Routers and Switches connect devices in a school to one another (switches) and then out to the internet (router). They need to be of sufficient capacity to meet the school’s needs, and must be able to receive firmware and security updates from the manufacturer. If this is not the case, the school will experience issues when accessing digital resources and enabling online learning.
If you consider the movement of data around a school like water in the pipes at home, the size of the pipe and the demands from all the taps in the house can have an effect on the availability of the flow. It is the same for data in a school – if there are issues with any of the switches on the network, or if the data coming in and out is being held up by the router, it can have an impact on Internet access across the school as a whole. You should therefore be mindful of both the capacity and the age of the router and switches deployed in school to ensure that the availability of data is not impeded.
Schools need to have "business strength" equipment that can cope with the heavy demands that hundreds of simultaneous users place upon it. A domestic router is therefore unsuitable for use in a school setting, for a range of reasons. The most suitable routers are those capable of dealing with the heavy traffic and ensuring no user experiences data losses or frustratingly slow connections.
Routers are like the junctions of your network - if they are not maintained or do not have enough capacity, everything can get clogged up, causing frustration and delay.
Your local authority can help you check that your router is maintained and has enough capacity, meaning that you can access the internet and send data efficiently and safely.
As outlined in Connectivity (Broadband) Standards, schools must consult their local authority before making any decision to use a broadband provider other than PSBA, and must also ensure that they have sufficient cyber security measures.
In addition, you should consult Planning and Management Standards on the importance of planning for more information.
As outlined in Standard A: Connectivity; schools should use the Public Sector Broadband Aggregation (PSBA) as their default broadband provider.
PSBA offer a managed service which includes provision and management of a router that connects the school IT network to the Wide Area Network (WAN) through the PSBA.
The PSBA router provided will be of sufficient capacity to support the flow of data, and will be managed to ensure that there are the utmost safeguarding and data security protocols in place.
Routers must be of sufficient capacity to support the throughput of network data and must also be in support from the manufacturer to ensure they are receiving firmware updates and operating as effectively and securely as possible.
To be as efficient as possible, school IT networks should be professionally designed and installed.
Being designed properly increases the probability that equipment failures can be bypassed and the impact on users in class minimised. Ensuring that there is the shortest possible route between the end user and the Internet reduces the distance your data has to travel and the number of potential blockages on your network.
A well-planned network helps you get value from both your internet connection and your devices.
To maximise network efficiency and avoid bottlenecks, the shortest possible route between the end user device and the internet should be followed by schools.
This entails having a planned-out school IT network structure which includes:
- Having a single router installed to connect the school IT network with the internet, and which should be by PSBA as outlined in Standard C1. In instances where schools require Layer 3 routing functionality to enable additional functionality, this should be provided through use of a Layer 3 switch not an additional router. In cases where an additional router has been used to provide this functionality, schools should consult their local authority to ensure that it is not causing an additional pinch point on the network;
- Ensuring that there is a maximum of two switches between the end user device and the router – this link is called a hop, and good practice recommends a maximum of two hops between the end user device and the router to maximise effective data flow; and
- Avoiding linking switches together in a loop – called daisy chaining. This can have a seriously detrimental effect on a network as an issue with a single switch could then bring down the network as a whole.
Switches handle all your traffic - both local (staying in the school) and that travelling outside (to the Internet, via your router).
Switches are like junctions on your network. If they do not let traffic flow fast enough at peak times you will experience delays and frustration. The backbone of your network is the main traffic route on your network, and delays on this will knock on to the smaller branches coming off it.
Internet connection speeds have steadily increased over the years to the point where lessons are often built around interactive web-based resources and tools. Network switches need to have sufficient capacity to allow seamless lesson delivery to all learners.
A network switch connects devices together by receiving, processing and forwarding data to other devices that are on the network, and onto the router to gain access to the internet. Data is processed in packets and the capacity of a switch allows it to process these data packets more effectively and efficiently.
The capacity of a switch enables it to communicate effectively. The following switch capacities are common in schools:
- 10/100 switch (capable of 100 megabits per second);
- Gigabit switch (10/100/1000) (capable of maximum 1 gigabit per second); and
- 10 Gigabit switches (capable of 10 gigabits per second)
The larger the capacity of the switch, the faster it can process data packets.
In addition, there are two main types of switch in schools. The first is core (or “backbone”) switches which sit at the core of the school IT network and connect the router to switches and switches to one another. The second type are edge switches which connect end user devices and other items (e.g. a desktop computer or wireless access points) into the core school IT network structure.
The capacity of switches across the school IT network will have an impact on network performance and therefore the experience of the end user. Where there are inconsistencies across switches in a local area network, this can mean that some areas of the school are better served than others.
Recommendations for switch capacity in schools on the core / backbone school IT network are:
- 10Gbps for Secondary and larger primary schools utilising lots of digital learning; and
- 1Gbps for smaller and rural primary schools.
Any instances where schools feel their requirements are best met with a switch capacity different from the above should take advice from their local authority. They should also be mindful of the content of Standard A: Connectivity (Broadband) as it applies to them.
Where appropriate, new switches should be Power over Ethernet (PoE) enabled. POE allows devices to draw their electrical power via their network cable.
