Here our Education Specialist at Loadbalancer.org, Harrison Rockensuss, looks at the fallout from Covid-19 and the ongoing need to embrace new digital ways of working.
To say the last year was tough for IT professionals working in education would be an understatement to say the least. The speed at which they had to pivot and adapt was phenomenal:
- IT teams had to deliver new cloud-based communications platforms like Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom, almost overnight, to enable lessons to be taught online
- They had to accelerate and extend their adoption of virtual learning environments like Moodle
- They had to rapidly up-scale their remote access systems to allow academic and support staff to work from home
- And yet, at the same time, they still had to maintain ‘business as usual’.
Schools, colleges and universities in the UK and USA have now reopened for in-person learning (either in part or fully) but the pressures on IT teams have not abated. With many traditional exams cancelled or scaled-back and weeks of learning to catch up on, teachers and lecturers had to be able to depend on IT to help them collate the evidence for center-based assessments, introduce new online examination formats and monitor student attainment. Meanwhile head teachers and leaders in education are planning for an unpredictable future and want to continue the digital transformation that is now so evidently underway in the sector.
How load balancers can help
Often under-utilized in education settings, load balancers can help free up time in busy IT departments, giving IT staff the capacity to cope with the larger workload they now have and the larger expectations now heaped upon them. Load balancers can be used to help keep core systems (like email, web servers, remote access, print management and document storage) performing consistently and provide the peace-of-mind that over-worked IT professionals in education so desperately need.
Load balancers can ease the pressures on IT teams in schools, colleges and universities by:
1. Preventing downtime in websites and student web services
Education websites are no longer simple information boards. Many include facilities for online student registration and portals to other online student services that need to be available 24/7. Schools, colleges and universities therefore need to be able to spread web traffic evenly across all their web servers to ensure all users have a positive online experience and avoid unnecessary downtime. One of Europe’s leading research universities, Eindhoven University of Technology, uses load balancers to ensure that its main website is highly available and fast to navigate. The use of load balancers also makes it easier for IT staff to maintain the website, by giving them the ability to add or remove web servers quickly and easily without any disruption to website performance.
2. Keeping email up and running
Email is a particularly important application that often needs to be able to provide reliable performance for very large numbers of users. Many universities worldwide, and some kindergarten to grade 12 (K-12) education districts in the USA can have over 10,000 email accounts, but even small schools need dependable email. A residential special needs school in the UK, Sunfield Children’s Home, uses a load balancing solution from Loadbalancer.org to ensure its email system works effectively and fault-free 24/7, especially at night, when its IT team is off duty. Teaching and care staff can then rely on email at all times to communicate essential student-related information between themselves, parents and other care agencies.
3. Optimizing the performance of core applications
Education institutions and K-12 education districts run a very wide range of applications on premise – from SharePoint to sector-specific solutions like the Blackboard learning management system and Banner enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform. Load balancers can be used to improve the performance and reliability of these on premise solutions, many of which are pivotal for the delivery of core services. The load balancers manage server capacity and alleviate bottle necks at peak times to improve response times and application performance for all users, whether they are students, researchers, faculty or support staff.
4. Improving the reliability of remote access systems
According to a report by the charity Education Support, more than half (58%) of all education professionals in the UK mainly worked from home during the first national lockdown of 2020. Most IT teams in education settings will have set up and expanded their remote access systems rapidly out of necessity to meet the needs of teachers and support staff during the pandemic; now they need to make sure that these systems work optimally. Load balancers can be used with any of the leading remote access platforms, including Citrix XenDesktop, Microsoft Remote Desktop Services and VMware Horizon View, to manage the number of remote connections per server and spread the load, particularly at peak times. Use of a load balancer will improve the fault tolerance of this vital system and ensure that staff can continue to access the student databases, SharePoint folders, HR systems and other applications they need, from anywhere.
5. Storing intellectual property and student work safely
In universities in particular, huge volumes of data are generated every day from academic research, assignments and the production of multi-media teaching resources. All this intellectual property needs to be safely stored and backed up to protect it – and load balancers can be used to streamline this process. For example, the University of Leicester in the UK uses a load balancer with its Cloudian data back-up system to help it store and secure over 120 terabytes of data every week. The load balancer makes the storage solution fault tolerant, keeping it up and running at all times and handling an exceptionally high throughput with ease.
6. Safeguarding students, academics and educators online
IT security is a huge concern in education settings – and an omnipresent risk. In the UK, the University of Portsmouth had to shut its campus and suspend its IT network for 12 days, just a few weeks ago, after what is believed to have been a ransomware attack. Many vendors, including Smoothwall, offer web filtering technologies ideal for education settings that remove inappropriate content and malware. Load balancers from Loadbalancer.org are typically used with Smoothwall solutions to improve their resilience and scalability and help provide a positive and safe online experience for students and staff.
7. Maintaining uninterrupted access to printing facilities
IT budgets are always limited in education settings and following the race to get teaching online, budgets will be doubly constrained. IT managers will probably be looking for ways to reduce IT costs, and print management is one very popular way to do this. Education institutions – particularly large universities and colleges – can use a print management solution to control who can print, how many pages they can print and whether they are authorized to print in color, all of which helps to control costs. Almost all print management systems, including Microsoft Print, benefit from the use of load balancers to keep printing facilities available at all times for all authorised users.
By allocating a load balancer to each of these seven fundamental challenges, in a per-application deployment approach, schools, colleges, universities and K-12 education districts (or local education authorities in the UK) can start to relieve some of the pressure on their IT teams. Applications will be more resilient to faults and less prone to downtime and will therefore deliver consistently high performance for users – while being easier for IT professionals to manage.
In industries from finance and manufacturing to retail and healthcare, most medium to large enterprises will have several load balancers implemented within their IT infrastructures. Education shouldn’t be the only industry sector that is struggling along without them. Site licenses are available that allow education institutions to acquire multiple load balancers cost-effectively through a single license agreement and an entry-level product will deliver a professional-level result.