Traditional learning meets modern communications

Private learning institutions constantly face numerous academic, financial, and technological challenges. They must justify their tuition and compete for enrollees by offering students premier learning opportunities without the assistance of public funding. And as we approach the end of the century, few will dispute that access to current technology such as e-mail and the Internet is essential in any comprehensive academic offering.

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A boarding school links 14 buildings with fiber and specifies a proven cable-administration system.

Patrick McLaughlin

Private learning institutions constantly face numerous academic, financial, and technological challenges. They must justify their tuition and compete for enrollees by offering students premier learning opportunities without the assistance of public funding. And as we approach the end of the century, few will dispute that access to current technology such as e-mail and the Internet is essential in any comprehensive academic offering.

Yet while the bar has been raised for these academic institutions, and many now offer their students new services and privileges, the method by which each school can achieve its technological objectives is similar to the successful formula in nearly any complex project. Understanding your needs, developing and committing to a plan to meet those needs, and enlisting the skills of knowledgeable and experienced professionals go a long way toward ensuring a project`s success.

That approach worked for St. Mark`s School, a private boarding preparatory school in Southboro, MA, which recently linked its administrative offices and residence rooms through a local area network (lan) and now provides Internet access campuswide as well. The school also upgraded its telephone service as part of the project.

Designing from experience

School administrators--including Antoni and Elsa Hill, heads of the school, and Robert Meyer, business manager--pinpointed a voice and data network as an integral part of the future of St. Mark`s. "The husband-and-wife team of Antoni and Elsa Hill were the driving force behind this project," says David Dacey, a consultant who was hired in December 1996 to examine the school`s existing telephone system. "And Robert Meyer, as the school`s business manager, has funded it. Their vision for the future of this school and their acknowledgement of the importance of a modern voice and data system have pushed the project forward over the past couple of years."

In Dacey`s 28 years of providing network-infrastructure design and consulting services, he has worked with 105 schools. He drew on those years of experience and dozens of campus layouts to design the St. Mark`s network. "The St. Mark`s campus includes 27 acres and 14 buildings that had to be linked," Dacey notes. "There`s actually an east campus and a west campus, which are across the street from each other and about 300 yards apart." Buildings within the east campus were already linked via steam tunnels, so Dacey specified that innerduct run between them. To link the east and west campuses, he called for 4-inch polyvinyl chloride conduit with plastic innerduct inside.

"We chose to run multimode fiber between the buildings because of the bandwidth and speed it offers," Dacey recalls. Today, 23 miles of multi-strand fiber-optic cables link 11 voice and 12 data nodes, which are connected in a star configuration to the technology center in the basement of the school`s library. "The library building is central to the entire campus," Dacey explains, "and it`s also the location of the school`s Bell Atlantic demarcation point."

Summer scheduling

Timing the network installation was imperative; nobody wanted to begin a school year with a cabling job in progress. So Dacey compiled a detailed request for proposals (rfp) that was approximately 125 pages. The school chose Point To Point Network Services Co. (Methuen, MA) to install the cable and, as specified in the rfp, work began on graduation day 1997.

By July, the conduit and innerduct were in place and Point To Point was pulling fiber between the buildings. The objective for summer 1997 was to link the buildings together and run both voice and data wiring to all administrative offices. In each office, Point To Point installed a yellow Category 5 cable to carry data and a blue Category 3 cable for voice.

The summer project wasn`t without a glitch, however. In all, 185 strands of fiber were pulled to the technology center. "Forty-one of those strands had to be replaced," Dacey remembers, "when the person installing the air-conditioning system cut through the fiber-optic cable." He says the incident did not cost a lot of time. "Within a day, our insurance company cut us a check and the 41 strands were replaced." The cable cut certainly would have been a more significant setback if it had happened during the school year when the network was in full operation. The ease with which St. Mark`s recovered from the incident is testament to the importance of planning and timing in a cabling project.

