Educational institutions have a problem: their decades-old network architectures are no match for today’s deluge of data.
Many Switches, Lean IT Staff
The schools also typically have a lean IT budget and equally lean IT staff. (Staffing challenges are not unique to schools, however – experienced network technicians are scarce anywhere in the world, and, thus, expensive.)
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What Can Be Done? Automate.
Only network automation makes it possible for large education networks to be upgraded and maintained by small teams of engineers and network administrators. But network automation packages from the likes of Cisco, Juniper, HPE and Aruba are prohibitively expensive.
Open networking has long been a preferred path for education network administrators. They are well aware that, for a fraction of the cost, open network hardware offers the same performance and capabilities as “brand name” switches – because they use the same underlying hardware. Open networks represent a natural fit for fiscally responsible educational institutions that must answer to taxpayers and donors for every dollar they spend.
But, until now, open networks lacked any kind of easy-to-use, scalable automation framework to help configure, deploy, and maintain new switches with limited technical staff. That’s what routinely sent educational customers back into the arms of their legacy networking vendors. With this kind of captive market, legacy vendors were free to build early obsolescence into their hardware, forcing educational institutions into a perpetual upgrade cycle at ever-increasing price points.
AmpCon – Automation Comes to Open Access Networks
It all changes with AmpCon automation framework from Pica8
Short for Amplified Control, AmpCon is an automated, scalable, market-proven open networking automation solution for access and distributed campus networks – like those at educational institutions.
With its Push-Button Deployment capability, AmpCon radically simplifies installation and configuration of large numbers of remote switches running the Pica8 PICOS network operating system. Even non-technical employees can use AmpCon’s Quick-Start Mode to deploy hundreds or thousands of switches at once using simple GUI-based English commands. The operational expense (OpEx) savings of this feature alone makes AmpCon a natural fit for educational institutions because it solves the staffing problem – now there’s no need to send network technicians to each site to install and configure switches.
Education Network Upgrade Drivers
Technology is fundamental to education today. At the K-12 level, more and more schools are adopting one-to-one computing and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiatives, completely changing the complexion of classrooms. Blended or hybrid learning models that combine traditional teaching with online resources are becoming the norm.
With students using tablets, laptops and Chromebooks throughout the school day, and routinely accessing the Internet, the stress on Wi-Fi and campus networks is seismic compared to the what these educational networks were designed to handle.
It’s much the same for higher education institutions, where students expect network access no matter where they may be – dorms, cafeteria, even on shuttle buses. In this scenario, the access network has organically expanded to the furthest reaches of the campus. Here again, the demand for bandwidth is nearly insatiable, as students stream all kinds of media – educational or not – and play real-time, multi-player games on their myriad devices.
When these networks were first designed, the three-tier network model made perfect sense: access switches in classrooms and other buildings feeding aggregation switches in wiring closets or server rooms. Then the aggregation switches ship traffic up to core switches in the network backbone.
But today, the three-tier design is like an albatross around IT’s neck in the education sector, with the explosion of traffic at the access edge forcing the need for more bandwidth and more switches that are a nightmare to deploy and manage.
An Open Alternative to Legacy Access Networks
Pica8 presents an alternative with PICOS, the world’s first open Linux NOS designed to run on disaggregated white box switches.
Pica8 PICOS makes networks far easier to manage. Administrators can manage dozens of switches as a single, logical switch, with one IP address.
PICOS enables you to manage all the switches in a single building as one, for example. Imagine being able to install a security patch on dozens of switches with a single command. That’s the kind of operational benefit a Pica8 open networking solution brings.
The new AmpCon automation framework adds to the simplified management story. Its Web-based interface is simple to learn and use, enabling centralized visibility of and automated turn-on and configuration for all PICOS-powered switches throughout the network. It also enables switch inventory and lifecycle license management for thousands of deployed PICOS switches. Even better, because it’s an open platform, you’ll have access to libraries of playbooks for network automation routines. (Click here for all the details on AmpCon.)
Pica8’s PICOS is also fully backwards-compatible with your current network, easily integrating with legacy switches from Cisco, Juniper, Arista, HPE, Aruba and so on. That means educational institutions aren’t forced into wholesale upgrades all at once. Upgrade gradually, perhaps department by department, building by building, floor by floor, or at whatever speed IT budgets allow.
