When the Bay City school system faced the challenge of implementing a state-of-the-art VPN to work with their multi-platform system in just a few months, they turned to a VAR, a major direct channel manufacturer of computers, and a maker of NOSs that some would mistakenly call a legacy. Jacqueline Emigh reports on how they accomplished their mission goal with time to spare.
When John Strycker started his new job in Bay City, Michigan, he faced the daunting challenge of setting up a state-of-the-art VPN for the public school system in just a few months. Working closely with Novell, Dell, and Matrix Integration, though, Strycker and his team of in-house technicians made their deadline with room to spare.
"The situation I dove into was a mess," recalls Strycker, who'd taken on the post of director of technology and information for the Bay City school system. "We had seniors graduating from high school who'd never even used a computer."
Existing IT equipment for the school system's 10,000 users was a mixed bag of Novell NetWare, Microsoft Windows NT, and Apple Macintosh systems. Some school buildings had LANs or peer-to-peer networks, but these weren't connected district wide.
"The school system was hungry for more technology, however," Strycker adds. The Board of Education earmarked more than $10 million for short- and long-term technology improvements. "So I had the green light to move ahead." There wasn't that much time left, though, before the new school year was set to begin.
To help pinpoint which tack to take, Strycker set up a task force that included Eric Mosier, a technical solutions consultant at Matrix; Bryan Fuller, now the network manager for the Bay City schools, and other Bay City school personnel. Strycker had worked with both Fuller and Mosier in a previous job with a school system in Indiana.
"The implementation in Bay City was rather revolutionary, really. We rolled out the network in almost no time. Novell has even incorporated some of the code developed for the deployment into NetWare 6," Mosier says.
Strycker's team in Bay City first tackled the question of whether to choose NetWare or NT as the NOS. "We researched that very hard. Each had pros and cons. NetWare seemed to offer better integration with other vendors' products. NT seemed to supply better Internet access. In the end, though, we went with NetWare, because it was more of a known entity. Bryan, Eric and I had all come from Novell shops," Strycker says.
After settling upon NetWare, the task force moved on to weigh which hardware platform to use. The field ultimately narrowed to Dell and Compaq, due to a combination of service and financial factors.
"We went to Texas, to visit Dell in Austin and Compaq in Houston. As it turned out, Dell's Custom Factory Integration unit wanted to do a pilot in which they'd pre-configure server boxes with NetWare and other Novell software. So Dell came out on top," he says.
In May and June of 1999, engineers from Dell and Novell pre-configured 20 Dell servers that has been factory-installed with NetWare 5.1, NDS 8, GroupWise, and Zen for Desktops.
In early July, the engineers arrived in Bay City, where they set up all 20 Dell boxes, along with two existing Novell servers, in less than a day and a half.
"Ordinarily, a process like this would have taken a few weeks. We could have gotten everything done even faster -- within only a few hours -- except that we ran into a couple of snags," Strycker says. For one thing, Dell and Novell uncovered a need to enhance the NDS merge function in NetWare 5.1.
"We had an existing NDS tree, and we wanted to merge it with a new one. At that time, NDS couldn't reconcile the objects properly from two separate trees, except in very small deployments. Also, the NDS merge function didn't include any recovery function in case the process failed. The destination would actually become corrupted," Mosier maintains.
To correct this problem, Cary Andrews, an NDS programmer from Novell, tweaked NDS merge to allow for object reconciliation in large-scale deployments. Andrews also added a function that lets network managers see the results of a merge before actually committing to the merge. Novell has incorporated code from these enhancements into NetWare 6, according to Mosier.
The other snare involved getting VPN connectivity between the fiber optic ATM WAN used in Bay City's high school and administration buildings and the cable TV network that connected K-5 schools to the Internet.
For VPN IPsec tunneling, the Alcatel layer 3 switches already installed on the fiber optic link required only relatively minor reconfiguration. "The cable modems in the K-5 schools, though, were only able to handle the MAC addresses of 500 devices. So, we swapped out the cable modems for Cisco 1720 routers," Mosier says.
The Bay City school system then used Zen for Desktops to push out application software to all of the system's PC workstations, including 1400 PCs then newly purchased from Dell.
Under its contract with Dell, Bay City is entitled to three bundled server software products at no extra charge. The school system opted NetWare, GroupWise, and Zen for Desktops. Bay City, though, also holds a single license for Novell's ManageWise, an application that would add remote monitoring to the network's administration features.
So far, however, the school system hasn't felt a need for remote monitoring. If users experience difficulties, they call in for help, and technicians are dispatched to check out server and network status.
"Those NetWare servers are like rocks," according to Strycker. In calculating network statistics, Strycker has clocked uptime at 99.13 percent. "That's almost unbelievable, and I don't think we could ever have achieved it without NetWare," he says.
Jacqueline Emigh (pronounced "Amy") is a 12-year veteran of computer journalism. She is currently freelancing for several leading technology and business publications. She was previously a senior editor for Sm@rt Partner Magazine, and before that, a bureau chief for Newsbytes News Network.
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