Portage Public Schools

Portage, Michigan public schools improve present Internet access and control and look to future needs with Blue Coat Secure Web Gateway.

The Portage Public School district serves 24,000 households in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, including the City of Portage. The K-12 school district, which enrolls 8,600 students and employs 1,000 staff, has long been known for its excellence and innovation. Portage students are consistently ranked above state and national averages. Newsweek has ranked two of its three high schools in the top 6 percent of high schools in its “Top of the Class” national rankings, and 93 percent of its seniors go to college. The Portage Public School district was the first area district to offer an online education program and the first area district to have wireless LANs in all schools.

This is a school district that wants to spend time on educating, not troubleshooting IT systems.

Too Many IT Problems

“Our previous proxy solution, whether it was performance or some other headache, always had some issue that needed to be resolved,” said Daniel J. Vomastek, Director of Information and Technology Systems for the Portage Public Schools.

In addition to wanting to enforce tighter Web controls with less hassle, the IT team at Portage saw an opportunity. More and more students and faculty were bringing personal mobile devices, such as iPads and laptops to school. The school district saw this trend as a way to advance learning, but IT needed to rethink how web security was enforced.

“We openly encourage ‘bring your own device,’ or BYOD,” said Vomastek. “The more we can deliver content to students’ devices, the less we have to spend in hardware. But that policy requires us to rethink how we handle web filtering and how we provide a separate wireless network vs. the more secure environment we need for our staff members.”

In addition to these considerations, regulations require Web security for another reason. “By federal law, we have to have a web filtering solution to take advantage of grant
monies,” Vomastek added.

Testing for Success

When Portage Public Schools decided to upgrade its web security solution, the evaluation team wanted an appliance that it could deploy in-line with the network, which would provide better control and performance, rather than the software-based proxy server it had used previously.

Portage chose Blue Coat’s Secure Web Gateway solution, including ProxySG appliances, WebFilter with WebPulse, ProxyClient, and Reporter. ProxySG appliances provide complete control over all web traffic with features that include user authentication, web filtering, data loss prevention, inspection and validation of SSL-encrypted traffic, content caching, bandwidth management, and stream-splitting. WebFilter provides deep analysis ratings by leveraging the WebPulse cloud defense which provides more than seven billion ratings per day.

“Blue Coat offered the granularity we wanted with a simple interface. We could make a change ourselves in-house. We didn’t have to call someone. Blue Coat performs well.” Steve Van Dyke, Web Specialist and Hardware Technician for the district
Portage Public Schools deployed the ProxySG appliances in its data center, which provides applications and IT services to the district’s 14 schools and 16 buildings. The school district uses ProxySG appliances to protect the school’s production network, guest Wi-Fi network, and disaster recovery site. The schools are connected via a fiber network, and Internet service is provided by a regional education network.

Blue Coat Makes the Grade

“From an operational standpoint, once Blue Coat was installed and deployed, the reaction from end users was very good,” said Vomastek. “As a director, I got rid of a headache.”
Portage leverages the Web 2.0 application controls of Secure Web Gateway to allow students and faculty access to appropriate websites and applications. “We really enjoy the granularity of setting up rules based on our Microsoft Active Directory groups, whether for student and staff, or for different categories of students,” says Van Dyke.

“For instance, if some students are working on a special project for a particular class, they may need access to a particular website that isn’t usually permitted, or some staff may need access to social networking sites, but the rest of the staff doesn’t need that access for day-to-day work,” continued Van Dyke. “With Blue Coat, it’s easy to have detailed control over access.”

Blue Coat is performing the way the district hoped it would. “Blue Coat is easy to use,” DeRidder said. “We don’t hear any complaints from our users other than ‘Why is this site blocked?’ or ‘Why can’t we get here?’ Those are positive critiques, because that means Blue Coat is doing its job correctly. We can make our Internet policy decisions based on user feedback.”

Vomastek agreed. “Blue Coat keeps trouble off my desk,” he said.

WebFilter with WebPulse helps reduce Web 2.0 threats by incorporating custom script analyzers, anti-malware and anti-virus scanning, sandboxing and browser simulations. “We see zero-day sites occasionally,” said Van Dyke. “WebPulse keeps up on the emerging threats on the Internet.”

Up to 50 Percent Bandwidth Gains

Keeping a close eye on web usage has also allowed Portage to optimize content caching with ProxySG. “Our most popular website is Google Earth,” said Van Dyke. “We decided to cache those servers more aggressively so we’re not downloading those map tiles every time. We’re serving a lot of the content from the cache that users would normally download, and that frees up bandwidth for other uses.”

In fact, Portage has seen tremendous performance gains with ProxySG’s content caching. “We see 20 to 40 percent bandwidth gain on the Blue Coat,” said Van Dyke. “When we made the change for Google Earth, we saw bandwidth gains of more than 50 percent during parts of the day. Our trunk utilization would be at 30Mbps and we’d be serving 110Mbps to 160Mbps of content.”

A Report Card on Web Usage

Van Dyke said that the district finds many uses for Blue Coat Reporter. “Principals or teachers send in requests, asking what a student did on a computer at a certain time or if they suspect that a student is doing something he or she shouldn’t,” he said. “We pull those logs for disciplinary reasons, and we monitor it to find the same kind of trends. We want to nip problems in the bud before they become bigger.”

Reporter quickly processes robust log data from Blue Coat ProxySG and ProxyClient, along with conveyed data from WebFilter, and creates intuitive reports. The Reporter dashboard offers detailed views of user activity, web usage patterns, application access summaries, blocked sites, sites accessed by category, time of day, length of time and more.
Looking to the Future

Portage Public Schools is investigating the use of Blue Coat ProxyClient software to extend WAN optimization, web security and corporate policies to its remote and mobile workers, wherever they are and on any network. “We’ll probably roll that out to some of our employees who take laptops home,” Van Dyke said. “We’re testing the waters on how to handle it.”
Portage Public Schools is also installing 60-inch LCD displays in more than 500 classrooms. Video will clearly play a larger role in the teachers’ lesson plans. “We’re talking about how to use Blue Coat to handle live video streams better,” said Van Dyke.