Data Center Relocation

The ADM Schools administrative offices – including technology department offices – moved to a newly-renovated facility at 215 North 11th Street in Adel in January of 2016.  In advance of the move, we in the technology department were busy getting the new facility wired, so to speak, with wireless and wired networks, integrated technologies such as projectors, digital signage, and network access to our other buildings.

Data Center (2)

Our yet-to-be-completed data racks in our data center.

Even more of a challenge, though, was the relocation of the bulk of our district data center, which was previously located in our technology offices within ADM High School.  While part of the motivation for relocating the data center was to keep our servers and other network equipment in close proximity to technology staff, the bigger motivation was to be able to return valuable classroom space to the high school.

What Moved? What Stayed?

While there are advantages to consolidating services and points of entry as completely as possible, some components of our data center and network didn’t make logistical or financial sense to move.  Since ADM serves as a regional hub for the Iowa Communications Network (ICN) – the state-owned network that provides, among other things, our district’s internet access – and the hub is located in the room adjacent to our old data center, we did not move our incoming/outgoing ICN connection.  Accordingly, we kept our district firewall in place.  Further, the switches and analog phone lines serving the high school were kept in place.

Data Center (1)

VMWare virtual server hosts and storage infrastructure

We did, however, move our virtual server infrastructure (VMWare host servers and storage), other physical servers that we still have in operation, wireless controllers, and our high-capacity battery backup.  Moving this equipment reduces the footprint in the old data center from a significant portion of the full room to a single rack, allowing us to install a locking cabinet rack in the room and return the rest of the room for classroom use.

What are the benefits of the move? 

The new data center – much more spacious than the old location – offers improvements in terms of space, security, infrastructure, and reliability.  The new data center occupies what used to be a classroom when our new administrative center was a school building.  This space allows us to consolidate our data center with our primary technology storage area, which serves to provide us quicker access to needed resources, but also allows us to take better advantage of increased security.

Data Center (3)

Some of the storage available in the new data center.

Access to the data center is controlled electronically, such that only a small number of district staff have access to the facility.  Entries to the facility are logged, and the threat of a lost key no longer poses a danger to the department’s information or physical security.  Physical access is also substantially more difficult in this facility, which has no windows or keyed door locks.  Further, the new data center has a motion sensor tied to our building’s alarm system.  Located in the basement of a 100-year old building, the new data center is also far less vulnerable to tornado damage, which is always a threat to information security for Iowa schools.  This heightened security is made even more valuable by the dual-purpose of the facility, which also includes technology storage.  The value of stored devices – especially prior to a deployment – can be significant.

This is our old data center location at ADM High School.  The remaining electronics will be consolidated into a single, lockable cabinet rack.

This is our old data center location at ADM High School. The remaining electronics will be consolidated into a single, lockable cabinet rack.

Whereas our old facility was not designed to be a data center, the new area includes dedicated power that is designed to handle the power needs of our electronic equipment.  Further, the room has integrated air conditioning, along with a temperature monitor that alerts the director of buildings and grounds if the temperature in the room exceeds a set level.

Finally, the new data center provides us with better network reliability.  In order to serve the data needs of the department prior to the expansion of our fiber network and the full data center transition, the data center was served by its own internet connection.  Now, that internet connection is configured to act as a backup in the event that our district’s primary internet connection should go down.  While the bandwidth available is far less than through our ICN connection at the high school, it is sufficient to keep internet access operational until the ICN connection is restored.

What remains to be done? 

We will be consolidating district fax services – previously handled by analog connections to fax machines in each building – in the data center, with analog fax lines routed through a fax server for digital receipt and delivery of messages.  Further, expansion of our virtual server infrastructure will allow us to offer virtualized application delivery district-wide, and may also combine with additional storage to support a security camera implementation throughout the district.

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What are Chromebooks?

Chromebook 02-16-16 (6)Chromebooks have become ubiquitous in the education sector, but I’m often met with confusion when I mention a Chromebook to somebody outside of the school setting.  Here at ADM, we’ve deployed almost 300 Chromebooks over the past few years, with most of those deployments in the form of mobile carts in grades 3-12.  Here’s a quick Chromebook overview:

What is a Chromebook?

Chromebook 02-16-16 (2)Simply put, a Chromebook is a laptop.  The form factor (in picture at right) is that of a traditional laptop, with a keyboard, screen, USB ports, and so forth.  Unlike other laptops that run Windows or OS X as operating systems, Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS.

What is Chrome OS?

Chrome OS is a cloud-based operating system that integrates with Google’s online services (Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, etc.).  Users can sign on to a Chromebook using any Google account, which includes all of our @adm.k12.ia.us and @students.adm.k12.ia.us accounts for staff and students.  Since storage and settings are in the cloud, anything that a user does on one Chromebook is available when they log in to a different Chromebook.

