Winnipeg school districts standardize on Server 2003

When two school districts in Manitoba became one, the new district inherited a hodge-podge of legacy systems, Windows and Macintosh systems that had to be integrated. For Winnipeg’s Louis Riel School Division, the answer was Microsoft

Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP.

The two school districts, each roughly the same size, were amalgamated two years ago. The new division includes 32 elementary schools, eight high schools and three administrative facilities, serving over 15,000 students. Brad Biehn, the school division’s director of information systems, said the two divisions had opposing approaches to IT.

“”There were two radically different IT philosophies and cultures, they couldn’t have been more different,”” said Biehn. “”To bring them together we had to find a new way of doing things.””

One division was using a combination of Macs and Windows NT, while the other didn’t have servers but instead used P2P programs and everything from Windows 3.1 to Windows 2000.

“”I strongly believe students in various schools should have the same opportunities, no matter where they are, and when teachers move from school to school they shouldn’t have to redo everything based on the computer hardware,”” said Biehn. “”The phones will work the same, the overhead projectors are the same.””

Biehn attended a Microsoft educational summit last year and got a “”roadmap”” of upcoming Microsoft products, updates and support cycles, which he said was very helpful to their planning process.

“”We run systems anywhere from five to 10 years, so having a roadmap of what’s coming and when an OS will scale out and new ones deploy is very important so we can match our deployment schedule,”” said Biehn.

They had been looking at Windows 2000 Server, but after the summit Biehn said they decided to go with Windows 2003 Server and Windows XP because the newer product will be supported over a longer period of time, even though there is some risk going with a brand new product.

“”Windows 2000 Server would have been the safest for us, we’re right on the edge with Windows 2003 Server,”” said Biehn. “”But we’re planning to run this for five to ten years, and ten years down the road we’d rather be with 2003. With the timeline we had in mind and how long it was going to be in use, there was no other choice.””

The two-year deployment began in August, with about 1200 machines being upgraded each year. Older machines are being replaced, and other machines upgraded. The division’s Macs are also still being used, connected to Active Directory, but Biehn says they fill be phased out over the coming years.

From an IT perspective, the new network’s remote management capabilities will allow upgrades to happen from the board office in 30 minutes, rather then sending a technician to the school for two days.

“”I didn’t want to have people specifically tied to schools, so with the remote management capabilities, both at the server and the desktop, we’re able to deploy updates centrally,”” said Biehn.

Alec Taylor, Microsoft Canada’s senior manager of platform strategy, said amalgamation has been a trend in the public sector lately, with organizations coming together with different technology platforms needing to create a standard environment. In the education sector, standardization, interoperability and centralized affordable support are all issues.

“”You want your teachers teaching and you want your students learning, so you want the delivery of technology to your schools to be as easy and seamless as possible,”” said Taylor. “”They key is to recognize they want to put as much money as possible into the classroom.””

Taylor said ongoing support, available training, and a product roadmap are also all important to their customers in the education sector. They want to know if they invest in a product, it will be sustainable for the long term.

“”In the public sector generally the principle objective is to enhance service delivery to the citizen, so IT decisions are based on the pervasiveness of the platform, the sustainability of the solution, and the ease with which they can maintain it,”” said Taylor.

Remote management capabilities are also important for school divisions like Louis Riel, which can include many schools across a wide geographic area. Taylor said Microsoft offers a number of tools that can centralize those functions.

“”If you constantly have your people out in the field fighting fires you’re not able to put in place a strategic, sustainable technology platform that you can live with for the next decade,”” said Taylor.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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