IT pro values lessons learned as a school volunteer

If you find your network administration skills valued outside of the workplace, you will be able to relate to this week's From the Trenches column. Follow Bob as he builds a LAN for his daughter's school and learns some new skills along the way.

It's fortunate that most IT pros like the subject of IT, because they often become a computer guru for friends and relatives.

In this week's From the Trenches, we will follow Bob, an MCSE who volunteered for the technology committee at his daughter's school. The volunteer voyage has given him new insight into the problems faced by many schools and nonprofit organizations that must cobble together a network using a variety of software and hardware parts. Bob and the technology committee at the school have been working to bring the school IT network into the twenty-first century.

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You can learn quite a bit by reading about the methods other administrators and engineers use to resolve challenging technology issues. Our hope is that this column will provide you with unique solutions and valuable techniques that can help you become a better IT professional. If you have an experience that would be a good candidate for a future From the Trenches column, please e-mail us. All administrators and their companies remain anonymous to protect sensitive company or network information.

Assessing the network
Bob's involvement began when he attended a parent-teacher meeting three years ago at the school where his daughter was starting kindergarten. He signed up as a volunteer for the school’s technology committee because it seemed like the logical choice.

"A few of us signed on and decided to begin meeting regularly to assess the school's current state of technology as well as develop a plan for the future," Bob said. The committee decided to focus on setting up a school-wide LAN including Internet access.

Like most school systems, money was tight, so they purchased discounted and off-brand CD-ROM/sound card kits, NICs, patch cables, and 10-Mbps hubs from a vendor that offered educational discounts.

For the Internet connection, Bob chose a Netgear RM356 modem/router for the single telephone line they could use to connect to the school system's ISP.

"I know you're cringing, but at that time we could not afford to upgrade to a faster connection method," Bob said. "The modem/router had a DHCP server and RIP router built-in and worked great, as long as no more than two or three PCs were trying to access the Internet at the same time."

At this point, the network was peer-to-peer using NetBEUI for sharing donated printers and password-protected folders. Meanwhile, the school was applying for grant money and other funding to upgrade the network.

Setting up a server room
The next phase of the plan was to establish a server room in a small supply closet at the school and to begin designing the cabling that would connect all of the offices and classrooms to the server room.

Cabling turned out to be a challenge because the school has marble floors and ceramic tile on the walls. The cabling solution was found by using the space above the metal ceiling panels in the building.

School alumni, including one former student who now owns his own electrical contracting company, took on the job of wiring the school. The plan was to run not only Cat. 5 cable, but to also run coax and telephone wiring at the same time.

Figure A
Solid, tile-covered walls made wire molding a must for running the Cat. 5, coax, and telephone wire.

"The wiring project completed with a wall box in each classroom and office via wire molding," Bob said. "The boxes have a network RJ-45 connector, F connector [for cable TV], and RJ-11 connector (see Figure A).

"In the server room, the Cat. 5 cabling terminated in patch bays, the coax to a splitter block and amp, and the telephone [wires] to a standard block. Plenum grade PVC tubes carry the cables to access boxes in the ceiling," Bob said.

By happy coincidence, a local company was upgrading its computers and donated about 20 Pentium 166-MHz computers, which were immediately outfitted with the multimedia gear the committee had put in the older machines.

The school then used grant funds to purchase a server, some Pentium II desktops, and a faster Internet connection. The local cable company donated a few spools of coax and cable service for the school, while other individuals donated most of the Cat. 5 (and Cat. 3) cable they would need.

The grant came with a couple of conditions from the area school administrative office, including a requirement that the server the grant money bought would have to run Novell NetWare, but the grant would cover all the necessary licensing fees. Bob said the use of NetWare was not his first choice, but he said later that the choice turned out to be a personal educational experience.

"Our HP Net Server arrived with NetWare 5 and was set up as a firewall, proxy, DHCP, NDS, and NDPS server. Three SCSI drives provide a hardware RAID 5 [array], and a tape drive provides nightly backups," Bob said. "A handful of IBM desktops arrived, and Novell client software was installed on all workstations. The school was able to afford a DSL connection due to the money the grants saved us, and the HP added routing to its list of duties."

Things were heating up in the server room, so a large air conditioning unit had to be purchased as well.

An unexpected windfall
The network was up and running when Bob and the school got some manna from heaven—the company that had donated the workstations had upgraded to Windows 2000, and a custom server they had been using was incompatible with the new operating system.

The donated server was a dual-Pentium II 450-MHz machine with dual power supplies in a large server case. A dozen SCSI drives showed up in a cardboard box when the server arrived.

Figure B
Bob reworked the contents of the big box to the left to function as a Web and mail server.

Bob took the huge box home and rebuilt the unit to his own specs. Many of the hard drives in the box were bad, but there were enough good ones to put together a RAID 5 array. This server also has the standard floppy and CD-ROM drives, along with a Zip disk and a tape drive (see Figure B).

He loaded Red Hat Linux 6.2 on the server with the RAID array holding the home partition and the rest of the partitions on another single drive that he plans to mirror in the future.

"We use the Linux box as an in-house Web server and mail server. The students use the machine to practice making and posting Web pages," Bob said. "They post the pages via FTP to get the experience of how it's done by many ISPs. We also have Samba running for the admins to quickly make changes the easy way."

Keeping the network running
Bob has trained the principal of the school to act as the primary administrator of the network, and he's been doing a great job at it.

Bob admits that his inexperience with NetWare may be contributing to the fact that the NetWare server seems to require regular rebooting to keep things running. He's had particular problems with the print serving functions of that server. Also, the NetWare client software seems to have messed with the Windows 95/98 operating software on the desktops, but those issues are slowly being resolved.

The church that sponsors the school recently offered to purchase more workstations, and when that handful of Dell computers arrived, Bob replaced the IBMs in the lab with them, moving the IBMs to classrooms and letting the oldest Pentiums go home with teachers so they can work remotely when needed.

"Future plans include a VPN connection to the Diocese's private network, which will place us in the NDS tree along with our fellow schools," Bob said. "I do like the directory services NetWare offers, and it sure seems like Microsoft borrowed more than a few ideas [from it] for Win2K."

Making the grade
Bob's experience is probably not uncommon in the IT world. Do you support networks as a volunteer? Are you being taken advantage of, or is it a matter of having skills that churches, schools, and other nonprofits need? Do you like gaining the additional experience? Tell us what you think in the discussion below or send us a note.


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