Open Switches Keep Costs Under Control
All this comes on open, white- and brite-box switches from globally trusted brands like Dell EMC, made by the same suppliers that make the switches sold by legacy vendors. In fact, they are the same switches – just without the brand names, so they cost far less.
The disaggregated nature of open networks also means you can pick and choose whatever software you want to run on the switches, depending on your requirements. Pica8’s PICOS is expressly built for the complexity of campus and access edge networks, but you are free to run a different NOS on your data center switches. It’s totally your choice.
With open switches, you’ll pay a fraction of the hardware cost as compared to legacy vendors – often saving more than enough to replace a single legacy switch with two high-performance open switches for another “9” of reliability. The same goes for software.
Future-Proofed and AI-Ready™
Once you go through the effort of upgrading your network infrastructure, you don’t want to be worried about what will happen five or 10 years from now. To this end, PICOS also includes features that will have you well-positioned for your Open SD-Access future, including:
Software-defined Networking (SDN)
Pica8’s integrated CrossFlow technology enables SDN/ OpenFlow traffic to travel over the same switch ports as production Layer 2/Layer 3 traffic. This industry first – combining SDN and L2/L3 traffic – now makes possible Open Intent-based Networking (OIBN), bringing to hand entirely new levels of network service flexibility. Security services, for example, can now be delivered over the same ports as operational data traffic without having to interrupt the network to reconfigure switch access control lists (ACLs). If your IDS/IPS detects an intrusion on a given port, you can send out a policy change to reject or redirect traffic from that port. Universities and other institutions of higher education looking to conduct R&D projects around SDN will find Pica8 is the only open source access networking solution that also offers support for multiple SDN controllers.
Open Source Tools
Pica8’s open networking approach means educational institutions will be able to make full use of the vibrant ecosystem of open source tools, many of which you’re likely already familiar with. Try Zabbix, for example, to help with network monitoring, as well as Ansible and its vast libraries of pre-built automation scripts for all sorts of tasks. The possibilities are endless.
AmpCon is an open, extendable platform, ready to take advantage of telemetry and other technologies as they emerge. It’s not hard to envision artificial intelligence capabilities, for example, bringing new levels of automation to an OIBN environment.
Support You Know and Trust Around the Globe
Lastly, since a school or university’s entire “business” is now heavily dependent on its underlying data network, it’s important to know that Pica8 has long-standing global support contracts with our open switch hardware partners, including Dell EMC. Many educational institutions already have support agreements with companies like Dell EMC for other technologies, such as laptops, servers, VoIP phones and so on. Now Pica8 allows networking solutions to be added to the mix. We offer concierge-like support for all networking software, while any potential hardware issues are handed off seamlessly to our partners – Dell EMC and others – with 24×7 coverage.
Case Study: Calgary Catholic School District
Canada’s Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) is using the Pica8 PICOS NOS in its network, which supports schools in Calgary, Alberta, and surrounding communities. It’s a good example of the kind of large educational network that Pica8 stands ready to support.
Fast facts about CCSD
- 56,000 students; 60,000+ network users
- 115 elementary, junior high, senior high, and special education schools
- More than 16,000 Chromebooks
- 40,000 unique Wi-Fi logins each day
Pica8 CCSD Network Features
- Integrates with Aruba wireless network
- 85% to 90% feature parity with pricier proprietary offerings
- Enables flatter leaf-spine architecture for improved performance
vs. traditional three-tier model
- Integration with Microsoft’s Azure, Amazon’s AWS and other cloudbased network function virtualization (NFV) tools
- Support for Power Over Ethernet (PoE) and PoE+
- Simplified management: Upgrades, patches and configuration changes centrally deployed to all schools at once
- Plug-and-play support for voice and video over IP
- Future-proof, with CrossFlow offering support for SDN capabilities
CrossFlow gives us a path to move towards SDN without having to rip and replace, which no other vendor truly offers. With Pica8, we feel we’re getting a powerful network OS, higher quality switches for improved performance, and quicker response times for support issues than we’ve received from larger brand-name switch vendors.
Eric Villeneuve, Network Team Lead at Entire CCSD