The education sector needs technology just as much as anyone else in the world. It gives students the flexibility to learn on-demand, creates opportunities for inter-departmental and inter-university collaboration, allows the creation of shared databases to house important research documents, and more. Without a strong technology infrastructure, the education sector cannot achieve its full potential.

In Asia, the education space is uniquely different. Given the population of its countries, the fact that the demographics are uniquely skewed towards a younger population, and the growing digital divide between the urban and rural populations, institutions in the region are always trying to stretch their budgets in terms of basic infrastructure, skilled teachers and technology.

Funds mostly go towards salaries of professors and staff, stipends and grants to research faculty, and maintenance of physical classrooms, collaboration spaces, and specialized facilities such as laboratories and bench-trial spaces. There’s seldom any budget left to invest in technology – despite its growing importance in everything we do in today’s world.

Governments in Asian countries are making effort to support their education institutions, but the sheer scale of the education space makes it difficult to have the desired impact. Not every student, and not every institution, is able to benefit.

What if there was a solution? Could there be a way to create an infrastructure at a national level and scale it seamlessly to support every education institution with minimal investment and technical expertise at their end? One of Cisco’s customers in the region has showed us that it is possible – and another is following suit.

Their solution enables them to stretch every dollar of their budget allocated to technology to impact many more institutions and students than ever before.

Going digital and bringing every institution along for the journey

The customer is a government entity tasked with accelerating the education sector’s journey to a future-ready state. Together with Cisco, they created a one-of-a-kind platform that could power every institution across the nation, connecting them together to share resources seamlessly, at scale.

To provide access to this platform, the customer has also opted to sign up for secured connectivity solutions leveraging both Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology as well as the internet. As a result, all institutions across the country are provisioned to jump onto the network with minimal set-up efforts.

At its core, this platform was made up of a few centralized, next-gen data centers placed strategically to support institutions across the length and breadth of the nation. These data centers were equipped to develop, store, and redistribute applications and content with an integrated security framework.

These facilities were augmented with their cloud-based applications, including email and collaboration tools, which were connected and secured through Cisco’s network and security solutions.

All of this is tied together using  Cisco data center SDN and security which enables policy-based deployment, monitoring, and management of resources across the network in a secured manner

Security – which is immediately apparent – was a critical factor for the customer because they intended to use the platform as a formal apparatus to exchange intellectual property in various shapes and forms.

Storing research data, for example, especially when collaborations between multiple universities are involved, requires strict confidentiality and privacy. Using the platform to store and share this data and to collaborate, will therefore only be possible if security is a pre-requisite rather than an afterthought.

Since the platform intended to prepare institutions in the country for a digital-future, it also needed to be built in such a way that allowed for ultra-high speed data transfers, delivered high confidence e-governance capabilities, and more. However, bringing scale to it meant doing a fair bit of homework to not only estimate existing needs but also potential demand in the long-term.

The efforts put in to build this platform for the education sector paid great dividends. It achieved everything that it was intended to do – from enabling e-learning and promoting flexibility and mobility, to democratizing research studies, to providing access to feature-rich professional applications for use by educators and students.

However, the biggest benefit was that all of this can now be scaled to any institution in the country, with minimal investment and specialized skill requirements on the part of the end institution which is a key challenge for smaller institutes or those who are located in some of the smaller towns in the country.

A deeper dive into the security features of the ‘platform’

Securing a platform that serves hundreds of institutions and millions of students isn’t an easy task.

For this client, securing against external threats was probably the easy part because it involved defense against established bad actors and known evils such as viruses, malware, ransomware, and so on –perimeter security and other intelligent solutions were quite handy in this space.

Guarding against internal threats, on the other hand, required a careful study of the various situations, circumstances, and use cases to identify potential concerns such as misuse of data, theft of data, unauthorized access to data, and so on – needing the organization to deploy behavior-based analytics, policy-based security functionalities, advanced identity & access management (IAM) solutions, and more.

Given the scale of the entire program, the client needed intelligent dashboards and a plethora of automations to be built into its core to keep the IT team from becoming overwhelmed with maintenance tasks, troubleshooting, and so on. Imagine the number of alerts that could be generated by the myriad users of this platform from every corner of the country – thanks to Cisco’s advanced threat detection and response capabilities, the IT team can be assured that they’ll only be dealing with real red-flags.

The fact that each user brings their own device and used their own network to access the platform added to the complexity. However, with Cisco’s AnyConnect managing these individual devices, granting them access, and monitoring how each interacts with the network has become easy – and ensures the security of the nation’s educational infrastructure.

At the end of the day,  the size and scale of the platform created by the customer might be huge – but the impact of it – creating better access to new-age opportunities for students around the nation, no matter where they are, is even bigger. It’s no wonder that we already have a government entity in another country in the region eager to get started on a similar journey.

If you’d like to be next or want to reimagine the work we’ve done in the education space for another sector or group at a different scale, do think about what we achieved here, and don’t forget that it all started with a need to modernize at scale while stretching every dollar of the budget as far as possible.