How School Systems can Establish Reliable Internet and WAN Connections

With the exponential increase of access needed to cloud-based applications for instructional and operational use, Internet reliability is becoming paramount in school systems. So how can school systems provide the necessary access by having multiple Internet connections, or a fiber ring for their Wide Area Network (WAN)? The short answer we found in my school district is to provide additional Internet connections where the school system divides Internet traffic between schools. Let’s take a hypothetical example of a school district with 20 schools. There can be one Internet connection to serve 10 schools each. In this scenario, traffic from the school systems WAN can be routed from a subset of schools, 10 in this case, out to each Internet connection. The school system may have two Internet connections from the same Internet Service Provider (ISP). The multipath routing can be accomplished by using External Border Gateway Protocol (EBGP) or Interior Border Gateway Protocol (IBGP), depending on your design. Most all Internet providers support these protocols. With an IBGP or EBGP implementation, failover takes place when it senses that one of the links is down. Traffic is then rerouted across the WAN to the available Internet link.

With this scenario, there is still a likely possibility there can be an outage. While each school may have different paths to get to their ISP, a failure can happen on the ISP’s backbone. This happened in my district and it took us down for three days. This crippled access to web-based instructional materials and slowed down business operations. Teachers had to go back to plan “B” to use other instructional tools via offline apps and books.

The Internet outage wasn’t the fault of the technology department, but with the ISP. They had a major fiber cut on their backbone that caused a significant outage. Their Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) wasn’t routing traffic properly. With thousands of customers, the ISP was making manual changes to their routing tables. By the time they could get to us, the fiber cut was repaired. This made a major impact on how I perceived the resiliency of our design.

In order to prevent this from taking place again, a Request for Proposal was developed. The goal this time around was to select another ISP connected directly to an Internet Exchange Point (IXP) to replace one of the Internet links. Having a connection to an IXP provides flexibility to access hundreds of ISP’s collocated within the IXP. We were able to get a very aggressive price on a 10 GB connection. The increased capacity was needed to support the demands of teaching and learning. Routing between two different ISP’s now takes place with BGP. It’s pretty amazing that we have our own Autonomous System Number (ASN). Having an ASN means my district is now part of the larger Internet community and provides a very fast connection to content. With Internet being considered a utility nowadays, we have the ability to shop hundreds of ISP’s after the current agreement is over. We are in the drivers seat and not at the mercy of the ISPs.

The same is true for the fiber ring to provide multiple routing paths for the WAN. Let’s take the example of a school system that has multiple fiber pairs entering each school. Many consider the fiber ring as a standby mechanism in the event the main fiber pair connection to the WAN is compromised. In this scenario WAN traffic is routed through the other fiber pair to the ring to provide continuity of service. If the school system changes the routing to send data through not only the main fiber pair, but as well through the fiber ring, they can ensure the fiber ring is being utilized efficiently to distribute the load and provide a balanced level of transport. It also ensures the fiber ring is running optimally over time.

In each of these scenarios, the reliable multipath WAN and fiber ring may be Erate eligible. Before applying for Erate for multipath Internet connections, or a fiber ring for your WAN, please consult with an Erate specialist, USAC and network consulting company.  Discussing with them first about how you plan on redesigning your WAN can help you determine if an additional Internet connection or fiber ring will be covered as an Erate eligible service.

Thinking differently about the design and routing of your Internet and WAN traffic can help you provide reliable multipath Internet and WAN connectivity to support your school system with high availability. Having multipath Internet and WAN connections can help your school system provide seamless access to materials for teaching and learning, as more and more resources are incumbent on cloud-based content.

If you are considering a redesign to support high availability, CoSN has many great resources from their Smart Education Networks by Design initiative: http://www.CoSN.org/SEND.

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