Connectivity is more important than ever to support our education system. BYOD, remote classes, Wi-Fi, and a variety of digital learning solutions are now just part of the equation. Education IT teams have a big task: making sure educational service delivery remains uninterrupted while balancing the constraints of limited budgets, staff, and time to support digital transformation that can keep up with modern demands.

That leads to some unique challenges that require the right mix of hardware, expertise, and tooling. Here, we’ll take a closer look at the challenges facing education networks, 3 keys to successful network monitoring & management, and how Auvik can help IT maximize uptime and reduce costs with school network management network software.

The challenges of monitoring distributed education networks

At scale (e.g. a school district or college with multiple campuses), education IT networks are in essence a type of distributed network. From a topology perspective, multiple campuses with a set of intermediate and main distribution frames (IDFs and MDFs) aren’t much different from a business network with geographically dispersed branch offices. That means education IT teams often face the same limited network visibility, poor network documentation, and scalability challenges.

But what is it that also makes education IT networks unique? One of the biggest factors is the “bursty” nature of their traffic, and how that affects bandwidth utilization needs. Generally, school networks are heavily utilized Monday through Friday, from about 8 am to 5 pm. Then, during off-peak hours, a lot of the network lies dormant. In many cases, large portions of the network are also effectively unused for weeks or months during breaks.

A blessing and a curse

The upside is that scheduling network maintenance is usually simple. You don’t have to worry about disruption of service as long as you can do the work during the evenings and weekends. Bigger projects can often be comfortably completed while the students and teachers are on vacation. This kind of predictability would be a godsend for IT teams in environments with SLAs that typically demand 24x7x365 availability.

However, the nature of network traffic also means that network design has to be able to handle those traffic extremes. Everything from monitoring and alerting thresholds, to network capacity planning and bandwidth metering needs to account for the inherently spikey nature of traffic on school networks.

Some other unique characteristics of education networks:

  • Highly mobile in nature. One of the biggest challenges of monitoring and managing education networks is the mobility of the endpoints. Both school-issued and BYOD devices, like laptops and mobile phones, will move between home and school, as well as classroom to classroom within the school.
  • Wi-Fi heavy. School Wi-Fi is a major convenience for teachers and students. Without it, modern classroom connectivity wouldn’t be viable. However, from IT’s perspective, managing, configuring, and troubleshooting Wi-Fi creates an additional set of challenges wired connections don’t have.
  • Lots of APs and switches to support. Heavy use of Wi-Fi means a lot of distributed network devices to support. Education networks need WAPs and switches across campus to enable the connectivity students and staff require. This is an additional support burden for IT, and makes for networks with many potential points of failure. It can also drive up the cost of network traffic monitoring.

Performance when it matters: The 3 keys to success for education network monitoring and management

Critical systems have to be accessible when students and teachers need them. Making sure the network is available—and performing properly—during those key periods is a mix of effective network planning, design, monitoring, and troubleshooting. Many network engineering best practices apply to school networks, but there are three keys in particular that education IT teams should hone in on. They are:

  1. Fine-tuning network performance monitoring and alerts
  2. Becoming proactive with your network monitoring
  3. Using historical metrics to improve capacity planning

Fine-tune performance monitoring and alerts

Most IT teams are already monitoring their networks. However, the nuts and bolts of the monitoring and alerting often aren’t optimized to ensure the network is healthy, or to properly enable quick responses when something goes wrong. In education IT, quickly resolving issues can be the difference between a minor hiccup and a major disruption.

Fine-tuning your network performance monitoring starts with ensuring you’re tracking all types of network traffic metrics relevant to your network. For example, simple up/down monitoring can’t tell you when there is a bandwidth hog on the network, but performance monitoring that uses flow protocols and SNMP to capture utilization metrics, like Auvik’s TrafficInsights, can.

Of course, simply monitoring metrics isn’t enough. Your alerts must be configured to notify the right people at the right time (usually ASAP), with the right information. This means striking a balance between thresholds and alerts that trigger fast, and bogging IT down with nuisance alerts.

This is as much of an art as a science, but tooling that has customizable thresholds and preconfigured alerts for common network performance issues can go a long way in getting it right.

Become proactive with your network monitoring

Effective alerting can improve your ability to react to issues and improve MTTR. However, being reactive isn’t enough. With highly variable usage and legacy equipment to support, education IT teams need to focus on proactive network monitoring and management. A few key steps to becoming proactive include:

  • Network visibility. Incomplete visibility into network capacity and performance issues leads to poor or limited delivery of education services. Network visibility tooling that provides automatic device discovery and network mapping can help you proactively detect and troubleshoot minor issues before they become emergencies.
  • Look out for signs of hardware failure. In many cases, faulty or overloaded network hardware will leave clues before completely dropping off the network. Make sure to have alerts set up for telltale signs of potential failure, such as high interface utilization, packet errors, and packet discards. Up-to-date inventories can also be invaluable at tracking firmware versions and end of life support dates.
  • Institute automation. Identifying your most common network issues that require manual intervention, and automating those processes, can improve uptime and free up IT to focus on high-value tasks. For example, if power cycling a PoE AP resolves a common classroom connectivity issue, can you automate that process? For a deeper dive on using automation to become proactive with your network monitoring, I recommend checking Auvik’s webinar, From Putting Out Fires to Proactive Monitoring: Processes for Managing Your Network.

Use historical metrics to improve capacity planning

Getting capacity planning right can be one of the best ways to improve network optimization efforts in the long run. For schools with limited budgets, making intelligent decisions about capacity planning is important. Difficulty assessing and budgeting for end of life issues due to outdated hardware, and not being able to properly budget and plan for hardware costs leads to poor educational service delivery.

Tracking historical throughput metrics and using those to determine when to upgrade hardware, when to modify network topology, and when traffic shaping and QoS can solve problems can help you spend limited funds efficiently.

A laptop sits on top of a podium in a dark lecture hall full of students
Source: Unsplash

How education networks can benefit from Auvik

Discover how Auvik can help education IT administrators address challenges, close gaps, and gain optimal efficiency with their networks:

  • Real-time device discovery and mapping. Auvik automatically discovers devices on the network and updates network topology maps in real-time. This enables IT to maintain visibility without any manual work. Plus, Auvik is built with multi-site and multi-tenancy environments in mind, making it ideal for distributed networks like school systems.
  • Cost-effective pricing. Per-device pricing can rapidly drain budgets and force schools to limit what and how they monitor their networks, or direct budgets towards necessary upgrades from legacy equipment. Auvik’s simple approach to pricing doesn’t charge for endpoints or APs, which can lead to significant savings for schools.
  • TrafficInsights speeds up troubleshooting. Being able to quickly identify the root cause of issues and identify minor trends before they become major problems is one of the most important aspects of managing an education network. Auvik’s TrafficInsights combines flow protocols and machine learning to enable network visibility and streamline troubleshooting.

Ready to see how Auvik can help you manage your complex network? Get your free 14-day Auvik trial here, now and explore what best-in-class network monitoring and management looks like.

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