The broad-brush approach of Internet service providers may not give the best answers for your access problems, writes George Cole
It may be tempting to breath a sigh of relief when your school is finally linked up to the Internet, but going online raises many issues, such as who gets access? How do you control what materials enter your school? What parts of the Internet do you want your students to explore? Little wonder that many schools prefer to leave issues such as access, security and email management to their Internet service provider (ISP) or local authority.
But that can be a mistake, says Les Ferrington, managing director of Opensoft. "ISPs tend to offer broad-brush solutions which may not suit each school's needs. Schools need local control over their IT systems."
Opensoft markets iLibra, a server based on Microsoft's Windows NT technology. The server sits between the ISDN digital telephone connection that carries the Internet traffic and the school's network. The iLibra server costs around pound;2,500 and is about the size of a laptop computer. It has an 8.5Gb hard disk for locally storing (caching) emails, graphics and web pages from the Internet.
A set-up screen allows the information and communications technology manager to control the school's Internet system. By using iLibra, schools can control who accesses the Internet, the computers that can be used for going online and the times when access is permitted.
Staff and students can be allocated individual email addresses and have their mailbox sit on the server. "With iLibra, pupils can access their email messages without removing them from the server, so if the teacher wants to check what email they have been sending and receiving, it's all there," says Mr Ferrington. The email system also allows school to block spam (unsolicited email). The ICT manager can also control what is stored on the Internet server.
Graphics, animations and videos can take up a lot of disk space, and the server can soon get bloated and slow. The maximum size of a graphics files to be stored can be defined, as can the names of users whose materials need to be cached. "You may have teachers who only go on to the Internet occasionally and decides that their Web pages need not be stored," says Mr Ferrington.
Another feature allows schools to list the websites their students can visit and block anything else on the Internet.
Security is also important, but schools are often unaware of how vulnerable their network is to hacking. "When I ask some schools what they do about firewalls - electronic filters that control what enters the school network from the Internet - they say: 'Our local authority server has a firewall.' But they don't realise that the Internet is the link between them and the local authority."
Opensoft also markets the Content Security Server, which offers protection against hackers, viruses and unsavoury websites. "You can use a graduated filtering system. For example, you might wish your sixth-form students to visit sites related to racial crimes, but not your younger students," says Mr Ferrington.
Mascalls School in Kent, which has 1,150 pupils aged 11 to 18, has an iLibra system installed. The ICT co-ordinator, David Ratcliffe, says: "It's fast and you can use it with an unlimited number of computers. The server just sits there and gets on with its job."
Mr Ferrington says Internet management is becoming more important. "Some ISPs are now finding that they are handling Internet administration for hundreds of schools and that's tough. The message is getting across that if you want to get the best out of the Internet, you need to have control."
Opensoft 01488 681004 www.opensoft.co.uk