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School District Makes Online Learning, BYOD a Reality with F5 Solutions

Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS), Georgia’s largest school system, needed to support a major initiative for online and collaborative learning called eCLASS. eCLASS includes a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) approach for boosting student engagement.

GCPS used F5 BIG-IP Application Delivery Controllers to create a secure BYOD environment, and to provide high availability for eCLASS as well as a range of school administration, facilities management, and student progress tracking applications. The F5 devices also have helped GCPS consolidate its data centers, streamline administration, and avoid additional hardware costs that would otherwise been required to deploy eCLASS.

Business Challenges

Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) is the largest school system in Georgia, with enrollment of more than 165,000 students. To support this large population, the GCPS IT department delivers many enterprise applications, including school administration, facilities management, communications, and student progress tracking.

To reduce costs and enhance services, the IT department began to consolidate servers to a central data center. GCPS also wanted to streamline the systems that support its applications. Over time, many systems had been implemented as point solutions, such as the three different platforms the school system relied on to manage application traffic—none of which provided the scalability necessary to support the broader environment. “We wanted a single platform that would support all of our traffic management,” explains Tim England, Director of Telecommunications and Network Services at GCPS.

In 2012, GCPS embarked on another major initiative called eCLASS. The goal of this digital Content Learning, Assessment, and Support System is to enhance student engagement and the learning process. This multi-year initiative will provide digital tools that will expand the walls of the classroom, fostering collaboration and nurturing creativity and innovation in students and teachers. Technological tools and resources will create an online, collaborative environment that includes electronic textbooks, digital content, rich media, and student-teacher portals.

eCLASS also supports the concept of bring- your-own-device (BYOD) as a means to boost engagement. At approved schools, students, teachers, and staff can use their personal computing devices, such as laptops and tablet PCs, to connect to eCLASS resources.

However, the BYOD component of eCLASS posed a security challenge because only managed devices that are properly updated with the latest security software are allowed access to the GCPS network. “We needed a secure way to allow personal devices to access eCLASS and the Internet,” says Jason Baekey, Coordinator of Network Enterprise Infrastructure Services at GCPS.

“F5 was the only ADC vendor that met all our requirements—it was clearly a mature solution.” Jason Baekey, Coordinator of Network Enterprise Infrastructure Services, Gwinnett County Public Schools

Solution

To support consolidation of its multiple platforms and to ensure high uptime for eCLASS and other applications, GCPS evaluated Application Delivery Controllers (ADCs) from F5 and two other vendors.  “One vendor’s solution would have required us to use additional components of theirs, and we didn’t want to be tied to a single vendor,” says Baekey. “The other vendor didn’t match up in terms of horsepower and scalability. F5 was the only one that met all our requirements—it was clearly a mature solution.”

F5’s channel partner Corus360 helped provide the overall solution for the school district’s growing application infrastructure requirements. The solution included F5 VIPRION ADCs with F5 BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) and BIG-IP Global Traffic Manager (GTM). VIPRION is a chassis- based controller that relies on modular performance blades, so as more schools adopt eCLASS, GCPS can add power and improve performance without adding more devices. GCPS uses a pair of VIPRION 2400 devices at its main data center and a single VIPRION device at its disaster recovery site. BIG-IP LTM manages traffic to GCPS applications while BIG-IP GTM ensures availability in the event of a network outage—in which case it redirects traffic to the disaster recovery site.

GCPS takes advantage of F5 Virtual Clustered Multiprocessing (vCMP), the VIPRION hypervisor that enables multiple instances of BIG-IP LTM to run on the same device. The multi-tenancy and complete network isolation that vCMP brings about is key to the school district’s BYOD initiative. It allows the IT department to create a separate network dedicated solely to providing wireless Internet access from personal devices.

“The throughput of the F5 solution is excellent. And we’ve had no outages since implementing the BIG-IP system.” Jason Baekey, Coordinator of Network Enterprise Infrastructure Services, Gwinnett County Public Schools

Benefits

Using the BIG-IP system, GCPS streamlined application delivery, providing a highly available, cost-effective environment for the school system’s enterprise applications and the associated modules and components of eCLASS. It also created a secure BYOD network that will scale to support its users.

High performance, availability

The F5 devices enable the IT team to support a highly available, top-performing environment. “The throughput of the F5 solution is excellent,” says Baekey. “And we’ve had no outages since implementing the BIG-IP system.” BIG-IP LTM gives GCPS a clear view into network and application health so the IT team can stay on top of issues before they become problems.  BIG-IP LTM also offloads resource-intensive services such as SSL processing from GCPS servers to ensure optimal performance.

Streamlined administration, lower costs

Moving to a single platform for application delivery has propelled data center consolidation and reduced costs. “With the BIG-IP system, we’ve consolidated three different load balancing scenarios to one platform—and added advanced capabilities,” says England. “Traffic management services are centralized, and administration is greatly streamlined.”

GCPS was also able to use the BIG-IP platform to enable the BYOD network, so it avoided purchasing additional hardware to support the initiative. “We didn’t purchase BIG-IP LTM with the intent of enabling BYOD,” says Baekey. “But we happily discovered that it is capable of much, much more than managing traffic in our enterprise environment.”

Secure, scalable environment for BYOD

Using F5 devices, GCPS successfully isolated its BYOD network from its enterprise network. BIG-IP LTM supports an unlimited number of Generic Routing Encapsulation protocol tunnels, so GCPS can create secure pathways on the wireless network to eCLASS servers and to Cisco Web Security Appliances, which provide filtered Internet access. This filtering is essential because GCPS is subject to the regulations of the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

“In the BOYD environment, F5 plays a major role in helping us provide filtered Internet access,” adds Jason Yancey, Senior Internet Engineer at GCPS. GCPS also takes advantage of the F5 iRules scripting language to log connections to applications and the Internet—and it reports this information to its security team.

When the school district’s vision for eCLASS  is fulfilled, it could support up to 200,000 students, teachers, and staff. “The F5 solution will scale to support our expanding user base,” says Baekey. “With F5 in our environment, we can isolate the BYOD network and circumvent the enterprise network, which has allowed us to accomplish the first generation rollout of secure BYOD,” says Baekey.