Networking in Schools
There is currently much hype regarding how and why schools should network. Often, the people making or implementing decisions suffer from either insufficient or too much information. The purpose of these pages is to help explain in simple terms some of the issues involved in networking computers within a school.
This page is based on the authorís experience and thus is flawed by personal bias. One major omission is networking of Apple computers. This is not to imply any disadvantage of their hardware, rather the desire not to write about that of which I know nothing.
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There is good reason for the hype surrounding networking computers: it is the best way to get most from your equipment as printers, scanners, internet access etc. can be shared between all the machines in the network. It is also an ideal way of sharing information around your school. Return to Top
Whatís the downside?
The required level of expertise is considerably higher than needed to maintain a set of standalones. While mundane tasks (such as loading new software on a bank of machines) can be speeded up, networking creates as many problems as it solves.
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Basically each machine needs
- a network interface card (NIC)
- cable to connect machines together
- networking software.
- You may also need a fileserver
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A number of issues should be addressed at the pre-planning stage:
- How are the computers to be organised? Will they be concentrated in one room, one per class or a combination of both? Each school has different needs and should decide accordingly. Remember that whatever approach is taken will possibly determine the general thrust of networking within your school for the next five years.
- Who will carry out the networking? Does the expertise exist within the school? If a contractor is to be used, do they have experience at carrying out work in schools? Can they provide references?
- Assuming the network is fully commissioned and operational, who will be responsible for the day-to-day running of the network? How far does this responsibility go? How will this person be trained? How many free periods will be timetabled each week to carry out this work? Would it be better to train two teachers and share the workload?
- When things go wrong, to whom can you turn? Will the people who installed your network also supply back-up support? What will it cost? Return to Top
Check and see if your electrical wiring is sufficient to handle all needs for the foreseeable future. If re-wiring is needed it would be prudent to have expansion in mind. Remember each modern machine requires at least 3 electrical sockets (system box, monitor, speakers). Allowance should also be made for printers, scanners, modems, hubs etc. Return to Top
When planning your data cabling layout plan for as much expansion as you can afford. The biggest single cost factor is labour, so adding a few extra cables, if likely to be used, is highly recommended. Consider running cables to parts of the school which you may wish to network in the near future, e.g. staff room, library, Science labs, Art rooms, etc. Return to Top
In addition to basic peer-to-peer networking supplied by Windows95/98 (see below), there are two real network software options available to schools: Windows NT server or Novell NetWare. Your choice will be driven by price and level of support. Depending on the number of machines, cost of NetWare site licenses can be quite expensive. However, until recently, WindowsNT server support was less commonly available. Return to Top
Peer to Peer Networking
Another, basic networking approach is to use the networking software provided in Windows(ver3.11), Windows95 and Windows98. While not providing all the frills of their heavyweight competitors, they will allow print sharing, file sharing and so on.
The main advantage is cost. As its name suggests, there is no designated computer (called a fileserver) whose sole job is to run the network. Also, cost of network software is not insignificant. Return to Top
Evolutionary approach: A suggested route
As you may realise, the introduction of a network can be quite complex. Troubleshooting problems, gaining competence and confidence in running the network can be painstakingly slow. One approach schools might consider is to cable the network to CAT5 standard but install only peer to peer networking.
Since the network is more simple, it should be easier to iron out teething problems. When your designated staff are fully comfortable with this set-up you then consider the need (or not) to upgrade to more sophisticated network software. You may discover that in the short-term, all school needs can be met by this simpler network.
When Ėand if- you decide to upgrade to NT or NetWare, there is no wastage since cabling, hubs and physical layout will be the same. All that is added is a fileserver and software. Return to Top
Beware of any temptation to buy the cheapest possible NICís. It is often a false economy as some of the most common and hardest to resolve problems stem from unreliable cards. If you are already using 10base2, then you may consider future proofing buying combo network cards for any new machines as these contain sockets for 10base2 and 10baseT.
If you are operating your network at 10Mps but expect to upgrade to 100Mps in the foreseeable future, consider buying switchable 10/100Mps cards. Return to Top
- For a new network, schools would be best cabling to category 5 (CAT5) standard. This will allow future proofing as cables of this quality will be able to operate at 100 Mbit/sec (also known as 100baseT).
- Be sure that the contractor certifies in writing the cabling is CAT5 standard. Return to Top
A mistake many schools make is they buy a standard high powered machine as fileserver. This contains many expensive components, such as soundcard, high quality video card etc. What is important in a fileserver is a robust machine with a very large and fast hard disk. Schools will get better value by spending the same money on a dedicated machine to their own specifications. Return to Top
Network Interface Card (NIC)
A card of electronics which plugs into the computer, with cable sockets at the back. Back to article
This can be with co-axial or telephone wire. There is a plethora of options but the most obvious are listed below:
|A hub handles data traffic through the network. Cables radiate from
it in what is called a star topology. While hub failure will knock out
your network this is rarely a problem.
Hubs can be connected to each other. For example a central hub in the computer room may have a single cable running to the staff room. Attached to this a 6-port hub allows six machines in the staff room to connect via the single cable.
While Windows 95/98 provide basic software for basic peer-to-peer networking (see further) the real contenders are Novell Netware and Microsoft NT. Both are more than up to the task of networking your school. Back to article