintain a safe, secure network environment?

I asked one fellow CTO and he put it to me this way:

Many of the electronic resources available through libraries are setup that do not require network security. Some districts have purchased NetTrekker, ensuring students are accessing safe and secure networks. This is not a technology only decision but rather a community and administrator decision involving students and parents. You have to understand the positives of what these tools can offer and understand the risk and having kids do that. We’ve lived in a coccoon in school districts where we promised parents in the community and we will content filter their experiences on the Internet. We are now reaching a point where so many of our kids–esp MS and HS–have access to smartphones and other devices that, literally, make our network infrastructure security obsolete…with those devices they can go anywhere they choose using their own ISP. 

The challenge is working collaboratively with an understanding–for example, GoogleApps. In many districts, it’s not available to most students to use but there is a big trend to allow students to use that and other collab tools. 

In doing that, you need to inform parents that we’re not able to monitor, watch and block…so teachers have to become more responsible in monitoring, students need to become more responsible, and parents need to become more responsible. It’s a shift in thinking where the onus is on the end users, students, parents and staff. From a network security standpoint, a content filtering can be used to change filtering…you can engage in differentiated filtering depending on the grade level. 

BYOD is also tied to this. Schools can’t provide enough resources…encouraging kids to come to school with those devices. you don’t want those devices to connect directly on the network. You have to have policies in place where you can let them get on a guest wireless network and use your WiFi network but still be protected. There are costs involved in that. There are systems you can buy.

For example, systems like M8e6 provide protection, but there are also others. 
Others are replacing M8e6 with IronPort with this feedback from one technology director:

We are using Cisco Ironport…Ironport doesn’t like anything from Apple.  And it really doesn’t like mobile devices.  And those two pieces are fairly important to us.  πŸ™‚  It has problems authenticating both and requires a lot of management to get them to even see SSL sites. 

Some criteria that technology directors use to select these systems include the following:
  1. It had to be capable of managing the SSL connections for Google Apps to work
  2. No client side software
  3. A remote filter for devices that are off the network (just in case we need to go that route)
  4. BYOT support (I wanted an easy way to create a way for users to agree to our Responsible Use Policy (RUP) and also authenticate if they have district credentials)
  5. A cheaper recurring cost (rather than what we were paying for Lightspeed)
  6. 24×7 support is very important
  7. Override functionality is also an important feature
There are other considerations, but it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not “wedded” to one content filtering solution. One of the neat tools to consider using Meraki…

Meraki–cloud-based technology that manages applications, guest Wi-Fi, GoogleApps devices, etc. Consider this perspective on Meraki:

 I can’t say enough about Meraki.  I am still trying to figure out what’s the catch.  The included Systems Manager is unbelievable. If you have iPhones, iPads, or iTouchs you really need to take a look at it.  We have already set it up and pushed out apps to our idevices, as well as lock and wipe when one is stolen.  We could not afford management software for them, but is included with the price of just one WAP. We are also installing system manager on our PC’s.  We now have a lot of tools in one place that use to be spread out over several services.  

Find the one that best aligns to your needs in the long-run, especially if they include BYOD/iOS/GoogleApps deployments! 


Tip #3 – Eliminate servers and move to the cloud.
“It’s crazy to build up [server] infrastructure in-house,” says the disgruntled urban IT director. “The cloud happens so much faster, and the district would get more storage space.” Moving to the cloud is quickly becoming a priority for cash-strapped school districts suffering under the  yoke of legislative oppression. While we wait for the activists among us to bring about change in the legislature, cloud-based computing and storage can transform how you provide services to your end-users, both staff and students. I can’t argue with Mike Gras, Director of Technology for White Oak ISD and TCEA 2011 Technology Administrator of the Year where he makes the following points:

In fact I told my superintendent last week that my department is in better shape this year financially than ever before.  Consider doing what we have done -get rid of your servers.  See if your administrators will allow the opening of your network to the world at large (Filtered goes without saying, I hope).  The online academic world is richer than any number of “worlds” districts can build.  The services a district needs are out there.

…the question is really what do we have left.  One BCIS course, Plato, and Follett, which is going online soon (read off site).   

Our mail and document storage, calendars etc are done by a staff far more dedicated than I could ever be, Google.  Students and teachers are responsible for their own file storage.  Many of the stored files are available online through teacher and student blogs.  Cooperative projects abound because of Google’s ability to share all sorts of files, from videos to spread sheets.   When Google goes down I’ll be out of luck but I won’t be alone.  

