From the magazine: Upgrading your server – everything you need to know

When the time comes to update your school’s server it’s vital that the process causes minimal disruption. Royden Gothelf, independent IT advisor at RightICT, provides some key tips to help you prepare – and ensure that the upgrading process runs as smoothly as possible

You can’t get much geekier than talking about server upgrades! For a technical person, talking about the components that make up the server is quite interesting – but, for most people, it is just an important part of the infrastructure that needs to be understood to manage the service – be it in-house or by external technicians.
Think of the server like a car engine – it’s under the hood, it needs to function properly, the more it’s used the greater its need for a service, and you can expect to get a bill – unless the broken part is under warranty.
As is often the case when I deliver training, everyone knows the jargon about processors and disks, but all are grateful when someone in the class asks me to explain the ABC of servers and how to plan the school’s budget around them.
A simplistic overview
The server acts as a central store and a point of access to data stores, or applications and software – for example, registration or a MIS. As a central point, the server is giving access to multiple points out – and from multiple points in – and a school may also have more than one server.
So, in a nutshell, if you want to get, or do, anything using your IT, somewhere the server is ‘serving you’ what you asked for.
Technically, the server is built to a specification in terms of its throughput, speed of processing, storage, etc. It has hardware parts which, over time, can degrade and reach their capacity limits – and it has software parts that, in time, get outdated. A lot of the components on the server can be configured so that the server is optimised. Ongoing, the server should be monitored to ensure it is running correctly.
As the server is a central part of your IT infrastructure the first sign that something might be wrong is when things start slowing down. A good technician has a range of tools that can be used to make ‘in-flight corrections’; for example, adding components, such as memory, to improve processing can be a low-cost improvement. Where there is hardware degradation, parts can be replaced, sometimes under warranty.
As a general rule, once a server is out of warranty – or five years old – it is probably time to replace it. Do not wait till then, only to find there is no budget for it; forecast the cost.
Include server costs in your IT plan
The golden rule is to have an IT strategy and an IT improvement plan – clearly linked to the whole school improvement plan – that includes server costs. Know your strategy – if you are running out of disk storage space – but are planning to move to storing data or documents in the cloud – do not spend money adding new disks. I know a number of schools that have wasted money on disks, only to move to cloud storage, because they did not have clear IT plans.
Another question I always get is, ‘What is the impact of cloud computing on my budget?’ If you do it right, cloud computing can save money, simply because someone else is taking responsibility for the server – keeping it performing, securing and backing up your data and keeping it safe.
Cloud-based services are, usually, available all the time and can be accessed from anywhere, on any device, giving flexibility you may not have on your in-school services – but check with the provider that this is true for whatever they are offering you before moving over.
Typically, you may retain a server at school for some things and use cloud-based servers for others.
Remember that golden rule – have an IT strategy and an IT improvement plan in place that covers what is being served, and from where. Include costs and, importantly, make sure the plan is delivering what the school needs – in terms of the whole school improvement plan – before you change anything.

Planning and managing change
Follow the golden rule, plus:

  • When making any change to the server remember that it is the heart of your infrastructure.
  • Plan to change the server every five years, or sooner if you need more throughput.
  • Do not wait for the warranty to run out and then say you have no budget.
  • Ask the technician what the roll-back plan is, just in case the upgrade/change does not complete on time. Be prepared – you need to run a school and you rely on your IT to do so.
  • Make sure you know what the IT technician is changing.
  • Make sure the change is planned – it needs a start and end time.
  • Do the changes outside the normal school day but avoid other events – such as parents’ evenings – when you may need access to data or applications.
  • Inform staff you are making a change, and when.
  • Test the change. A simple test is to login, access files and use applications. Test the access from both a fixed and a wireless device. Change can, inadvertently, introduce a problem – it may be quick to fix, but is usually inconvenient, so test as much as you can.
  • Good quality work does not result in long snagging lists; be prepared to pay for quality work.
  • Fixing things after an upgrade should be part of the project cost – not an additional cost.
  • The upgrade itself should have a warranty period.
This article featured in the May issue of Education Executive. Subscribe now to keep up-to-date with the latest in school business management and leadership.
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