What Does A Good K-12 Gateway Look Like?

by Amy Abatangle, EVP and General Manager for Untangle

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Those are words many schools live by when making infrastructure expenditures, especially cash-strapped public schools. When it comes to information technology, simply functioning and actually being effective are two very different things. Your school’s old web filter system is likely a case in point.

Internet access is now a requirement in most schools, as students and staff need internet resources on a daily basis. In addition, schools must meet a high standard when it comes to content filtering, ensuring that teachers and students have access to the tools they need while meeting CIPA requirements and protecting kids from unsafe (or simply distracting) content.

Indeed, K-12 schools face a tightrope walk between internet access and protection. Older systems are usually configured to block website content solely based on URL requests via port 80. This is where new problems are now arising.

More and more students are bringing their own devices from home for use on school Wi-Fi. And even elementary-age children can be adept at getting around web filters using search engine tricks, proxy websites, and anti-firewall software such as UltraSurf. What’s more, today’s websites and applications proactively hop ports, and more and more traffic comes through HTTPS.

While these older systems are not technically broken, they are failing. They are too easy to bypass and, even worse, they can actually hamper learning due to inflexible, cumbersome block/allow rules. With one of these legacy solutions deployed, K-12 administrators all too often discover that students can bypass content restrictions using HTTPS or web translator pages. Or they find that that their VPN services don’t restrict students from viewing inappropriate content on their personal devices.

Clearly, the K-12 community needs a new approach to content filtering that can provide a flexible internet experience for school staff and students while keeping everyone on task, compliant and safe.

What Does A Good K-12 Gateway Look Like?

The newest school-appropriate next-generation firewall solutions are deployed at the gateway to the internet, directly in the flow of traffic. They include basic firewall features, but they also include a host of other services including protection from malware, spyware, advertising, phishing attempts, spam, and more. All of this is necessary in addition to state-of-the-art content filtering.

Because the nature of web traffic is changing, the best new filters fully decrypt HTTPS, accommodate reverse IP lookups, understand multiple languages and enforce safe search features in browsers. They are also able to recognize suspect student activity such as proxy web site behavior in real time.

Good solutions will also let you flexibly block or flag hundreds of risky, inappropriate or time-wasting applications, including Facebook, games, instant messaging, streaming media or file sharing – keeping bandwidth available for legitimate use by staff and students. Bandwidth and quality of service management should allow your IT administrators to keep the network humming along with mission-critical traffic prioritized over recreational traffic.

Managing Costs

Balancing technology needs against tight budgets is always challenging, especially when making the case for replacing an incumbent system that may have been “good enough” at one time. When you’re ready to take the plunge, there are a few things to keep in mind.

As with any major school purchase, look for a vendor who will make pricing accommodations for educational institutions. Some suppliers will offer free trials that let you out the system risk-free without obligation, and many offer (or will offer if asked) education discounts.

By choosing a gateway solution with web filtering, HTTPS inspection, application control, robust policy management and bandwidth monitoring on board, K-12 schools can get the most bang for their buck. Some vendors offer next-generation firewalls with all these features and more – ensuring that safety and security don’t have to take a backburner to budget constraints.

Amy Abatangle is executive vice president and general manager of Untangle’s gateway division. Amy is responsible for delivering products to help organizations gain visibility into and control over their networks.