Network Security

Case study: Wire transfer

Students in Georgia were given iPads, but a firewall was impeding network connections...until a solution was found, reports Greg Masters.

As with most large school districts, Walton County Public Schools depends on reliable internet connectivity while seeking the highest assurance of protection of its data. However, a legacy firewall was slowing down connectivity and even caused the organization's internet connection to fail regularly. So, the 11-member IT team began the search for a faster, more high-performing network security solution.

Walton County Public Schools – based in Monroe, Ga., about 50 miles east of Atlanta – is one of the largest school districts in the Peach State, consisting of nine elementary, three middle and three high schools, with a total of nearly 15,000 connected users. As is usual these days, the district's faculty, teachers and students are heavy users of the internet to facilitate learning and communication. And, it recently launched a new program, eSMART, that provides each of its high school students with an iPad – intended for educational purposes. The IT staff supports this tech program, along with the district's internet services as well as such functions as payroll, human resources and accounts payable.

A previous network solution impacted student and teacher connectivity to educational resources, says Jon Graves, technology services coordinator at Walton County Public Schools. The firewall had slow internet speeds and worse, frequent downtime. “On average, problems with the firewall would cause the internet to crash for at least 15 minutes every week, sometimes more,” he says. In fact, reboots were needed almost on a weekly basis.

Adding to the issue was the school district's reliance on Gmail, so when the internet went down, so did the IT department's ability to send outage alerts. “These outages created issues for teachers and students in the classrooms,” explains Graves (left). “For example, if a lesson plan includes researching World War II on the computer and the internet is down for 15 minutes, students lose critical learning time.”

Besides the frequent downtime and slow speeds, making firewall changes and any subsequent reboots that were needed was a constant source of frustration for Graves and his IT team. Whether simply unblocking a website or setting up a new user, any system changes required multiple verification steps – an arduous process that would often take hours.

For example, if Graves wanted to make a change, he would have to go in, make the change and then apply it. That meant he didn't actually know if what he did worked until he applied it. “You could make 10 changes and then apply it, or commit the change,” he says. “And whenever you committed, that was a 10-minute process, which means I'd have to wait before I went on the internet to see if what I did actually worked.” If he made a mistake, it would take another 10 minutes to undo it. “It was very frustrating,” he says.

To address these issues and more, Graves, along with Todd Antwine, director of information and technology services at Walton County Public Schools, along with the IT team, evaluated a number of security solutions, eventually selecting the Dell SonicWALL SuperMassive 9400 in a high-availability configuration. 

“The difference between the reliability and ease of use of the Dell firewall and the previous solution became apparent during the evaluation,” Graves says. “I came into work and the [previous system] had crashed the internet,” he says. “I rebooted the firewall, but my staff told me they had already done that and it hadn't worked. I rebooted it again, which took another 15 minutes. I made a change and committed it, so I waited another 10 minutes.” That didn't fix it either. Several changes and an hour and a half later, Graves finally went to his boss and said, ‘I think I can get the Dell firewall working faster than I can get [the legacy tool] fixed.' The manager said ‘Go for it.' Five minutes later, Graves had the internet back up, and that's when, he says, he fell in love with Dell SonicWALL.

Deployment went smoothly, he adds. “The IT department was able to get the SuperMassive working in a matter of minutes.” While learning a new firewall had its initial challenges, he says he and his team were very satisfied with the deployment process and are pleased with the end results.

In addition to eliminating downtime, the school district has benefited from increased performance with its Dell next-generation firewall, which Graves say is “super fast.” He estimates that the solution has increased the district's internet performance speed tenfold, providing students and staff with the secure connectivity they need to get their work done.

