Ottawa school board gets Gig upgrade

Public school boards, bound by limited budgets and scarce IT resources, might not seem like ideal candidates for Gigabit Ethernet metro area connectivity, but that hasn’t stopped the Ottawa-Carlton District School Board (OCDSB) from embarking on a project to connect over 160 sites spanning over 2,700 square kilometres with non-blocking Gigabit links.

Last September, OCDSB signed a 10-year deal with Telecom Ottawa Ltd., an Ottawa-based broadband provider and ISP, that will significantly increase the bandwidth available to the board’s schools and administrative buildings.

The school board first began considering a WAN upgrade about 18 months ago, when its previous four-year WAN contract had about one year remaining, said John Hindle, OCDSB manager of business and learning technologies.

OCDSB wasn’t looking at any particular WAN technology, Hindle explained. All the board wanted was a network technology that could support the applications the schools planned to run in the future.

“As a technology department, we were convinced we didn’t need to worry about the technology,” Hindle said. “We were virtually outsourcing the technology and buying bandwidth. So whoever the provider was, they were going to have to handle the technology piece from our head office to the demarcation point in every school.”

One thing that was clear to Hindle was that the old WAN, which included a mix of 1.5Mbps DSL lines and 10Mbps fibre connections to 27 secondary schools, wasn’t going to meet the board’s burgeoning bandwidth requirements.

On the business side, OCDSB was running payroll, finance, student information systems and facility management applications across its WAN.

In addition, the board had to support a growing list of learning applications including basic Internet service and learning tools such as video production and media productions including work with Flash technology.

The board also wanted to support virtual private networks, so teachers could attach back to the network from home to work on files and marks and students could work on projects they were doing in school.

That blew our bandwidth demand out the top,” Hindle said.

Finally, with a Gigabit Ethernet WAN, OCDSB will look into centralizing more of its IT services.

“The funding for technology in schools isn’t the same as in private sector or government, so we’ve got to be extremely lean on how much time we spend with a technician going 80 kilometres to fix a server,” Hindle said. “Once the network’s in place, we’re going to explore whether we get better support and better service by migrating those remote servers back to the central office.”

Because of the bandwidth demands and relatively large geography, there weren’t many providers who could meet OCDSB’s RFP requirements. Hindle also wanted to stick exclusively to one provider.

“We didn’t want a consortium, because they’re tougher to manage,” he explained. “There’s too much fingerpointing when something goes wrong.”

Telecom Ottawa won the business, because it met all the RFP requirements and seemed to understand the board’s business needs well, Hindle said. Although Telecom Ottawa might not have the name recognition of a large, national provider like Bell Canada, the company is no fly-by-night ISP. Telecom Ottawa provides service to Ottawa’s police, fire stations and libraries and is a subsidiary of Hydro Ottawa Holding Inc.

With the OCDSB contract, Telecom Ottawa now has over 600 sites in the Ottawa area hooked into its network, most of which are Gigabit Ethernet links, said Dave Dobbin, the company’s chief operating officer.

Not only does OCDSB get Gigabit Ethernet connections to all its locations through the Telecom Ottawa deal, but it gets complete control over 4,096 virtual LANs, Dobbin noted.

“They can configure those however they like,” he said. “They don’t need to call us to activate a new VLAN. They can do it themselves.”

Surprisingly, OCDSB’s network isn’t costing the board any more than its old network, Hindle said. “Between the time of our original contract and now, the price of bandwidth went down considerably,” he noted.

So far the transition from the old WAN to Gigabit Ethernet has gone smoothly, Hindle said. Part of the reason is that the school had begun planning for WAN changes three years ago by upgrading the switches at each school to support Gigabit Ethernet uplinks.

More than 60 sites have already been connected to the new network with the rest slated to be completed by the summer of 2004. A 10Gbps backbone running to OCDSB’s central facility is also in place.

One area that’s already seeing benefits from the new network is OCDSB’s videoconferencing projects. The board, with help from CANARIE Inc., a Canadian organization dedicated to the research and implementation of broadband networks, has been investigating for several years the benefits of videoconferencing to education. For example, students in one OCDSB school have been mentoring students in Nunavut who have no music teachers via videoconferencing.

“It really is about connectivity,” Hindle said. “It’s about connecting people and ideas and that’s fundamentally different now in education.”


HEAD: Gigabit to the masses

DECK: OCDSB’s Gigabit Ethernet WAN will encompass:

— over 2,700 square kilometres

— over 160 sites

— almost 78,000 students

— around 6,600 teachers and administrators

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