Pica8’s Guide to Modernizing University and K-12 Networks

Educational institutions have a problem: their decades-old network architectures are no match for today’s deluge of data.

Technology is now fundamental to education in a way that simply wasn’t the case when most institutions built their networks. From one-to-one computing and bring-your own device (BYOD) initiatives to an onslaught of online teaching and learning resources, the pressure on network access points and Wi-Fi networks is enormous.

Higher educational institutions and K-12 school districts have dozens if not hundreds of switches that need upgrading, many of them in remote locations – schools, dorms, athletic facilities, administrative offices and the like. The schools also typically have a lean IT budget and equally lean IT staff (a problem their commercial counterparts likewise face given the scarcity of experienced network technicians).

Open, white box networking presents an attractive solution, offering hardware and software at a fraction of the cost of legacy vendors. But the gating factor has been the lack of a toolset to help configure, deploy and maintain the networks, effectively forcing educational institutions back into the arms of their legacy vendors and their ever-increasing price points.

Pica8 is now offering schools a way out of this vicious cycle with Threshold™, an open networking solution that enables the replacement of legacy networks of any size with automated, centrally managed, disaggregated white/brite box-based alternatives, including those from global brands like Dell EMC. In this paper, we’ll discuss the drivers prompting educational institutions to seek alternatives to the network status quo and the attributes that make Threshold a viable, cost-effective solution.

Education Network Upgrade Drivers

Technology is fundamental to both K-12 and higher education today.

At the K-12 level, more and more schools are adopting one-to-one computing and 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.


  • Growing amounts of data from 1:1, BYOD initiatives
  • Heavy reliance on online resources for both teachers and students
  • Aging access networks struggle to keep up with demand
  • Lean IT staff, limited budget

The Pica8 Solution:

  • AmpCon™ software framework to automate switch deployment, configuration and management with minimal tech support in access and distributed campus networks
  • Cost-effective, open networking switches running PICOS®, the world’s first open Linux NOS designed to run on disaggregated white box switches
  • PICOS replacement architecture for legacy wiring closet switch stacks: low cost; higher performance and reliability; easier to deploy and maintain
  • A future-proofed network using Pica8’s unique CrossFlow™ technology that enables SDN/OpenFlow traffic to run on the same ports as day-to-day Layer 2/Layer 3 traffic
  • Full backwards-compatibility with legacy infrastructure; upgrade at your own pace
  • A global hardware, service and support partnership with major open networking switch suppliers such as Dell EMC


  • A new, high-performance, future-proof access network – at a fraction of the cost of legacy networks
  • Students and faculty have reliable, unfettered access to all online resources required for 21st century teaching and learning
  • Automated switch deployment and management eases network operations for IT staff

The Legacy Network Trap

Hardware is not the issue, because education network administrators have long been aware of the virtues of open network switches. They know open, white/brite box hardware offers the same performance and capabilities as “brand name” switches for a fraction of the cost – 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. Without an army of network technicians to physically deploy and configure white box hardware throughout a campus or district, open networks weren’t really a viable solution.

That’s what routinely sent educational customers grudgingly back to their legacy networking vendors. The likes of Cisco, Juniper, HPE and Aruba do offer automation packages, but at prices that can hardly be considered affordable. Consider: An automation package from Cisco for a 100-switch access network would come with a list price starting around $200,000. And that’s just for the software.

At the same time, with a captive market, legacy vendors have also been free to build early obsolescence into their switch hardware, forcing educational institutions into a perpetual upgrade cycle, also at ever-increasing price points.

An Open Alternative to Legacy Access Networks

Pica8 presents an alternative with Threshold. Threshold includes a set of tools and capabilities that complement Pica8’s PICOS, the world’s first open Linux network operating system (NOS) designed to run on disaggregated white box switches.

Pica8’s Threshold offers:

  • A centralized, single point of management
  • Automated deployment, configuration, monitoring, alerting and lifecycle management
  • GUI-based network-level system view
  • CLI-based switch-level management/control
  • Centralized data collection for analytics/visibility
  • Open networking switches from a number of white- and brite-box vendors

The central pillar of Threshold is AmpCon, short for “Amplified Control” – the world’s first automation framework that can deploy, configure and manage an entire enterprise network of white box switches. AmpCon provides centralized visibility, automated turn-on and configuration for all PICOS-powered switches throughout the network, from a Web-based interface that’s simple to learn and use.

AmpCon brings zero-touch provisioning (ZTP) to education networks, automating Day 0 tasks including new switch turn-on, image load, switch configuration, licensing and more. It also handles Day 1 tasks, such as configuration validation, commit, rollback, and inventory. No longer do you need that army of network technicians to deploy new switches – it can all be configured from a central location. At the remote site, simply plug the switches in and they will connect to the network and download the software they need.

AmpCon also manages security and operational tasks on an ongoing basis, including global/regional configurations, switch inventory, compliance, remediation, return material authorizations (RMA), status monitoring, and role-based access control (RBAC). It also offers configurable security controls and lifecycle license maintenance for thousands of deployed PICOS switches. (Click here to learn more about AmpCon.)

Simplified Network Management

Pica8’s PICOS makes networks far easier to manage. PICOS enables educational institutions to configure their networks in a simple, two-tier leaf-spine architecture, where any given node is a single logical hop away from any other. Leaf-spine has long been popular in data center networks, but PICOS is now extending it to campus and access networks as an alternative to the legacy three-tier architecture.

PICOS also enables administrators to manage dozens of switches as a single, logical switch, with one IP address. That means you can install a security patch on dozens of switches with a single command, for example, bringing significant ongoing operational benefits and efficiency. PICOS can also be used to replace aging chassis switches or wiring closet switch stacks, with no requirements that all the switches be identical.

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. AmpCon, for example, is deliberately priced lower than the sales tax of its traditional automation competition, such as Cisco DNA Center.

To further ease the cost burden, K-12 customers are also eligible for reimbursements on networking solutions under the U.S. federal government E-rate program. Reimbursements range from 20% to 90%, depending on the relative affluence of the school district. These kinds of savings can deliver a rapid return-on-investment (ROI) and make it far simpler to build a business case even taxpayers will love.

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 the future, including:

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.

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.

AI-Ready™: 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.

Let us know how we can help you help your students and staff by giving them the latest and greatest next-generation data networks possible. Contact us at https://www.pica8.com/how-to-buy/

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 cloud-based 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,” said Eric Villeneuve, Network Team Lead at CCSD. “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.”

Learn more: Read the CCSD case study.