Monthly Archives: July 2010

Syndicating Blogs

There are times when you just come across blog posts that you wish you had written or that you want to get to a wider audience.

After a brief chat with one blogger I have come to admire he has agreed to allow me to syndicate his blog on mine.

Using the auto-blog plugin for wordpress has made this pretty simple too, so I get to geek a bit at the same time.

So … With no further ado … Ladies and gentlethings of the interweb I present you with The Angry Technician.

Filtering and the Nirvana of your own connection!

In a recent article by Miles Berry, over on Merlin John’s site Agent4Change, Miles raises a number of really good points about saving money in this year of austerity … but there are a few points that still get me about Open Source and an almost blind faith that it can solve nearly all our problems (actually … it can solve a significant amount and Miles is realistic enough to point out limitations, possible other costs, etc but that is another post for another time).

My issue is with point 5 of the article which I have copied below

5. Take control of your Internet connection. Compare the cost of your LA/RBC provided service and that of commercial providers, and check you really do need any additional benefits that you may be paying for. How often do you need access to the NEN? This seems to be what’s hinted at in the DfE’s description of the second Harnessing Technology grant cut, as giving schools time to plan to “reconfigure their broadband”. I think it interesting that hardly any independent schools opt in to RBC services. Use Squid as a proxyserver to speed up multiple access to the same pages. Explore some of the filtering options for Squid, such as the kind-of-open-source DansGuardian, which is based on Squid. Think carefully about your filtering policy, bearing in mind that children have a right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”

Yes … the recent cuts are an attack on things like RBCs and the capital investment that goes into these projects and how they are now into the ‘revenue’ phase (your running costs should always be cheaper that the capital projects which will include the setup costs and running costs during that project period), but have you noticed how there is no noted revenue grant (either a new one or increase in others)? Strange that … Anyway, back to Miles’ point.

I’ll let RBCs talk about the other services they provide such as DNS, website hosting, email filtering and email hosting, video conferencing, firewalls and security … they already have a lot of collateral on that and they will have their own job cut out to get people to realise the the things which are taken for granted.

Instead I will focus on why I have a lot of respect for those schools who run their own filters, have their own firewalls and spend considerable time and effort on doing things as efficiently as possible. And I will also mention those that try and miss to hit the objectives (often through no fault of their own).

Dansguardian is a fantastic piece of software from a bloke called Dan. It is the open source end of an even better solution from a company called Smoothwall. It works on the basis of filtering on phrases, regular expressions in URLs, it can whitelist and is pretty configurable. It is compatible with squidGuard blacklists … and this is where my problem starts. Filter lists generated by the community come from *all* of the community … and what your needs are, they are likely to differ to others. Whilst the lists are really good for protection against porn (amazing how eager people are to search for porn … and then block it of course!) they can be lacking in other areas such as hate speak, weapons, drugs, violence, crime, malicious scripts … and then you get things randomly (apparently) blacklisted because someone doesn’t like it. Those of use who have run their own mail servers know what a pain it can be have to deal with RBL lists where your mail server is regarded as a spam machine … even though it isn’t and it is because someone has made a complaint! The same applies here … you run the risk of sites you know and love suddenly becoming blocked … on a regular basis. You get what you pay for when it comes to filtering lists … and that is why there are commercial add-ons to ISA and why DansGuardian is not as effective as Smoothwall’s Network Guardian / Schools Guardian.

Many schools who make use of DansGuardian are fine with this and have staff who can manage it and can whitelist the required sites … and this is my next sticking point. If you get a lot of problems with sites then the de facto method of dealing with it is to lock down and release it slowly. This means blocking everything and whitelisting sites. Yes … a step back for some schools to consider whitelisting resources instead of managing them effectively.

Now this is also an issue I have with people running Microsoft ISA in schools … who rely on a few key phrases and hope it works. They might turn off as many categories from the RBC filters as they can and say they are dealing with it all in house. The thing I would then ask is what are the criteria do they have for adding sites to a whitelist or blacklist? Who verifies that the changes to the phrases which are filtered are correct? I’ve already posted about how it is not the technology but the people and how it is managed. If the schools are going to move to something that definitely requires more management then they had better make sure they know what they are getting into.

And then we get to who will manage it … is it an admin task which teachers will not do? Is it something for pastoral staff to update? Is it soley done by tech support? You do have tech support available every day don’t you? The interface for Dansguardian is not exactly user friendly IMHO … I’ve seen worse (don’t get me started on vle editing interfaces!) and when it comes to reports you are talking about really knowing what you are doing … because make no mistake, out of the box systems take time and considerable effort to get right and be suitable to get infomration when you want it.

I can hear the Ubuntu hordes massing at my door telling me it is easy … yes, if you have picked up the skills and I won’t even start on the fun you can get into trying to compile things in *nix (and yes … for some of us it is fun, but not for everyone). I am not saying that ISA (or other products) are any better for this … a school I know recently had performance problems with their internet connection after moving to use an ISA box in-house … and it was also using a filter in front of that … so all web traffic went through the filter and then to the ISA … which had the default maximum of 600 connections per minute set. Yes, that means that only 10 connections a second from a computer could be made to the internet … all because of default settings being missed.

Open Source Software may be free … as in no licence costs and open to be developed by yourself and others … but the other costs of management, hardware, training and risk play a large part here. Out of the schools I have worked with who are not on RBC connections most use commercial products to protect themselves and the choice not to be with the RBC is mainly political, not cost. They also accept that they have to deliver *all* their own services including email, email filtering, etc … and this also involves spending significant money on a decent firewall to protect their network … and this is before we get into the fact that a ‘cheap’ commercial connection might not get you the quality of connection you get from an RBC. Very important if you live outside of a large urban area.

So yes, consider that you can make use of Open Source Software to supplement what you are doing on your connection … I love the textual filtering on some filtering products to allow you to score and filter keywords … but accept that this is small scale tweaking to target a particular issue (like the growth of new slang for insults) and the integration ISA has into the Active Directory making it more flexible when restricting a particular group of users … but also consider the time and effort to do all of this, the other things you will use … and no matter how much someone tells you OSS is free, there will be some costs.

And whilst we are talking about sharing and communities … I’ll hold my hands up to when I was a vocal person working in a school arguing that the idea of smoothing costs for RBC connections across schools was unfair to us as an individual school. Now that I am at an LA I can honestly see how selfish that was. Surely if we are a community and trying to share and look after one another then it is unfair to pull out of a scheme designed to give equity of access and not penalise the rural schools? I know people will say that the answer should be solved by the market, but since the Govt thinks we don’t need to invest anymore in the infrastructure then they must also accept that some areas are more costly that others for connections. Are we not just supporting the break up of this (NEN) community? Oh … it is because schools should have control and not LAs? Ah … that is a different discussion to have then and not about saving money, but power, control and politics.

Ladies and Gents, the cynic has left the building.

Sharepoint in Education – the other side of things

I’ve already posted about why I like Sharepoint so much and it was quite interesting to spend Friday in Warwick with Mike Herrity and co presenting about Sharepoint in Education.

Mike’s blog goes into full details about who presented and what on, but here is my presentation as I looked more towards sharepoint 2010 as a business tool.

Why on earth would you take a business point of view for something that should be about education? Have a watch of my presentation below and I hope it explains my thinking a bit more.

I hope to spend more time on this in the coming months … to cover areas such as using Sharepoint for managing department or SLT meetings, tracking of performance management … there are lots of things to cover in fact.

If you have any clear examples of sharepoint as a management tool feel free to drop a note on here too.