The advantages of PoE include:
- Time and money - by reducing the time and expense of having electrical power cabling installed;
- Safety - POE delivery is intelligent, and designed to protect network equipment from overload, underpowering, or incorrect installation; and
- Reliability - POE power can be backed-up by an uninterruptible power supply or controlled to easily disable or reset devices.
POE can be introduced in two ways.
Firstly, a PoE switch is a network switch that has Power over Ethernet injection built-in. A PoE switch will detect whether end devices are PoE-compatible and enable power automatically. PoE+ switches use the latest PoE+ standard, IEEE 802.3at, also known as PoE class 4, which provides up to 30W of power to each device. PoE+ switches provide almost twice as much power as PoE switch.
The second method is to use a POE injector or splitter.
The difference between an injector and a splitter is that a PoE injector sends power to devices that receives data through existing non-POE switches. A splitter also supplies power, but it does so by splitting the power from the data and feeding it to a separate input that a non-PoE compliant device can use.
It is accepted that schools are operating on limited resources. Schools can use the following guidelines as a basis to enable them to meet the Standard over time:
- Ensure all unmanaged switch devices are removed from the school IT network;
- Replace outstanding 10/100Mbps switches on the school IT network backbone – min 1Gbps primary, 10Gbps secondary (small rural schools with fewer than 50 pupils should consult with their local authority);
- Review and plan the replacement of 10/100Mbps switches on the core / backbone school IT network as these will have little or no management capabilities;
- Newly purchased switches should be 1Gbps capacity in secondary and larger primary, and where possible across all schools to ensure future proofing; and
- Switches to be compliant with local authority recommendations on age, vendor and installation method.
The weakest link in any chain determines its strength - the different parts of a school network need be connected together with appropriate connectors or performance will be reduced and lessons impacted.
Ensuring that connectors are of the right capacity helps your network traffic flow more freely and reliably for users throughout the school.
Capacity across the school IT network can be impeded if the connectors between switches and the remainder of the school IT network are operating at a lower capacity than the switch itself.
GBIC and SFP: These are both pluggable optical transceiver devices which are mainly used to convert between the optical signal and electrical signal. GBIC stands for Gigabit Interface Converter. SFP is short for Small Form-factor Pluggable. GBICs are being replaced by SFPs due to the gigabit limitations and requirements for increased line speeds. GBICs allow Gigabit switches to connect to a variety of both fibre and ethernet cables and therefore link fibre switches to both fibre and ethernet (Cat 5e and Cat 6) cables in a network.
Schools should use GBIC (or SFP) connectors and ensure that legacy connectors such as media convertors are removed from the school IT network.
Ensuring that older connectors, such as media convertors, are removed from the school IT network and replaced with devices that support faster and more effective data throughput, gives resilience, and provides real time monitoring for network management staff.
A switch connects multiple network devices together (like PCs to a printer), but a 'managed' switch can configure, manage, and monitor a network remotely - allowing your technicians to anticipate, and resolve issues as they arise, often without you being aware. Managed switches allow technical teams to prevent or solve problems that could affect your use of the network.
Schools should not use unsupported mini hubs.
Please see Planning and Management Standards, as well as Standard C2, Standard C3 and Standard C4 for more information.
Schools should be using local authority, or an appropriate IT support partner, to manage switches; with any residual unmanaged switches removed from the school IT network.
Managed switches include the following features:
- Configuration and security protocols;
- Management of firmware upgrades;
- Quality of Service (QOS) – ability to prioritise network traffic deemed as important;
- Manage and monitor the switch and network performance; and
- Identify and resolve issues remotely.
Managed switches allow local authority network staff to configure, manage and monitor the overall school IT network for your school. It allows control over the flow of data; what network traffic uses which set of switches; and to allow staff to deploy configurations, updates and patches across the network easily and efficiently.
Monitoring of the school IT network allows network staff to react to issues effectively, determine where upgrades and expansion of capacity is required and support school improvement planning. It ensures that the school IT network is performing optimally and that there is consistency in end user experience across the school.
Old networking equipment can be rapidly superseded, fall out of date and may no longer be supported by the manufacturer. It is easy to consider renewing laptops etc. that are in use daily, but it is important not to neglect less visible equipment.
Where possible this should coincide with the terms involved with warranty periods and/or lease terms to maximise value for money on investments that have already been made.
The school router and switches should be reviewed on a cyclical basis to ensure that they remain fully supported by their manufacturer, and receiving regular updates and patches to maintain their security and operating effectiveness.
The Standard informs the longer-term planning process and allows for budget considerations to be built into school improvement planning cycles. You should therefore be mindful of conditions around warranty support and leasing conditions for any devices when carrying out these reviews.
You should consider the full lifecycle cost for all new kit being deployed in school, including refresh and maintenance. This is often called “total cost of ownership”. This should include ensuring warranty details are maintained as part of the key documentation pertaining to the school IT network.
Although it is important to include consideration of refresh on essential IT infrastructure in schools’ strategic planning, there is a recognition that there are competing demands for limited resources. Therefore this Standard is intended as an indication of best practice.
It is accepted that schools may not be able to refresh infrastructure with such regularity. However, if switches are clearly labelled and being managed effectively to the requirements of the other Standards in this category, school leadership teams will have the insight they need to prioritise where spending needs to be directed, and where issues are likely to arise in the school IT network as a whole.