8 room, 160 student, 20 staff, school network.

Our small elementary school is expanding, and while a consumer wireless router and a switch worked for it when we just had 10 staff with a laptop each, sometimes on, it's already a little erratic. As we move to a new building, we will have to get more professional. However, the grade of professional a local networking consultant suggested seems highly over-priced - cloud managed Meraki -- 15K to install, and 3-4K a year in license fees. We don't have any real networking expertise among the parent base, although plenty with experience of home networks (maybe part of the problem?), and resistance to this higher end solution.

Is there any kind of middle ground - specifically:easy to set up (and monitor?) VLANs and easy to set up multiple WAN entry points (we will have 2 network providers).

Additional Information: We use gApps for most stuff, dropbox for photos. School web server etc is off-site. The physical configuration is 3 floors, with 4 classrooms on two, and offices on third. I'm assuming one wifi AP per classroom. We're not super high usage of tablets/laptops amongst the K-students, but that will change I imagine as get grades 4-8.

Thanks so much,
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More about room 160 student staff school network
  1. You have a rather substantial and growing network here with a wide range of needs. I don't mean to say this at all to sound harsh or cruel but the honest truth is you need to have an IT professional here to manage this, and yes, it's going to cost A LOT to get it done properly. Sure, you can get by cheaply, but I guarantee if you skimp it will all come crashing down. I'm saying this because truly your best solution is going to be finding a network administrator who is willing to help set up and manage your network. Even if you don't need someone full time, either find someone part time or contract with a local IT professional who can do the job right. Knowledge of home wireless networking is little good in a school environment where you need to control user access, security, manage multiple networks, and domain environments.

    That being said, this would be a big project even for me, as most of our customers are no more than 20 or 30 employees and computers. At minimum you need to have in place a nice firewall to manage network access, monitor traffic, and block intrusion attempts or attacks. You can also find routers that will do most of this, brands and features really come down to your preference and budget. Switches need to be manageable to support multiple VLANs that are needed for this network. Staff computers, resources, and data should not be accessible on computers where students may have access. Doing this requires separating your networks. Enterprise wireless access points are also recommended above just cheap wireless routers used as access points. Not only are true access points capable of handling more concurrent connections properly, but the are often able to handle multiple SSIDs and VLANs which isn't something cheap home wireless routers can do. One AP can do the work of four wireless routers meaning less cost, less failures, and less complexity.

    You are also going to need servers, if you don't already, for managing storage, software, and user account access. You COULD get away with using a single or possibly two servers to do this, but I wouldn't recommend that. Invest in high availability. No one, not your students nor your staff, want your network to go down for days due to a glitch with your server. A simple high-availability cluster can be built with two "nodes" which are your computational servers plus one shared storage, called a SAN. This can even be a third server setup for ISCSI, but usually is a specialized SAN device built for better reliability, performance, and expansion.
  2. Thank Choucove for the detailed answer. Would like to keep it open just to see if there are other opinions.

    We're using Google Apps for Education for document management. I'm not quite sure why we need servers? I guess if we end up provisioning a bunch of student machines we need network boots to keep the clean?

    I have to say I'm not very happy about the state of our staff machines right now -- they are individualized and a pain if they go wrong. But by and large we aren't worried about backups etc, as student data is hosted off-site and documents in Google Drive.

  3. Best answer
    There are many reasons why a server for this environment would be recommended.

    1) Centralized management. As your network grows it is going to be increasingly difficult to manage who has access to what resources in the network, sharing information, user accounts and passwords, etc. You can go to each computer individually and set all of this up individually, or with a domain controller do it once and it applies to all of your computers. This will become increasingly more evident if you start having student-access computers.

    2) Centralized storage and backups. Whether you have student documents in the cloud storage or not, you are going to need local storage at some point. Staff information, records, data, and documents should not be cloud hosted honestly. That should be stored on your server where you have access to control it and who has access to it much more effectively. Backups are something that will have to be done as you grow if nothing else so that you have images of computers so you can restore quickly in the event of failures or viruses instead of spending hours reinstalling everything and transferring data and settings again and again.

    3) Centralized applications. Again, this might not be something that you are leveraging right now, but there are many programs that you may have to install on several staff computers that need shared access to the same database of information, or you may want to install that software on only one computer instead of many because of licensing cost of however it may work.

    With a small network of computers you can get away with not utilizing a server and managing computers individually. However, I'd say with 20 computers even you are reaching the limits of that ability without implementing non-traditional strategies for technology or adapting to technology standards designed for larger networks and the security and management features necessary for such a growing network. As with anything, there are always multiple ways of approaching this sort of scenario and that's one reason why I think it is very good that you post up on forums like this one. There are many IT experts here which may have many options and ideas of how to handle it. Hopefully some others will also voice up some options to consider.
  4. I know this maybe a little late, but the number of APs, size of your Internet connection, what device is serving as your DHCP server and the sq ft of your school would be a great help in helping you. As choucove mentioned, you have moving in to a much more expensive place, but you don't need a full time IT person, just the part time help of someone/some company that provided business class IT help.

    I have used/tested Meraki, but I prefer Ruckus wireless. I bet you could use less AP, one 24 port PoE Switch (Zyxel GS-1910-24P highly recommended) with a single local ZoneDirector for a lot less, and if you don't purchase maintenance in years 2 and 3, your network will still operate.

    Key differences:
    1) Most of Ruckus's APs handle 250 - 512 active connections, Meraki ~40-50
    2) If you don't buy maintenance from Meraki, your APs just stop working.
    3) Cloud manager for Meraki, your choice from Ruckus, local appliance or cloud on VMware

    (Full Disclosure) I am a full time RF Engineer, Ruckus WiSE certified, have and like my demo MR18 AP from Meraki and am Blue Socket certified as well as 30+ years in networking.

    BTW ... Schools get a special discount from most AP vendors ...

    P.S. If you need help or more advice, contact me at pa da pa -at- g mail dot com (assembling the email address is your first test).
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