Managing high-value software in edtech
A new school approach from Alan Hayward, UK Marketing Manager at SEH Technology
Posted by Julian Owen | May 05, 2018 | Higher education
edtech, alan-hayward, seh-technology, it-infrastructure, hardware-based-authentication, dongle-server

The education technology sector is going through a period of evolution. More money is being invested into this space than ever before, with the market expected to reach £129 billion by 2020. Yet, while there’s significant investment into new education and learning capabilities for students, this doesn’t always translate into additional money put aside for the networks or software needed to make that education possible.

As a result, the need for IT managers in educational institutions to do more with less has never been greater. Increased connectivity expectations from students and faculty alike, together with the ongoing battle to lower operating costs in order to help grant money go further, is putting renewed pressure on these individuals to introduce more flexibility across the board. Some of this is straightforward and can be resolved with minor upgrades to IT infrastructure and computing power, but not every issue is as easy to address, particularly for universities or colleges involved in research.

Researching the problem

Research teams in environments like this depend on high-value software that typically create extra hurdles to overcome. The bespoke programs they need to run often cost several thousands of pounds and are more aggressively protected than your average piece of business software. In almost all cases this happens via USB-based hardware authentication, where a USB dongle needs to be physically plugged into the target machine before the high-value software will run.

Although it’s a logical protection medium from a licensing perspective, and has the added benefit of making it easy to identify who’s running the software at any given time, it creates twin headaches for IT managers in educational institutions.

"With budgets increasingly being scrutinised, looking at how investment in IT infrastructure can help to reduce ongoing running costs is a sensible idea for making existing resources stretch even further."

The dual software headaches felt by IT managers

The first hurdle it creates is associated with practicality. The reality is that research isn’t always conducted in the lab. Teams often need to be able to access software and other IT services while out in the field, or even just on the other side of campus. Evidently, software that’s protected by a physical hardware dongle isn’t ideal for this and doesn’t cater to the flexible working environment we’re headed towards as a society.

This issue isn’t exclusive to educational institutions that conduct research, either. The same challenges apply for bespoke applications required for teaching certain courses, particularly as we continue to experience the death of the text book, and ‘learning by doing’ becomes more commonplace at all levels of education. From accountancy to forensics, software that’s essential to many mainstream professions is protected in this way. Therefore, for students that need access to certain high-value bespoke software as part of their course, having to rely on just a certain number of PCs to use the software in question presents an obvious barrier to learning.

One way around this would be to increase the number of high-value software licenses and associated hardware dongles available within the higher education institution. However, this brings us to the second, and more prohibitive, hurdle to be addressed – cost. As a single license for software of this calibre will run into the several thousands of pounds, having the number of USB dongles required to kit out an entire research lab (or one for every student taking a relevant course) would be incredibly expensive.

"While there’s significant investment into new education and learning capabilities for students, this doesn’t always translate into additional money put aside for the networks or software needed to make that education possible."

Finding a solution

Fortunately, there’s another way. Educational institutions are now starting to address the issues of hardware-based authentication by introducing a centrally managed piece of hardware to the network – a dongle server. In an environment like this, the hardware-based authenticated dongles can be made available over the network, working in much the same way as if they had been connected directly to the end user’s computer. This means the location of the student or research faculty becomes irrelevant, extending the flexibility of when or where this software can be used. Fewer licenses are needed, too, as they can be shared across different sites or computers without circumventing license agreements.

The University of Missouri is a notable example: 17 labs onsite, and remote associated labs, were served by five software licenses and a centrally managed dongle server. This minimised costs without impacting ease of use and kept within the terms of the license agreements. Several UK higher education facilities have adopted this approach too.

Future benefits

Once educational institutions have hardware like this in place, not only does it introduce the flexibility they need for future learning and research requirements, it also creates an environment where students and faculty are no longer handcuffed to certain systems in order to run certain software - this is important, considering that educational institutions are under more pressure than most to make every penny count. With budgets increasingly being scrutinised, looking at how investment in IT infrastructure can help to reduce ongoing running costs is a sensible idea for making existing resources stretch even further.

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