What a Georgia IT Team Does for its District

From backing up data to supporting hundreds of computers, Glynn County School System is hard at work.

by Lauren Mcdonald, The Brunswick News, Ga. / July 18, 2016 0
A New York City school district is updating its infrastructure to prepare for a mobile device initiative. Shutterstock.com

(TNS) — Bob Schwartz and his team are responsible for the personal information, sensitive documents and scholastic records of every student and employee in the Glynn County School System.

"I take my job very seriously, and all of my employees do," said Schwartz, the school system's director of technology services.

With an annual budget of just under $500,000, he said the IT department takes that money as far as it can, investing in technology they hope will best serve and protect the school's data.

"We're pretty progressive," Schwartz said. "My guys and I, we're pretty confident we would stack up well against the school districts up in Atlanta."

In a small, dark room in the school system's administration building sits a large cabinet, filled with whirring boxes that control every piece of information running through the nearly 7,000 computers that make up the school network.

"Every school in the district comes back to here," Schwartz said.

"It looks kind of messy," he said, standing beside the massive jumble of yellow, red, blue and green cords plugged into the server.

Unlike many school systems, Glynn County owns its own fiber optic backbone, made up of miles of cables spread across the county. Every cable connects to a single large black cord hooked into a server in the administration building.

"(Having our own fiber optic backbone) is just cheaper and it's bought and paid for, and there's very little maintenance," Schwartz said. "(The cable) could be up in a telephone pole or it can be underground."

In each fiber optic cable there are 12 tubes filled with strands of fiber thinner than human hair.

"We're transmitting data over this at 10 gigabytes per second," Schwartz said. "Ten billion ones and zeros every second could be transmitted over this single little piece of fiber."

The fiber optic backbone has been in place for 10 years, Schwartz said. But about four years ago, the school system began a partnership with the board of commissioners to share a part of the system -- to save taxpayers money, he said.

"They wanted to build their own fiber optic network, because they were leasing all the circuits from AT&T out to like Blythe Island Regional Park and Jekyll -- all the places they have firehouses, they were paying for all that," Schwartz said. "We made an agreement with them, and we gave them a tube and a half, or 18 strands of fiber, on our whole network."

Schwartz's team of 18 employees handles the technology for the entire school system. A team of seven stays busy traveling around the school district to fix technology issues at every school.

"I call them my 'rubber meets the road guys,'" he said. "They are beyond busy. You can imagine, that's about 1,000 computers per technician."

But much of their work can be done from a central location, monitoring the computer systems from afar.

"Even if all 18 of us worked on computers, at 7,000 divided by 18, you're still looking at 800-something computers per person," he said.

The IT team is also responsible for all the interactive technology in the classroom, and recently began installing wireless access points in every learning space, getting ready for an expected increase in the use of laptops, smartphones and tablets.

There was once a time that the IT workers spent their summers going into every classroom dusting every projector filter. They also spent nearly $200 per projector lightbulb.

But Schwartz fixed that problem.

"About two years ago, we went in every classroom and put up what's called a hybrid laser LED projector," Schwartz said. "It doesn't have a lightbulb in it. It's got an LED source and a laser wheel and that makes all the light necessary. They have about an eight- to 10-year lifespan with no lightbulb."

Schwartz's team is also required by law to monitor what websites students visit on the school computers and to prevent students from reaching certain sites.

This monumental task requires installing new web blockers every hour, all day long, as students are getting better with each passing year at getting around the blocks.

"The students know more than I do," Schwartz said. "Some of them, if they would put it to good use, they could probably cure cancer. But they'd rather hack and do all this stuff."

So the school relies on a company called Lightspeed Systems, which downloads the latest filter contents every hour onto the schools' devices.

"We were trying to do it ourselves, maybe four years ago, and we would put something in to block, and within an hour they would find a way around it," Schwartz said.

He said proxy servers would pop up constantly, allowing the students onto a website through a backdoor.

"It's just a constant fox and hound game with the students," Schwartz said. "It was pretty much a manual process where we would monitor it and we would see sites they were going to that they shouldn't be going to and then we would block it. And then the next day we would see the same kid back at the same site but he went a different way to get there."

Their brute force effort was replaced by the subscription service, a more worthy opponent for students bent on reaching prohibited websites.

"(Lightspeed) just constantly updates our content filters on an hourly basis, all day, 365 days a year," Schwartz said.

And to keep outside hackers out of the system, the server has multiple defense mechanisms in place, including a spam filter and firewall.

"We're constantly implementing new methods and techniques to thwart (hackers)," Schwartz said.

To back up the school's data in case of a crash, all the information and communications running through the system is backed up to servers at Brunswick High School, or what Schwartz calls his "disaster recovery site."

"We couldn't do that without that fiber network, because that's an intense amount of traffic," he said.

And for a final, more fool-proof insurance that the data will not be lost, Schwartz has all of the data backed up onto tapes and stored in a library at the end of every day.

That data includes student records, grades, payroll information, employee documents, emergency contacts and more.

"So it's important for us to keep track of that data and make sure it's safe and sound," he said. "Because if this room blows up, I could go buy those services, they'd be delivered by the end of next week. And we could rebuild it all, put it all back together. But I wouldn't have that data."

The multiple security measures keep Schwartz sane.

"That really does let me sleep a little better at night," he said.

©2016 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.