Q&A: High-Availability Gets High Marks at School District

Load balancing helps provide high access on report-card day.

The Springfield, MA public school district views itself as a partnership between parents and the community; everyone works toward the common goal of “a culture of educational excellence for our children.” To that end, technology plays a critical role in that mission and the district is considered a leader in information technology. The school system offers students the ability to explore and gather information through its Web site and the Internet; teachers use data tools to manage grading and curriculum; and parents and students can access critical information on school events and student records online.

For the 2010-2011 school year, the district implemented its first Web-based student information system. This new centralized system offers challenges in terms of availability and avoiding congestion, which could clog servers during such important times as report-card day, when thousands of parents may be accessing the newly implemented system.

To learn more about how Springfield is dealing with availability and how it avoids congestion with its online applications, we turned to Benjamin Wilson, technology operations manager of the Springfield Public School System.

Enterprise Strategies: Describe the network set-up for the Springfield school system.

Benjamin Wilson: We have 58 networked buildings with each room wired. This includes 51 schools plus administration buildings. We have 10,000 computers throughout the district and originally had 300 servers. By moving to a blade model and VMware, we’re down to 200 servers with the ultimate goal of reaching 80. With VMware version 2.4, we have one physical box at each location connected to a VMware server. All roles except for the one server are virtualized, and we have high-availability clusters that connect to Fibre Channel drives.

We began implementing load balancers when we deployed the Web-based student information system, previously never having considered hardware or software load balancers. We’re also evaluating SharePoint and we are in the process of migrating to Microsoft Exchange 2010.

Were you having application accessibility issues?

No, the move to load balancing was a preventive measure. Our value-added reseller (who was working on the software installation) explained the need for a load balancer to assure high availability and to avoid traffic congestion. We were particularly concerned about server overload during such important times as report-card day, when we expected thousands of parents would access the system.

With fewer servers online, we were concerned that each one would have to handle an increased load. We still need to provide online access to 26,000 students and 4,400 staff members, including about 2,500 teachers and paraprofessionals.

How difficult was the deployment?

We have a highly skilled technical staff; they realized the needs and advantages of the centralized data system and the need for the load balancers. Specifically, the products are easy to deploy and integrate with in-place hardware. We started planning the online system implementation about a year before it went “live.” The installation itself went smoothly and the addition of the load balancers was not complex -- and this would probably be the case for organizations lacking the expertise of a larger organization. The only issue was we had the KEMP boxes cabled backwards in one data center, but the secondary node found the problem and took over so that was not a major problem.

What was your biggest concern?

We wanted to avoid server overload on report-card day, as I mentioned, or when vital information would be placed on the Web site, especially while users are still getting acquainted with the newly implemented system. We also knew that with fewer servers online, it increased the importance of assuring that each one is able to handle the increased load placed upon it. In addition to the PowerSchool online application, we are also evaluating Microsoft SharePoint. With SharePoint 2007, staff can share information across Web sites, collaborate on documents, and access and manage databases easily. We needed to ensure that our users would get the best experience possible across all users -- meaning high availability and top performance.

We were also concerned about cost and ease of management. It really came down to cost. We evaluated several brands of load balancers. We evaluated F5, which offered a variety of products, but the low-end model lacked features and the high-end models were more expensive than our budget allowed. KEMP Technologies offered both the specs we needed and a price we could afford. For example, Springfield needed a load balancer that could handle 10,000 transactions per second.

For the load balancers, we also wanted scalability as well as the ability to leverage the appliances in the future as we added new applications beyond the information system.

What are some of your future plans beyond the information system?

We will also be running Microsoft Office SharePoint and migrating Stoneware enterprise applications to the cloud this year, and those need to be accessible both internally and from outside the school district. That “anytime, anyplace access” is very important to us. With SharePoint, we will gain Web presence, document collaboration, and application integration and will depend on KEMP for availability and flexibility to scale.

We’re going to be migrating to a Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 for unified communications, improved access to e-mail, voicemail, and instant messaging from any platform. We are also planning to implement a Windows Terminal Server farm for virtual desktop creation and remote desktop access. With each of these applications, the school system needs to continue to assure high availability. As we adopt any of these applications, we’ll include the KEMP LoadMaster because high availability is a need, not a preference.