Shape, Throttle, and Roll: Bandwidth Management Technology Enables School Districts to Keep Their Networks Running Free and Easy

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WHEN ONLINE STATE TESTING BECOMES mandatory in Florida in 2015, Chris Bress foresees school districts having their hands full simply trying to access the exams.

"If even only 50 percent of the schools statewide are testing at a time, that could be a million requests to [the Department of Education's] server," says Bress, executive director of learning through technology and media for Charlotte County Public Schools in Port Charlotte, FL. With so many schools fighting for a finite amount of bandwidth, trying to enter the same website at once, Bress says latency and access will be critical problems come testing season.

The solution lies in bandwidth management software, which can help districts control their networks by caching, filtering, and throttling sites in whatever way optimizes the educational process. As the technology applies to state testing, once a district downloads the exams off the state's server the initial time, the software can then cache them on the district's local server for repeat, instant access. The only information going back and forth between the state and district servers are the individual student credentials (social security number, transcript information, etc.), which flow from the state to the district to ensure the student is taking the right test, and the student's answers, which head back the other way. That exchange eats up much less bandwidth than would be needed to download the entire test again and again and then send it back each time to the state server.

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Although online testing won't begin for another five years, Bress says the state is encouraging school districts to implement technology to help avert traffic jams when the time comes. "It's going to become critical," he says.

What bandwidth management software does is offer a window into the network, lending a real-time view of how traffic is moving about while calling attention to bottlenecks and bandwidth hogs. Armed with that information, IT staff can use the dashboard to perform a kind of bandwidth triage, "shaping," in IT terms, bandwidth flow to make the best use of what's available: blocking some sites, allowing total access to others, and "throttling"--enabling reduced bandwidth to--still others. That ensures proper delivery of essential web-based content while controlling the delivery of nonessential but permitted content, as determined by the district, such as social networking or gaming sites.

"There are sites that should never be gotten to, and there are sites that are okay to go to but you don't want to overwhelm the network," Bress says.

To help it dole out its bandwidth wisely, Charlotte County employs software from Blue Coat Systems, a technology provider based in Sunnyvale, CA. As an example of a nonessential website that could clog the network if afforded more bandwidth than it warrants, Bress references a site that demonstrates how to play the drums and features a lot of streaming video. "If you don't monitor that site and throttle the bandwidth allowed for it, you're going to overwhelm the network," he says. "And that prevents access to the curriculum management sites."

As more applications move to the cloud or are delivered via the web, bandwidth management technology is proving to be a critical piece of the network infrastructure of many districts, including those supported by the Pennsylvania Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit. IU5, as it is known, serves school districts in Erie, Crawford, and Warren counties. Although the districts are connected to a state-run, regional wide area network (WAN) that gives them access to large amounts of bandwidth, latency due to the prevalence of so many web-based applications is starting to rear its ugly head.

"Internally, districts are having issues with viruses, network design, old equipment," says Vince Humes, IU5's director of technology. "But when you look at the services they are getting, practically everything they want exists in the cloud somewhere, so latency is becoming an issue. …