Mobility: Things to consider beyond the Hardware and Wires

Lenny Schad, CTIO, HISD
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Lenny Schad, CTIO, HISD

During my career in education, I have been fortunate enough to implement both BYOD and 1:1. Reflecting on both initiatives, I have learned (the hard way!) that successful mobility projects are more than network hardware, cabling and bandwidth. Technology leaders must also take into consideration filtering, monitoring and technical training.

When the topic of mobility comes up and the technical challenges associated- whether at a conference, in an article, or conversation with vendors, the focus usually is on network topology, access points (coverage) or bandwidth. Rarely is filtering discussed as a critical element in the mobility equation. What I have learned through the course of my career in mobility, is filtering will make or break your technical strategy. Often times when there are latency issues-the first course of action will be to spend hours analyzing network traffic, access points or bandwidth. If the filtering devices are investigated and show any type of capacity issues network teams usually attribute the taxing of these devices to some anomaly out on the network. I know because in our first year implementing our PowerUP program (Houston ISD’s 1:1 initiative) we experienced server network latency affecting the entire district. Days were spent analyzing traffic, reviewing logs, checking configuration tables with no silver bullet surfacing as the “culprit”. The review process did lead to

some minor infrastructure changes/improvements; however, because of the symptoms and review we knew resolving this was going to be an arduous technical process. I don’t believe this approach is unique to the HISD network team, but very typical. What we learned was far less complex and far less technical. Our filtering infrastructure was not sized properly, levels of filtering were not granular enough and what we were filtering needed to be re-evaluated. Just like bandwidth technology teams need to plan on continued growth of their filtering infrastructure. There needs to be multiple user groups or categories of filtering, each with its own level of filtering configurations. A detailed review of what traffic goes through the filters and what traffic can by-pass the filters needs to be conducted.

"It still amazes me that organizations are willing to spend millions of dollars to build a robust infrastructure and yet spend very little on employee training"

This leads me to my second consideration, monitoring. Monitoring tools are a non-negotiable element for any technical team embarking on the mobility path. These tools need to be implemented from the very beginning of the initiative and reviewed daily, weekly and monthly. Sadly, these tools are often introduced into an infrastructure after a problem has occurred. While timely, this approach is very costly from a dollar and time perspective. With this approach time is lost implementing the tools, critical historical data is unavailable, and reliance on external expertise is required. The internal network team is usually sitting on the sidelines left trying to pick up as much knowledge as possible while staying out of the way. Because there is no historical data available, this usually means the team is left waiting for the next “occurrence” to surface. As already stated, the world of mobility is very dynamic in nature, technology teams need to implement tools that position them to be proactive rather than reactive. Trending and forecasting tools are another area of monitoring often times overlooked or undervalued and facilitate the migration from reactive to proactive. With the proper trending and forecasting tools installed on the proper equipment, technology teams can reliably identify growth trends, areas of concern and geographical utilization. Armed with this type of information technology teams can proactively predict when the infrastructure and bandwidth needs of the district will need to be increased or potential trouble spots. More importantly having this type of information actually gives the technology team time. Rather than reacting to expansion, utilizing trending information allows the internal technology team time to negotiate with vendors often times leading to significant cost reductions allowing the cost savings to be spent on other infrastructure needs of the department. Identifying potential trouble spots allows the technology team to address issues before they surface and impact classrooms.

This leads me to my third and last consideration, training. Technology teams can have the best infrastructure, the best monitoring, but without the proper training it will be for nothing. It still amazes me that organizations are willing to spend millions of dollars to build a robust infrastructure and yet spend very little on employee training. It is important to understand the world of mobility is a new frontier requiring new skill sets. Repurposing of staff will be a necessity and is a very emotional and personal process. In order for repurposing to be the most beneficial, a thorough understanding of roles and responsibilities and individual competencies must be well defined. Technology leaders must spend time talking with staff about the impact a mobility strategy will have on their current support models and the impact of old roles versus new roles. Spending time explaining to employees ‘why ‘ their role is changing is very important. Often time’s leaders jump to ‘how’ an employee’s role is changing without explaining why, this leads to confusion, push-back and resistance. Once the employees clearly understand why and what they will be doing the training strategy can begin. This training can be a combination of formal, on-line, OJT (On The Job) or through knowledge transfer with external consultants assisting, either way it must be planned. Finally, this training must include process methodology. Process methodology really focuses on what is monitored, how often it is monitored, how often it is reviewed, who reviews and what reports are/can be created. Armed with this information the technical team can develop the internal processes that best meets the needs of the team.

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