Network overhaul works many wonders for Winnipeg school division

Reduced staffing costs, more than $200,000 a year in communications savings and additional earnings from leasing its fibre network are only a few of the many benefits experienced by a Winnipeg school division when it overhauled its disparate networking and IT operations.

Other educational institutions have developed their own fibre opitic network in the past but this Canadian deployment appears to be exceptionally successful. Since the project’s inception in 2004, the Pembina Trails School Division of Winnipeg has saved more than $2.4 million.

Pembina Trails serves more than 14,000 students from kindergarten to secondary school level and employs some 2,000 teachers and faculty members across 34 locations.

It became a model of IT planning and execution following a massive revamp of its fibre optic network.

Pembina Trail –the largest school division in Canada – was created five years ago when the Assiniboine South and Fort Garry school divisions were combined.

The two divisions shared a common educational philosophy but differed in their networking strategies said Don Reece, IT director for Pembina Trails.

One division deployed its own wireless network, while the other leased a 10 megabit fibre network that was very expensive. Even the hardware being used was a mish-mash of vendor and generic boxes.

“When the two divisions merged, it became apparent that neither model provided exactly what we were looking for,” Reece said.

He said the division wanted to establish a standardized IT infrastructure that would facilitate migration from an outdated and expensive PBX phone system to a unified communication model.

To achieve this, Reece said, the division needed a fast, centralized network that was easy to manage and secure. It also wanted to take advantage of its existing 47 kms of 48 strand dark fibre optic network.

To accomplish all this, Pembina Trails needed switches that helped improve network performance.

When Reece went around the country looking for a suitable vendor to provide the bulk of their needs, he was told that Cisco Systems Inc. was considered the de facto provider in the space. The IT director, however, found Cisco products too expensive.

“Dell offered us a price that was about a tenth of Cisco’s. For example Cisco media converters priced at $900 each, Dell was selling their product for $120.”

The key challenge for Dell, however, was to establish credibility, according to John Anderson, a spokesperson for the company.

“We have deployments of a similar size, but the Pembina project is unique because of the complexity of the disparate networks that were being merged.”

He said he was able to assure the division of Dell’s commitment and expertise by promising to back up their products and take back anything that failed to work.

In addition to equipment in the backhaul, Pembina Trails also bought 4,300 Dell laptops and workstations for students, teachers and administrators.

Lighting up dark fibre

“We needed switches that could light up our dark fibre,” said Reece referring to the network’s individual fibres that have not yet been used. (Fibre that isn’t yet connected to any device and set aside for future use is called unlit dark fibre).

Reece said he checked out recommendations from various vendors and opted for Dell switches because the product offered functionality at a lower cost than compeitors.

Pembina deployed Dell PowerConnect 5324 switches to 34 remote sites for Layer 2 communications.

At five hub locations where fibre was aggregated, Dell PowerConnect 6024F switches offer Layer 3 communications.

Layering of the network was necessary because the division employed “inside and outside zones” for its network. “The whole network is protected from the outside world, but we also have to make sure grades and student records are secured from inside the network,” Reece said.

The switches eased the implementation of the complicated security system that employed a pair of Cisco PIX 535 firewall units, two Cisco virtual private network (VPN) concentrators, and two Whale Communication SSL VPNs.

The virtual LAN capabilities of the switches provided users with access, but secured each location from the other.

The 1 Gbps fibre optic network which links to the Manitoba Education Research and Learning information Network also provides students with Internet access of up to 850 times faster than DSL connection.

“Our students have nearly instantaneous access to educational resources in any medium, whether video audio or interactive applications,” according to the IT director.

Unified communications
A primary goal of the implementation was to reduce phone-related expenses by using unified communication based on a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system

An Objectworld Unified Communication Server was deployed in 2006 to handle voice service throughout the system because the servers offered the greatest flexibility and usability with existing Dell PowerEdge Servers and Microsoft Windows Server 2003 operating system for the VoIP phone system.

The move consolidated Pembina Trails’ outside phone lines, reducing connections from one PBX box per building to just four VoIP server hubs for all 34 sites. This effectively streamlined control and maintenance operations.

Moreover, deployment of VoIP communications and soft phones eliminated the need to pay telecom carriers and made it simpler for Pembina Trails to add phone connections when they needed it.

Prior to the deployment, the division was spending $400,000 on communication. The new system cut that figure to around $200,000 but boosted the number of phones from 900 to 1,000.

After several years of being considered a novelty, VoIP technology is finally gaining greater adoption in the large enterprise and government space, according to a Toronto-based technology analyst.

“Enterprise users are obtaining greater value of existing VoIP product and service. Government adoption of unified technology is also expected to exceed that of consumers,” said Vito Mabrucco, of IDC.

The main attraction of unified communications is its ability to streamline communication structures and reduce cost, he said.

Data storage

Pembina Trails also revamped its storage structure which was based on an old tape environment. With the previous set up back up process tool around 11 hours to complete.

A new system built around a Dell/EMC CX3-20 SAN provided the division with almost 30 TB of storage. Pembina also deployed Dell PowerVault 132T tape drives for data back up in conjunction with Veritas NetBackup software for long-term data archiving.

“With this set up we were able to reduce backup time by almost 80 per cent,” said Reece.

Real savings with virtual servers

Due to the seasonal nature of demand in the school environment, Pembina needs to devote its computational resources to certain IT tasks at different times during the year.

For instance, Pembina needs more SQL Server processing power during reporting periods and less over the summer break.

To achieve flexibility in it power processing, the division used VMWare ESX Server and VMWare Virtual Centre software tools. The system transforms individual physical servers into a manageable pool of shared resources.

With this system, Pembina is able to accommodate the network’s needs without resorting to purchasing additional physical servers for the peak periods.

Virtualization software and devices also allow IT teams to save time and money on testing applications or systems, according to Michelle Warren, analyst for Info-Tech Research Group, in London, Ont.

“Rather that purchasing physical hardware or creating test environments, IT teams are able to utilize virtualization tools to create test system images virtually.”

These virtual environments can be isolated to avoid compromising the network and can easily be taken down or rebuilt, she said.

Some best practices learned

Pembina Trails is also saving on hardware repair by employing a cyclical replacement program.

The division’s decision to replace all computers every four years has reduced maintenance costs by as much as 60 per cent.

Through a recent partnership with Rochester Software Associates Inc and Xerox Corp., Pembina Trails has also significantly cut down document printing cost by using digital printing.

Users are able to scan documents or send print orders remotely. A software product evaluates the cost of the print and allows users to preview the document in Adobe PDF format before sending it out to a local print shop. This method has cut down waste and prevented people from sending out unnecessary print jobs.

Pembina Trails is also earning money from its fibre network.

The division is leasing its lines to seven other educational organizations and Pembina Trails expect to earn at least $1 million from these arrangements within 15 years.

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  • Susan A.

    Pembina Trails is NOT the biggest school division in Canada as stated in the article. It’s not even the biggest school division in Winnipeg. Don’t try to impress us with size. Size doesn’t matter….well..