How is Chrome OS different?

Unlike a Windows or Mac computer, where the traditional paradigm is to have software installed directly on the device itself (think Microsoft Word, GarageBand, or Photoshop), Chromebooks are geared towards web-based applications and content.  Just about anything that you can do online can be done on a Chromebook.  Recent research shows that over 90% of current high school students’ computer use takes place within a web browser, which makes Chromebooks a potentially perfect fit for modern computer usage patterns.

So a Chromebook can’t run regular software? 

Yes and no.  You cannot install Windows or Mac versions of software directly on a Chromebook, but you can run online versions of the software.  Office 365, Google Drive, YouTube, Photoshop Online, and WeVideo, for instance, offer online equivalents to traditional desktop software.  Chrome OS does support a number of apps, such as Evernote, Gmail offline, calculator, Any.do, and PDF Viewer that are installed to the device and will work whether the Chromebook is connected to the internet or not.

AutoDesk Inventor on a Chromebook

AutoDesk Inventor on a Chromebook

Beyond those options, ADM is also piloting Citrix XenApp, which allows full Windows versions of software – including resource-intensive software such as Autodesk Innovator (pictured at right, from a Chromebook) – to be made available to Chromebooks.  The software itself is delivered virtually to the Chromebook while running on a server.  This provides the benefit of running full version, specialty software on Chromebooks, while also delivering substantially better performance for resource-intensive applications than could be achieved on most regular laptops.  The latter benefit is the result of running the application on a server that is far more powerful than any affordable laptop.

Does a Chromebook need to have an internet connection to work?  

Signal-to-noise ratioNo, although an internet connection is important for maximizing the benefit of the Chromebook.  You can still create and edit files, view pictures, take notes, and other functions without an internet connection, but you wouldn’t have access to virtualized applications, your full Google Drive directory, or to other internet resources.

Here at ADM, all buildings in the districts have wireless coverage throughout.  Efforts are underway to extend coverage to outdoor areas within the district.

What does a Chromebook cost? 

As a general rule, schools don’t have the financial resources to pay for extravagant technology offerings.  The price of Chromebooks – about $200 – $300 per device – is one of the primary factors driving their adoption in schools.  By comparison, an iPad typically costs around $400, and a Windows or Mac laptop/desktop around $1,000.

Are Chromebooks easy to support? 

Sometimes, the initial cost of a product can be misleading, due to substantial costs related to supporting the product in an enterprise environment.  Chromebooks, however, offer savings on both fronts.  Schools can purchase management licenses for about $25 per device, which allow the district to manage printers, access rules, and other device and user settings.  Since the devices use our Google email accounts for logins – and these accounts are linked to our on-campus Active Directory servers – technology staff do not need to manage accounts for specific users.  Further, the fact that the devices do not require software to be installed means that we can configure a new Chromebook for deployment in the amount of time it takes to join the device to the district’s wireless network, or about 3 minutes.  If a device has a problem – a corrupted operating system, for instance – we can restore the device to its original configuration in under 15 minutes.

Are the devices durable? 

We’ve had mixed experiences with regard to durability.  In general, we’ve found that the Chromebooks are no more or less durable than our other laptops.  That said, our Samsung Chromebooks (XE303C12) have had a number of problems with fragile displays and outer cases, although these have generally been caused by drops and abuse rather than simply hardware failure.  Our Lenovo Chromebooks (N21) have shown to be very durable, and with about 130 of them deployed for a year, we’ve seen almost no reliability problems.

Is a Chromebook a good choice for home, or for a college student? 

I get questions about computers for home and for students headed off to college all the time.  In short, a Chromebook is going to be somewhat limited for home and student use, especially if there is any need for specialty software (engineering, music composition, GIS, advanced video/photo editing, etc.)  That said, the majority of users just need a computer in order to browse the internet, check email, and compose an occasional document, spreadsheet, or presentation.  If you have wireless internet at home/school and you’re comfortable working with Google Drive, Google Docs, and Gmail, a Chromebook can be a perfect computer for home use.  Not only is it tremendously cost-effective, but it is also easier to use and to maintain than Windows or OS X computers.

If I were to buy a Chromebook, where can I get one?  

