From education to employment

FE colleges increase their network resilience

Neil Shewry is a project leader at Jisc

Superfast internet access has come to be such a major part of our everyday lives that network connectivity is often seen as a given ‘right’, but as with all technologies it is not infallible, and things can and do go wrong.

If your internet goes down at home chances are you’ll be slightly inconvenienced while you wait for the problem to be put right. Not such a big deal if you’re browsing for pleasure, but say you need to use the internet for work or study, a few hours offline can seriously hamper your output.

Now think about what would happen if you lost connectivity in your college. Potentially hundreds of students and teachers would be unable to access the online resources and services they need. Bad enough if this were to transpire during teaching or study time; if a loss of connectivity were to happen during an exam, the outcome would be positively disastrous.

Offsetting the risk

When you consider that a typical telecommunications circuit will fail once every year, and take an average of six hours to fix each time, this could have huge repercussions for a college. You can see why internet connectivity is no longer just an IT issue but a boardroom one.

As standard every further education and specialist college in the UK is provided with one connection to Jisc’s network Janet. Ours is one of the world’s most advanced computer networks and offers added value over commercial providers, being faster, safer and more robust. Furthermore, it’s supported by our Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT), who maintain a safe online environment for users by monitoring and quickly responding to any security incidents that occur.

But even with this assurance, relying on one connection alone does not contain proper risk and continuity planning. It therefore makes common business sense to have a back-up should the primary connection fail.

Better connected

Almost all of UK universities already have multiple network connections, and slowly but surely we’re seeing FE move in the same direction.

A year ago we embarked on a venture with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to improve network resilience in FE and support them in delivering the FELTAG agenda. BIS set aside a pool of money to fund the installation and first year rental costs for further education colleges in England to get additional connections to the Janet network, with Jisc responsible for the project delivery.

We contacted all eligible colleges in England and received expressions of interest from 120. Of those, 92 colleges took up the offer, with a number even requesting two or more additional connection – particularly useful for rural colleges spread over multiple campuses and sites. At the time of speaking we are installing the final few connections, which will mean we will have delivered over 100 new connections through this work.

Taking into account the colleges which already had second connections, this latest tranche of activity will mean that approximately 160 further education colleges in England will have more than one connection to the Janet network, accounting for well over half of all colleges in this category.

Reliable and resilient

While we are at the end of our funding with BIS, I would heartily urge other colleges in the UK to consider what an additional connection to the Janet network could offer them.

I have already mentioned FELTAG, but in all nations there is a growing awareness of how digital technologies can attract, retain and support students in their learning, and equip them with the skills they need for the future – reliable, high quality internet connectivity is clearly an important component in delivery this. Having a resilient network infrastructure also supports the trend for colleges to store their digital resources on the cloud, allowing them to access everything they need without the costs and inconvenience of holding all their data in a physical location.

For me, the argument is not ‘why should I get a second connection for my college’ but why wouldn’t you? When the cost to run the additional connection is around £6,000, the equivalent to less than two learners per year – while a loss of connection at an inopportune time could run into hundreds of thousands, not to mention the impact on learners – that sort of reassurance is invaluable.

Neil Shewry is a project leader at Jisc, which provides digital solutions for UK education and research

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