Graduation day 1998 marked the beginning of another phase of the project: This time, Point To Point planned to bring two voice and two data outlets to each residence room. Scheduling this installation was a little more intricate than scheduling the cabling of the administrative offices because St. Mark`s houses approximately 450 summer residents. So the installation crew worked inside the rooms during the middle of the day, when the summer residents were involved in outside activities. Like the St. Mark`s administrators, each student has a yellow Category 5 data cable and a blue Category 3 voice cable. Dacey specified surface-mount raceway to conceal the cable in each residence room.

Network-management system

Dacey also called upon experience when he specified the PatchView Physical Layer Network Management system from RiT Technologies (Mahwah, NJ). "The school needed a management system that could handle both voice and data," he says. "I discovered the RiT system in the summer of 1996 when I was working for a private school in Pennsylvania that had needs very similar to those of St. Mark`s." One particularly attractive attribute of the RiT system is that it provides network management at the passive physical layer, Dacey says.

The PatchView system has three main components. The RiT Smart line of patch panels includes more than 100 models and features light-emitting diodes above each port. The PatchView scanner is mounted in the wiring closet and connected to each patch panel. The scanner collects patching information and reports it to the PatchView management station over the lan or through a modem connection. The PatchView management station is a Windows software package that interprets and presents the patching configuration to the system administrator.

The software also allows the system administrator to interact with the system via mouse clicks and includes realistic windows. The administrator can get information as specific as user name, room number, and wall-outlet identification for any port in the network.

"The RiT patch-panel system does not cost significantly more than regular patch panels, and it includes system administration," Dacey comments. "The school had already made a significant investment in its network infrastructure, and cost-justifying the RiT system was not difficult."

The management system has also changed the way in which technicians conduct moves, adds, and changes. Each student is assigned a four-digit identification number for telephone access, and about one-third of them change their room assignments at some point during the school year, according to Dacey. "All the changes are done through the RiT system," he says. "The students maintain the same four-digit code throughout their stay here--from one school year to the next--and whenever they change rooms."

Dacey also believes PatchView`s alarm circuits will be beneficial. The system connects to remote sensors that can detect whether wiring-closet doors are open or closed and can monitor equipment-room temperature and smoke detectors. The sensors can also monitor network connectivity and alert the administrator if patch cords are rearranged.

Long-term investment

When St. Mark`s decided to install a modern network infrastructure, the school also decided to make the most of that infrastructure. Last August, the school hired Shannon Harvey as technology manager, who has primary responsibility for the St. Mark`s voice and data network and handles its day-to-day administration. He became a certified RiT consultant since being hired and is also a certified Cisco administrator. "The school is definitely more competitive with regards to technology now that it has invested in its network," Harvey says. He notes that after investing approximately $250,000 in network cabling, the school wisely opted to upgrade its desktop equipment to take advantage of the new capabilities.

"Before the new wiring was put in place, each department had its own server, but there was no standardization across campus," Harvey reports. The existing network was rudimentary by today`s standards. Conceptualized and developed by faculty members John Burwell and Richard Rader in the early 1990s, the network`s infrastructure was essentially telephone wire. "Burwell and Rader should be commended for their efforts to promote the school`s technological advancement in the early 1990s," Harvey says. "Today, the campus has a standardized network, which runs 10-megabit-per-second Ethernet in some areas and 100-Mbit/sec Ethernet in others. So the computing infrastructure was next in line for upgrading."

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Shannon Harvey, technology manager at St. Mark`s School, checks on the network`s status through the RiT PatchView system, a physical-layer-level network-management program.

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This schematic of the RiT PatchView system illustrates how the patch panels attach to the scanner, which in turn, attaches to the management station.

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PatchView management stations sit atop a desk in the St. Mark`s technology center. Installation of the air-conditioning unit (upper left corner of the photo) resulted in the cutting and replacing of 41 strands of fiber-optic cable in the summer of 1997.

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