Almost all computer resellers – with the exception of the Apple and Microsoft stores – now sell Chromebooks.  You can often find good deals on Chromebooks at Best Buy and office stores, or online through Amazon.com or Newegg.com.  When you choose a Chromebook, you’ll have some of the same choices that you have when purchasing any laptop: screen size, storage capacity, RAM, processor, and wireless.  Technical specifications are not as important for Chromebooks as for other computers, but I generally recommend:

  • at least an 11.5″ display, at least 1366×768 resolution
  • storage capacity isn’t generally important; most Chromebooks have SD card slots for photos from a camera
  • I recommend 4GB of RAM, but 2GB is sufficient.  4GB will result in a smoother experience for most users
  • Processor is generally unimportant; you’ll get better performance from a Chromebook with an Intel Core i3/i5 than you will from some other options (Celeron, Atom, Rockchip, Tegra, Exynos, etc.)
  • Support for wireless 802.11ac has the potential to improve streaming and web application performance

Will the district be expanding its Chromebook deployment? 

The district is currently in the process of exploring options for our Next Generation Technology deployment, the second half of our current PPEL implementation.  While this will likely include Chromebooks at some levels, the details of that committee recommendation are not yet decided upon.

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Radio Silence?

The ADM Technology blog has been a quiet place for the last few months, but rest assured that it hasn’t been a quiet time in the department.  I’ll post more detailed information in later posts, but here are some updates on what we’ve been up to:

New District Administration Center

The ADM Schools central offices – including the technology department – have moved to a new building!  Central administration, including technology and buildings & grounds, have moved to 215 North 11th Street in Adel.  This renovated facility was formerly a 6th/7th middle school, and is also the site of the original Adel High School.  We’re very excited about the professional development resources available for the district (including some fun integrated technology), and especially about our new technology digs.  We’re still moving in, and I’ll post more pictures and an in-depth update later.

Data Center Move

In addition to moving our offices to the new district administration center, we also moved our data center to the new facility.  This time-intensive process required extension of our inter-building fiber service to the new facility, construction of the new data center infrastructure, physical moves of servers, and reconfiguration of our VLAN structure to support the move.

Phones, Phones, Phones

The new administration center required an overhaul of the analog phone service to the building as well as implementation of a VoIP solution to serve the building.  Along similar lines, we also extended VoIP service at our Adel Elementary and DeSoto Intermediate sites, with some of that work still underway.

Next Generation Technology

Our next generation technology work is well underway, and I’ve spend the past couple of days organizing a visit schedule for visits to other districts to look at implemented deployment models.  An update on our committee work will be posted soon.

Web Application Development

In an effort to modernize many of our internal workflows and the registration process for families, we’ve begun to more aggressively implement internal web applications that allow for fully-digital processes.  Some of the systems developed recently include a document management system (based on SharePoint), an online application and review system for our Teacher Leadership and Compensation positions, an online kindergarten census form, and a web-based lunch ordering system.  This is exciting work that improves efficiency and saves time and money (for the district as well as for our community), and we’ve got several more digital conversions in the planning stages.

Newsletter Template Development

Work to develop a newsletter template for a professional, district-level newsletter communication has been largely completed.  Next up is the process of working on content for a first release, which is targeted for this spring.

Digital Fax Conversion

We’re working to consolidate our fax lines to one physical location (if possible; it may be two) so that we can digitize our district fax receipt/sending processes via a fax server.  While it seems like faxes should have been dead years ago, many of the organizations that the district must communicate with still require fax transmissions.  This conversion will allow us to streamline distribution of received faxes to appropriate employees, eliminate our need for physical fax machines and associated supplies, and will save time when transmitting faxes.

Security Camera System Research

One of the components included in a bond referendum that our district’s voters approved last year was security improvements district-wide, and one of the important security improvements that we’re looking to pursue is security camera installations.  The cameras would be located in common areas (hallways, gymnasiums, cafeterias, parking lots, etc.).  The technology department is currently developing an RFP for this project.

A Couple of Personal Notes

While this isn’t related to the department, my wife and I welcomed a new daughter – Nuria Lise – in September.  Keeping up with Miriam and Nuria has been a challenge for these past four months, but I think all four of us are having a blast.  In addition to the new addition to our family, I’ve wrapped up my PhD coursework at The University of Iowa, and am looking forward to comprehensive exams in February and the beginning of the dissertation process.  Suffice it to say that it’s been a busy winter in our household.

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Holiday Shopping: Savings for Students, Parents, & Teachers

student-discount-availableOne of the nice things about being associated with a school – whether a student, parent, or staff member – is that you can often get better deals on technology than might be available to the general public.  Here are some tips for how to get deals on some products you might be looking to purchase this holiday season or before next school year.

Note: I did not include stores (like HP’s “HP Academy” and Best Buy’s “Student Deals” site that require you to sign up in order to see product offerings, but you can find additional discount stores by searching in Google for student computer discounts). 