By combining Dell SonicWALL SuperMassive firewalls with AppAssure, Walton County Public Schools gained deeper network security, multi-gigabit speeds and robust backup and recovery, says Dmitriy Ayrapetov, director of product management at Dell SonicWALL. “Specifically, the Dell SonicWALL SuperMassive 9000 Series Next-Generation Firewall uses the revolutionary technology of the SuperMassive E10000 Series to provide the protection, performance and scalability necessary for today's 10+ gigabit enterprise infrastructures,” he says. “The SuperMassive 9000 Series uses a high-core density architecture in an elegant, one rack unit appliance, saving rack space and lowering power and cooling costs.”

Ease and speed

Besides boosting internet access speed, making changes on the firewall is also faster and easier. “I frequently make a lot of firewall changes,” says Graves. “It's not uncommon for me to make up to six changes a day, such as allowing user access to an application or unblocking a website.” It used to take him 15 minutes and now takes 30 seconds from start to finish. “It's that much faster.” 

This frees the IT team to take a much more decisive approach to executing changes, managing URL filtering and even reporting. For example, if bandwidth needs prioritizing, or a specific application or inappropriate website must be blocked, the ease and speed in which the task can be accomplished has helped the entire IT operation become more efficient and proactive about making changes, Graves says. 

The re-architecting of business around the internet requires a restructuring of security strategies that ensure internet-enabled business infrastructures and ecosystems are able to identify and repel risk at any point and at any scale, says Dell's Ayrapetov. “It is also unique in offering software-enabled security strategies that have the breadth, scale and power to deliver this requirement. It is also the only source for true end-to-end security solutions for businesses wanting to succeed in a world of dispersed applications, connected devices and evolving threats.”

Graves also reports that the speed of the SuperMassive has helped teachers. “Being able to make faster changes on the firewall means that teachers are happier because they're getting their requests taken care of faster.”

As well, he also points out that generating reports is much easier with the Dell SonicWALL next-generation firewall and involves fewer steps than the district's previous firewall. “Before, if I wanted to run a report, I'd have to start the report and wait a couple of minutes to actually get it,” he says. “Most of the time, it wasn't exactly what I wanted, so I'd have to rerun it. But on the Dell SonicWALL, I start the report and have exactly what I want in a matter of seconds.”

With the current deployment of Dell SonicWALL, Graves says Walton has accomplished all of its goals. “This is a solution we implemented with the hope and expectation it would fulfill our needs for the next five years,” he explains. “Of course, we can't anticipate five years of technology, but we believe our solution still has room to grow.”

And, he says, this is important as technology, and the miscreants who abuse it, keeps growing at unprecedented speed. And, it's not just outside attackers who potentially can cause problems. “We have become more aware of malware that our users unintentionally invite on our network,” Graves says. “Stopping malware at the gateway has proven to be a necessary and effective first line of defense for us.”

Roving iPads

Another reason Walton County Public Schools chose the tool was to facilitate a rollout of iPads to high school students. “One of the top benefits Dell SonicWALL gives us is the ability to support 4,000 iPads that we've provided to students,” Graves says. “Whenever they go home, we have the iPads set up to go through the Dell SonicWALL in order to access the internet, so they're still getting their content filtering and the assurance of reliable, fast internet access.”

In rolling out the iPad program, a key challenge was domain authentication. “The iPad doesn't log onto the domain because it is an Apple device,” explains Graves. “And we needed a way to know who that kid was on the iPad. The engineers helped us create a radius server process for user authentication.” This allows students to safely and securely use their iPads wherever they are located.

The IT team also uses the firewall's AppFlow Monitor feature to see which sites students connect to on the internet.

Because the IT department rolled out a large number of devices at once, it also needed a firewall that could accommodate a large number of SSL connections. The solution, Graves says, will easily support the district's 5,000 devices connecting to it and surfing the internet at the same time. “It doesn't even break a sweat.”

The reality of working in a school district means Graves doesn't have a lot of money or staff, so he and his team have to wear a lot of hats. “I can now focus on other things so that my job isn't just internet and firewall. If I need to make a change, I jump on it, it's done and then I move on to something else." 

For reprints of this case study, contact Elton Wong at [email protected] or 646-638-6101. 

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