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Load Balancing Goes to School to Learn Application Availability

August 19, 2020 By BlueAlly

By: Takahiro Mitsuhata

Meeting the Challenges of K-12 Remote Learning

Until recently, online technology was just one area of a larger set of teaching tools and methods. While 63 percent of K-12 educators used technology in the classroom daily, primarily laptops and computers, it was still entirely possible to give lessons with nothing more than a strong voice and an engaging manner. The shift to remote learning has transformed this picture toward the digitalization. Connectivity is no longer an option—it’s now the platform through which the entire school experience is going to be delivered for millions of students nationwide. This has made network performance and application availability absolutely critical for schools and districts. There are a couple of ways to keep up using application delivery techniques including load balancing and application security.

When School Happens at Home

You don’t need a whiteboard to understand the strain now facing educational system networks. While technology has played a growing role in K-12 classrooms in recent years, it has for the most part remained complementary and secondary to more traditional models. Chalkboards, film strips, and overhead projectors may have been replaced with smartboards, digital images, and streaming videos, but teachers have still been presenting lessons in spoken form while students have written notes by hand. Students have been filling in photocopied worksheets and creating projects with physical materials while teachers checked in at their desks and tables. Some schools have begun using platforms like Instructure’s Canvas, Blackboard, and Google Classroom to make homework available online and collect student assignments, but the evolution has been slow and gradual.

In this pre-pandemic scenario, all districts needed to do was ensure connectivity among individual school buildings, the district data center and the internet. While application performance and application availability were important, it can be achieved by efficiently load balancing a groups of local application servers, and students and teachers as users could manage with a less-than-ideal experience. Instead, most school and district IT teams focused their efforts on web application security and compliance to keep harmful or inappropriate content out of the school while protecting student privacy.

With COVID-19, the education system has been hugely disrupted and is being forced to suddenly shift to distance learning, which is likely to continue for the foreseeable future for many, if not most, schools throughout the U.S. Students and faculty have been participating in classes largely or entirely from home using various tools and resources available online like learning management systems (LMSs), cloud-based classroom services, streaming media platforms and video communications services. Some of these services such as video conferencing or streaming are newly required tools that are used as a subscription-based service or SaaS (software as a service) platform. Meanwhile, other applications and systems might already be deployed and in-use, and schools can continue to use them for remote learning, protecting their investment. To support this new norm of education, school district IT teams need to ensure service and application availability across multiple platforms as well as the capacity to serve many users concurrently.

New challenges for IT teams

Integration with Cloud-based Services

While schools may be implementing new cloud-based services for adding distance learning contents, they most likely need to take hybrid approach using applications and systems hosted in the district data center. For example, the LMS can be used as a console/portal for remote education, listing all content, applications, and syllabus regardless of the location. Also, user databases or active directory servers hosted in district data center may be used with cloud-based services for user authentication and authorization.

The hybrid cloud deployment can enable agile service platform and higher application availability; however, it may bring confusion and complexity for its operation. Due to the nature of remote-learning traffic patterns, there is expected to be more application traffic volume from external sources and many more concurrent user connections.

Scalability and Resiliency for Surge Traffic and Connection

In the pre-pandemic time, connection to the LMS or applications would have been very low as most likely only teachers needed to connect from each classroom to share with students. Now, every student and faculty member will need to connect to the system remotely, so expanding capacity will be required, adding more resources that will need to be used more efficiently for better user experience. It’s worth mentioning that the traffic is now coming from outside the school network which requires added care for the security implications.

On the other hand, public cloud service adoption is on the rise since it provides very agile and scalable network and application services per an organization’s needs and more importantly without physical access to the data center. The public cloud can be used as a backup data center in case of surges traffic or a site failure, if not migrating entirely to public cloud. In either way, IT teams need to control applications effectively for the migration process, load balancing or high availability.

Application and Connection Security

Application security is critical to protecting distance learning since services need to be public-facing, and therefore, are at risk for any kind of cyber-attack from anywhere. To extend service and application availability, IT teams need to ensure they allow connections to the proper service ports and block others on the system or firewall, and enable additional layers of security such as web application firewalls (WAFs) for application protection and data leak prevention, authentication proxy, secure connectivity and communication using stronger encryption and/or VPNs as well as DDoS protection.

The Application Delivery Controller as an Infrastructure for Learning

In the face of these challenges, application delivery controllers (ADCs) have been playing a key role as a unified services gateway for K-12 school systems to maximize service uptime and user experience. Provided as a function of an ADC, advanced load balancing processes and manages user application traffic and/or user authentication requests efficiently across a server pool to ensure reliable connectivity and consistent performance. Advanced application health monitoring can check databases and even specific data to verify that servers are responding properly, with failover to redundant server resources as needed.

The ADC can also support global server load balancing (GSLB) which greatly helps adoption of public cloud by intelligently controlling application traffic across multiple sites even in hybrid cloud deployments using both public cloud and on-premises data center resources. These advanced load balancing capabilities for local and global sites allow IT team to build agile and resilient application services for higher application availability and better user experience. Providing feature parity for on-premises ADCs and virtual instances in the cloud ensures easier and simpler operation for IT teams.

Beyond load balancing, the application security features delivered by an ADC, including authentication proxy application access management (AAM) for single sign-on (SSO), and WAF, can help IT teams continue to maintain regulatory compliance while protecting against threats such as malware and malicious botnets. In addition, DDoS attack protection and secure communication (e.g., IPsec VPN) along with a stateful firewall can add another layer of security with simplified operation if available as integrated security features of an ADC.

Finding the funding to meet school technology needs was challenging enough during routine times. Now, with public education budgets strained by the myriad costs of the pandemic response, cost reduction and operational efficiency are more important than ever. Application delivery controllers/load balancing can help schools do more with less through centralized configuration and security management to make optimal use of available network and application resources regardless of deployment types. Deep, real-time visibility and analytics into application performance can help teams troubleshoot and resolve problems more quickly, improving staff productivity even in hybrid cloud environments. In this light, an application delivery controller isn’t just a high-priority budget item—it’s one that can make other expenses less necessary.

Be Ready for the Next

What the next normal of education will look like is anyone’s guess. At the same time, the systems and methods being developed under pressure today are unlikely to be abandoned entirely when the pandemic eases. Beyond its immediate utility for pandemic response, remote education offers new models for a wide range of use cases, from snow days and other unscheduled school closures, summer school, and after-school enrichment programs, to students and districts facing exceptional transportation or mobility issues. A more resilient network can also enable the school to stream live events, improve parent communication and involvement and facilitate projects with other schools —even after in-school instruction has resumed.

By incorporating a modern application delivery controller with robust load balancing and web application security into their networks now, school districts can enable more flexible and responsive education for the long run.