Our Web site and lots of our Moodles are hosted off-site for less than $5.00 a month.  I have near total control there but don’t need it   We do e-portfolios and blogging, using WP-MU that costs thousands but what a value. See http://edublogs.org/    

No single human can keep up with our teacher’s accomplishments in those blogs and our students are developing positive identities on the cloud . Out there control is not the issue it is more an issue of trust.  Parents of every student can know what is happening tomorrow in every class at White Oak and reviews are being attached to every item in each teacher’s syllabus (we just started this)  All this is often done with the personal flair that is hard to believe.   As I’m writing this I’m attending a meeting with teachers and administrators via Skype about how we use and will use our network  The enthusiasm for teaching and the excitement about the resources delivered is hard to communicate.

In this meeting a  teacher of 25 years just said she is more excited than ever about teaching and the resources we delivered has produced a new spark in her life and her classroom.  She added that the network is it is a blessing in the classroom.   A Blessing…Let that sink in.  I’m not bragging,  I’m trying to share.  A Blessing, I can hardly believ it myself.  I don’t need to control more and I don’t need to trust less.   

Hard times are easier to bare [sic] if the teachers are excited about what they can do with what they have at their disposal.  We have an agreement among many at White Oak that less is more when it comes to control.  I must say this meeting with the teachers that attended TCEA sharing with administrators abut their successes has me on cloud 9.  One teacher said the network is so much better than it was 3 years ago..  And the big difference between now and then…  we use other peoples servers.

Tip #4 – Beef up wide area network (WAN) connectivity and wireless access points.
I recently heard a CTO for a small district point out that with more BYOD, setting up wireless access points is a must. He shared, “Not enough wireless coverage- still have some areas where the signal is weak.  We will apply again for E-Rate funds to take care of the problem. We also hanged our security to WPA-2 and have built 3 ways to access – one for district users, one for personal devices and one for guest users.” If you’re not familiar with VLANs, you need to be as you embrace connectivity:

As your network grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of computers. On a large, flat, switched network, performance suffers and security concerns increase. 

One way you can structure your growing network is to divide it into segments called Virtual Local Area Networks, or VLANs. You can group the computers of users who work together (workgroups) into VLANs, whether or not they are located in close physical proximity. Often, an organization creates separate VLANs for different departments or divisions. The VLAN serves as a security boundary and improves performance by isolating broadcast and multicast traffic. (Read Scaling Your Network with VLANs)

Another key area is ensuring all your campuses have fiber connections. One colleague pointed out that it’s critical to have at least a 1 gig backbone at a campus and wireless access points in every classroom. Presumably, since a WAP support 20-25 connections depending on the data being transmitted, you have to be judicious in your usage. Another pointed out the following: We have been trying to make preparations for 1:1.  This means putting up an access point in each classroom.  We have been using erate to do this, which means we have saved a lot of money but it has taken a lot of time.

Tip #5 – Engage in Change Management
Hi, James,” I started a conversation with a close colleague responsible for managing email and accounts in a district. “How’s the transition to Zimbra from Exchange coming along?” His face turned beet-red, and I realized quickly that I’d stepped over the line. As soon as I saw his reaction, I immediately pointed out I was joking, apologized and begged forgiveness. Moving anyone’s cheese can be a stressful experience.

Even so, managing your team’s stress is important. There’s nothing like walking into a team common area and feeling the tension slide along your skin. As one colleague put it, change management must be one of the top 5 priorities, as he shares below in regards to transitioning to GoogleApps for Education (GAFE) for email and calendaring from Novell Groupwise’s solution:

In terms of IT staff, it was giving up control.  BTW, they love it now.  Principals it was the lack read receipts and delivery confirmation that Groupwise had, but they got better cell phones out of the deal.  I figure teachers will be the same everywhere.  Some love it some hate it.  I focus on the superstar teachers.

Finally, remember that bringing about change is a well-trod path. Don’t feel like you’re “stuck in a rut.” 

Keeping these top 5 priorities in mind as you move forward will prove important, but don’t forget that we also have to consider the personal, social, and structural dimensions of change. This last idea comes from Crucial Confrontations and looks like this:

Source: http://sourcesofinsight.com/six-sources-of-influence/ 


  • Source 1 – Personal Motivation – whether you want to do it.
  • Source 2 – Personal Ability – whether you can do it.
  • Source 3 – Social Motivation – whether other people encourage the right behaviors.
  • Source 4 – Social Ability – whether other people provide help, information or resources.
  • Source 5 – Structural Motivation – whether the environment encourages the right behaviors.
  • Source 6 – Structural Ability – whether the environment supports the right behaviors.

I like this approach for framing changes to come.


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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

One thought on “CTOsRole – Top 5 Tips for Overcoming Network Challenges

  1. JeanTower March 11, 2012 at 9:56 pm Reply

    Miguel – Have you been following CoSN's work on the Framework of Essential Skills? At the CoSN conference last week, the first group sat for the CTO certification exam – CETL. http://www.cosn.org/certification

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