Network systems that offer good solutions

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Networking has moved on in 20 years and the concepts of collaborative working and information sharing have come to the fore. Les Watson looks at the technologies improving the network

Networking school computers in the late Eighties used to be about sharing scarce resources like disk drive space and printers. Now that technology itself is much more affordable, schools are increasingly recognising that networks are about collaborative working, and sharing information, from both in and outside the school. Networks are now becoming ubiquitous and as taken for granted as electricity, as the Stevenson report on ICT in schools suggested some years ago. They are also becoming wide area (WANs rather than LANs), encompassing the home and worldwide information resources, and they are now essential to the running of the school. These factors all justify the Government's recent emphasis on managed services. The BETT show will see a number of suppliers focusing strongly on managed services.

Ray Fleming of RM reports that there has been a shift in school network business with 10 per cent of customers now opting for a managed service either because they have lost their network manager, or have decided strategically to concentrate on the curriculum rather than technology. At BETT, RM will offer a range of applications that are managed remotely, such as the Easy Mail product that provides managed email services for schools, and curriculum-based software such as SuccessMaker and other products that focus on literacy. The hosting of applications by a supplier is a developing marketplace. In industry the buzzwords are Applications Service Provider (ASP). The idea is that companies will not have to buy software and keep it running and upgraded. The supplier provides and manages the software online and the business gets on with business. For schools, that means that the network, mission critical for learning and an essential foundation for administration, becomes someone else's problem.

Like RM, Centerprise also offers a complete managed service which includes an IT audit, design and configuration of the school network, provision of hardware, systems testing, and training. The Centerprise solution also includes school administration software. A different approach is taken by Fensystems who provide a client server network that is managed remotely. The network is based on public domain virtually free) software such as Linux and StarOffice. The key investment with Fensystems is in a heavy-duty server and in many cases existing school hardware can continue to be used as client machines. As the Linux operating system is based on Unix, Michael Brown of Fensystems claims it is less susceptible to virus attack. Star Office provides all the usual office productivity software such as word processors and spreadsheets and is file compatible with Windows products and can create Adobe pdf files. However, for many schools it will take some courage to diverge from the dominant Microsoft recipe.

The technology story at BETT on the networks front is wireless. Apple will be showing its successful AirPort product that works very well. I check my email daily with AirPort operating through my office wall to a nearby hub that only fails if the cleaner has turned off its power.

Tiny Professional Solutions will be demonstrating the PC version of wireless networking as will Centerprise and numerous others. Wireless means there is no need for cabling. Receivers and transmitters connected to the network, and inside the PCs or laptops, allow children to take the ICT out of the computer lab and into the classroom, overcoming the limitations of the timetable. Users can move where they want without restrictions and still have access to the network.

Wireless is a really good answer for roaming laptop use but such use raises issues like physical security of the laptops and management, storage and charging of them. RM plc will be launching a mobile trolley, that allows a class pack of laptops to be plugged for charging and which connect through a wireless interface built into the trolley. The trolley can be wheeled around the school and plugged in anywhere. If your school is not networked you must consider using wireless, and even if you are, wireless gives exciting possibilities for extending the school network without extending the cabling.

Whatever the stage of your school network development, managed services and wireless both bring new flexibility to the way schools can provide network services and are both worth investigating.

Les Watson is director of learning and information resources at Glasgow Caledonian University Apple: Stand E34 Centerprise International: Stand F20 Fensystems: Stand E140 RM plc: Stand E50 Tiny Professional Solutions: Stand B44

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