One of Ontario’s largest school boards has embarked on a three-year project that will allow it to centrally manage its amalgamated IT network, increase reliability and minimize maintenance costs and travel time.

Thames Valley School District,

which includes 185 schools across 7,000 sq. km. of the London, Ont. area, is working with Microsoft Canada Co. technology partner Promethean Systems Consultants Inc. to develop a solution to help it consolidate its disparate systems on the Microsoft Windows Server System 2003 platform.

Promethean is also working with Thames Valley to help centralize its IT management at the board’s head office in London using Active Directory, Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) 2005 and Systems Management Server 2003.

Active Directory allows the IT team to manage thousands of staff and student user identities from a single directory. This means that in the event a student forgets his password, teachers can contact the IT department and have a student’s password changed immediately.

MOM 2005, for example, helps simplify the identification and repair of network issues, while SMS 2003 allows the IT staff to push software and security updates to computers across the 200 km-wide board.

Out of the 185 schools, Thames Valley has completed four implementations, including a test pilot last June. The board hopes to do about 60 a year over the next three years and estimates that it will cost $25,000 per elementary school and $75,00 per secondary school for new hardware and software. Funding for the project will come out of the board’s $3 million annual budget.

“We started slow because we wanted to make sure we get it correct,” said Thames Valley information technology services manager Carolyn Linsdell. “We’re going to schools and getting rid of junk hardware that’s causing problems.”

With the amalgamation of four school boards in 1998, Thames Valley inherited a mixed environment of Novell and Microsoft Windows NT operating systems. While the Middlesex and Elgin boards were running on Novell, the Oxford County Board of Education had switched from Novell to Windows NT in 1996 and the Board of Education for the City of London was using a combination of the two.

“When we got together at amalgamation time we had a substantial number of things on our plates,” said Linsdell, adding that IT infrastructure had become difficult to support. “We’re a bigger board now, we had more distances to cover and a lot more diversity in the computers and software and in the applications going on.”

Distributed systems is one of the key challenges in the education sector, said Derick Wong, Microsoft Canada’s senior product manager of security and management.

Because boards have schools all over the place and schools have computers in various locations such as labs and classrooms, updating them is often an onerous task for the IT department, said Wong.

“One of key things with Windows Server 2003 is that users can work from the head office and update computers instantaneously,” said Wong. “They can also keep an inventory of what programs are loaded into what computers.”

Whereas the board’s IT staff previously logged 1,500 km per month driving from school to school to install patches and fix problems, they now are working towards spending 80 per cent of their time in the office and 20 per cent on the road.

Deciding on a single operating system, however, was a bit of a challenge as opinions varied across the board.

“Everybody that was Novell user wanted to stay Novell user.” said Linsdell. “Everybody that was an NT user wanted to stay in the Microsoft suite.”

The decision process was made easier by the fact that around the time of amalgamation Thames Valley had implemented a Windows NT-based administrative server with SQL Server as the database server in every school.

“Now we had about 500 servers, half of which were Windows and about 40 per cent of them on the instructional side were Novell,” said Linsdell.

Once the department got the green light for the project from the Board of Trustees, it enlisted Promethean to advise them how best put Microsoft technology into practice.

“Instead of us discovering those things ourselves, it was important this time to get the expertise of Microsoft at the table to work us through a process of change,” said Linsdell.

Between April and June last year, Promethean and an internal 15-person project team worked together to develop a uniform image style that would be pushed out to student workstations. Thames Valley decided to stay with Symantec Norton Ghost backup and recovery software instead of switching to Microsoft Data Protection Server.

“We have been using (Symantec Norton Ghost) for years,” said Linsdell. “In everything we’ve studied for this project we’ve looked at the pros and cons. For imaging (Symantec Norton Ghost) is meeting our needs.”

While Microsoft would ideally like every user to be vendor-agnostic, said Wong, Windows Server System is designed to work with many different programs.

“We work together well with other vendors and other programs,” said Wong. For example, MOM has a connector framework that allows other third party programs to send information into MOM, he added.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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