Microsoft

The Microsoft Store EDU portal allows you to choose the school with which you have an affiliation, and will work for both K-12 schools as well as higher education institutions.

Through the Microsoft store, you can find good deals on computers, accessories, and software.  In many cases, computers cost hundreds of dollars less through this site than through others, and Microsoft often sells configurations (i.e., more RAM) that aren’t available anywhere else.  One of the other bonuses of going through this store is that the “Signature Edition” computers sold through the site, as well as the Surface products, have no pre-installed bloatware (software that you probably don’t want).

Apple

The Apple Store for Education similarly requires you to choose your school, and then gives you discounts on almost all Apple Store offerings, including computers, iPads, software, and accessories.  Discounts are not quite as steep, in general, as the Microsoft store, but you’ll save about 5-10% on most items.

Lenovo

You can buy computer direct from Lenovo’s Academic Purchase Program and receive a student discount at the Lenovo student store.  Discounts vary by device, but are typically about 10% compared to the regular Lenovo store.  

 

 

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Denial of Service Attack Affects ADM

We recently had an internet service disruption due to an attack against a district who also uses an internet connection that is aggregated through Heartland AEA via the Iowa Communications Network (ICN).  After communicating out basic details of the disruption to our staff, I received a good question:  What is a denial of service attack?

I received a good question: what is a “denial of service attack”?

Here’s a short explanation:

In a typical denial of service attack situation, an internet address is flooded with meaningless traffic, effectively shutting it down.  In this case, the address being attacked is part of Pella’s address range.  Let’s assume that the IP address being attacked is 100.101.102.103.  A large number of computers around the world – all infected with the same virus, perhaps – would receive instructions to send as much traffic as they can to 100.101.102.103.  Potentially millions of computers, then, would all send meaningless traffic at one time.  Pella’s bandwidth would then be flooded with this junk traffic, effectively rendering their network non-operational.

Pella_During_DDOSHere is what Pella’s internet connection looked like during the attack:

Since most districts in central Iowa are aggregated through Heartland AEA via the Iowa Communications Network (ICN), an attack against one district – like this – can, if it’s large enough, flood the entire AEA aggregation link (which is a feat, as that link is something like 8Gb/s bandwidth.  This effectively blocks most incoming and outgoing communication for all districts that use the ICN in Central Iowa.

AEA_During_DDOSHere’s what the AEA’s traffic looked like during the attack:

In order to stop the attack, the ICN typically blocks the originating addresses.  If there are only a few attacking computers, this can be done manually.  Typically, the attack is identified as coming from a region (say, Thailand), and all traffic from Thailand will be blocked by the ICN, cutting off the attack.  I’m at the AEA now, and just got word that they used geoblocking to shut down the area that was causing this current attack, and expect that internet operations will return to normal within a few minutes.

adm_during_ddosHere’s what our internet traffic looked like during the attack:

We’re looking into solutions to mitigate this issue in the future, including the possibility of using a secondary internet connection that can serve as a “failover” in the event that our ICN connection is down.

I hope that this explanation sheds a bit more light on the situation.

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Embedding Videos and Images in Moodle

You can embed videos from YouTube into your ADM Schools Moodle page, as well as insert images and audio files.

Embedding a Video from YouTube (or other online services)

  1. Find your video on YouTube or another online service, and copy the URL from your web browser’s address bar
  2. On your Moodle page, edit the content area in which you would like to embed a video.  You can add videos to topics, assignment descriptions, resources, and so forth.
  3. Click the “Media” button in the text editor toolbar
    embedvideo
  4. Paste your video URL into the “Enter URL” box, and then enter a name for your video:  NOTE: You can also browse your Moodle repository or Google Drive for videos that you have saved there, and you can upload audio files using this same tool.  
    insertmedia
  5. Click Insert Media

At this point, your video will be embedded in your content area, though it won’t appear until you’ve saved it and view it on your course page.  Within the editor, the only thing you will see will be the video title that you assigned.  I’ve embedded a sample video below:

Inserting Images

It is very simple to insert an image into a Moodle content area.  Simply save the image to your computer, and then drag it into the content area.  For example, I will drag a saved image of foliage types just below this text, which will then insert it into my page.  After the image has been inserted, I can click on it and then click the “Image” button imagebutton to change its size, caption, and text alignment.

foliage types

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ADM Support System How-To and Refresher

The following video contains instructions for accessing the ADM Support technology support system, submitting a ticket, accessing ticket status/history, and submitting updates.  I hope that this will be a useful guide and refresher for staff members who need to submit technology support requests.

As a reminder, all technology issues should be submitted via the ADM Support system.  Further, you can use the system to submit questions for technology department staff members, and to request information about district technology or available technology options.

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