Are You Active-Active? (Part 4)

As we consider the instructional needs of our students, it is apparent that our technology needs to be always be on. How can we insure that our data center and connections from our schools to the Internet always remain on? One of the methods is to try to be “active-active.”

The “active-active” question is last of five questions to answer in building or improving your district data center and provide the reliability you need for real-time learning. The questions came out of my attendance at the Data Center Design class (course number DC125) sponsored by BICSI, the cabling industry authority. The 5 questions are list below (I covered the first four questions in three previous posts):

  1. How reliable is your electrical system, from the utility all the way to the racks?
  2. Have you designed your cooling to maximize reliability and efficiency?
  3. What is going on under the floor?
  4. Have you designed and tested your security?
  5. What about wide-area-network redundancy?

What it Means to be Active-Active

The data center is the hub for connectivity between our schools and the broader network of information. As such, it can be a single location where connectivity can fail, with the result that students lose connection to the Internet and all associated data. What I am referring to with active-active is the practice of having more than one component when the failure of the one component will take a large portion of the network down. Your task here is to look for those components and provide another active component.

Think about this especially where it comes to your connection to the Internet. Best practice is to provide multiple Internet connections from more than one vendor. These connections should enter the data center at separate locations. Ideally, they should not share the same pathway inside the school building or on their way to the school. Our district currently has two carriers providing Internet connectivity from three sources to our data center. The pathway outside the building is often not under your control, but try to work with the Internet providers to minimize the distance that your two Internet connections travel together when reaching your building. Ask them if they lease pathway with one another between their central offices and your data center.

Building the Active-Active Connections

Thinking beyond Internet connectivity to one location, we are also planning to bring a second data center location on line. Our school district is large enough that we are locating the second data center within a second district building. Depending on your district size, you may need to look at providing a secondary data center at a location outside the district. Again, we submitted for budget approval this year to bring Internet connectivity to the second data center.

The next step to think about is your connection to your schools. Is there another source of connectivity to your buildings? Can you have both sources connected back to your data center at the same time? If one fails, traffic can automatically cut over to the other connection, to maintain continuity. Our district has some legacy dark fiber to some of its schools. We have new fiber running to all schools through a carrier contract. We are planning this summer to start working on reconnecting the dark fiber in this sort of active-active setup.

In addition to the connectivity between buildings, think about equipment redundancy, so that you can have multiple pathways from your buildings all the way to the Internet without a single point of failure. Think about whole units, like your switches, and about components within those units, such as multiple power supplies.

Active-active connectivity will help you increase your network’s uptime. Consider it as you work to provide more learning opportunities for your students.

Craig Williams is the director of information services for Illinois School District U-46 in Elgin, Illinois. He and his team are overhauling the district’s infrastructure and seeding technology into classrooms, to ensure the all of the district’s culturally-diverse students have the opportunity to expand their learning and achievement. His previous work with schools, first as a building architect, then as a technology design consultant, provides him with a broad perspective on planning for improved student learning. Williams currently serves on the Board with the Illinois CoSN chapter - Education Technology Council of Illinois. 

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