I've Been Schooled - What We Can Lean from the Modern Educational Infrastructure

My brother recently took a job with a large school system. He is a assigned as the IT person for a particular middle school. Admittedly, it has been some time since I was in junior high myself, so my obvious question to him was why a middle school would need a full time IT person. It seems like a part-time job at best, with most of the support being done remotely. He was kind enough to give me a tour, and I was surprised at the answer to my question.

It seems this particular school, of average size for the county it is in, has over 800 PCs. These include laptops for each teacher and administrator, plus PCs for a variety of NASA-like labs in the school, as well as some for the media center, and others the students can check out. They also support BYOD for the school, meaning that students can use a variety of phones and tablets with the school network. This obviously takes a large and complex network infrastructure to support.

Having all of those devices on the network, many of which do not belong to nor are controlled by the school sounds like a nightmare. Security would clearly be a challenge, and support requirements non-stop. I was expecting to find a chaotic situation during my tour. And yet, the situation was calm, well organized, and under control. This got me to thinking about what they are doing that businesses are not. Clearly they have a larger IT budget than most businesses I work with, but they also have much higher requirements. It was my observation that their secret is less related to the equipment they buy, and more so their planning and consistent execution.

I think those of us in the business world can learn much from taking a tour of a modern school. Here are my observations:

User Access Control - All users, PCs and BYODs alike, are required to login to Active Directory (AD), where their level of access is carefully controlled. The AD network is county-wide, and I am sure is a challenge to maintain. The trouble they would face however by not doing this is far worse. Lack of proper access control customized for each user is a hot button issue for me in the business world. This is a major security exposure for those who don't follow the school's lead.

Asset Management- They manage all school PCs centrally, including pushing out new images. They can control what software is deployed, and ensure that proper patches are applied. Most SMBs could not tell you what is installed on their PCs, what the patch levels are, etc.

Problem Tracking - They have a good problem tracking system, allowing the staff to easily enter requests that cannot fall thought the cracks. They can produce metrics showing how efficiently issues are resolved. Every organization, no matter how small, needs some way to track issues and ensure resolution.

Capacity - Their network infrastructure is well thought out, with remote wiring closets in each area connected to the main network via fiber, and wireless access points in every room. Too many SMBs try to survive with a single access point, which can fail and bring the company to its knees.

Physical Security - The school has an extensive camera system, and good software which allows the archival video to be reviewed in case of issues, big and small. Last week, they successfully used their video recordings to identify a mouse issue in the cafeteria. Even those businesses with cameras often have no practical way to review their video for major issues, let alone finding a mouse!

Disaster Recovery - The school has a complete disaster recovery plan, with levels of disaster well defined, and the proper recovery procedure specified for each level. They have a alternate location to use in case of emergency, and a radio network to ensure good communication in a crisis. As for businesses and disaster recovery planning, need i say more?

So, If you have a business, find a good local school and ask for a tour. You can learn a great deal about running your business from them, just as I can learn much by talking to my baby brother!

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