Alberta educators reduce IT costs and improve bandwidth capacity with Cybera’s shared Virtual Firewall Service

 A virtual solution to the cybersecurity resource constraints faced by Alberta’s public sector has been developed by Cybera. The first of its kind in Alberta, the Virtual Firewall Service removes the need for schools to host their own physical firewall appliances. This saves them both time and money, as they no longer need to buy and maintain physical firewalls, and they can also potentially reduce their internet bandwidth requirements. The service is now available to K-12 schools and smaller post-secondary institutions, with the goal to roll out to other public sector institutions throughout 2018.

Alberta’s first public Virtual Firewall Service is now being made openly available, following a successful trial with educators in the province. The service was created by Cybera, Alberta’s not-for-profit technology accelerator, to address the demands being placed on schools by their growing firewall needs.

Firewalls are a critical line of defense, protecting staff and students from malicious spam and other online threats. Traditionally, this protection requires physical firewall appliances hosted either at each individual school, or in the school district’s head office. If hosted at each individual school, the appliances can prove costly and time-consuming for IT staff to maintain. But it can also be costly if a school district has only one firewall in a central location, as all the schools’ internet traffic needs to be routed through that location, greatly increasing the district’s bandwidth usage. And if there is a power outage at that location, all the schools’ internet goes down.

Cybera’s Virtual Firewall Service removes the need to buy and maintain a physical firewall, and also reduces bandwidth usage (as schools no longer have to route through a separate location). And since the firewall is hosted on Cybera’s Rapid Access Cloud, it is scalable to meet the growing needs of participants, while ensuring that the school’s data is kept in Alberta.

The service is currently geared towards K-12 schools and smaller post-secondary institutions with bandwidth traffic under 1.3 Gbps, with the goal to quickly roll out to other public sector institutions, including libraries and municipalities.

Prairie Land Regional School Division no. 25 joined Cybera’s virtual firewall pilot in January 2018, and IT Specialist Kendal King says it has already saved his team a great deal of time (and stress).

“Our district only includes eight schools, but they’re spread out over a distance of 15,500 square kilometres, so if a router blows up in one school, it can take hours for one of us to drive out there to fix it. And because our region is prone to power outages, we couldn’t risk having one firewall for all the schools. The Virtual Firewall Service has worked out great for us — it only took one afternoon to get set up, and already it’s blocking more of the content that we wanted blocked than our previous setup did.”

He adds that the time and money saving aspects of the service have been beneficial, but particularly “the peace of mind of not having to worry about replacing equipment when it’s reached its end of life, or worrying about nine different physical appliances potentially going down!”

“This has been an exciting project for us, as it has not only given us the opportunity to create an innovative service that’s never been done in this way before, but also to help our members in the process,” adds Jean-Francois Amiot, Network Manager at Cybera. “When we were asked to build a virtual solution to the bandwidth-consuming, high-cost issues members were facing with their firewall setups, we didn’t know if it would work. But the results have been very positive, and we’re happy that many other organizations will be able to benefit from our made-in-Alberta solution!”

The Virtual Firewall Service is now available to connected Cybera members who are participating in the Internet Buying Group. To find out how to join, contact firewall@cybera.ca.

Background


About the Virtual Firewall Service

Cybera began the virtual firewall pilot in 2016 in response to requests from school members to solve their firewall issues. Cybera staff developed a remote, software-based system that utilized a PaloAlto firewall solution, and is currently investigating an open-source option, all housed on Alberta’s Rapid Access Cloud. The service allows school authorities to setup their firewall in a “virtual” environment, doing away with the need to maintain physical equipment, while keeping control over the configuration and management of their firewall. The pilot, which included five Alberta school districts, wrapped in early 2018.

What are the benefits to organizations?

  • No need to buy and host your own physical firewall appliances, reducing infrastructure and overhead costs. (Future deployment of other solutions on the Virtual Firewall Service, including an open source solution, will reduce costs even further.)
  • Network managers can greatly reduce “hair-pinning” (where internet traffic through the centralized firewall doubles back on itself), saving on bandwidth traffic.
  • Members have a secure, scalable environment to trial cutting-edge network technologies with other networking experts.
  • The service includes all the additional advantages of using Alberta-based cloud infrastructure: local data storage, Calgary/Edmonton redundancy, and fast failover.

How to join

  • The service is geared towards smaller institutions (with bandwidth traffic of under 1.3 Gbps)
  • Organizations must be members of Cybera and connected to Cybera’s Internet Buying Group to participate. (Check out our membership page to see if your organization is a Cybera member).
  • The Virtual Firewall Service currently uses a PaloAlto firewall solution (see our FAQs for more details). Training can be made available to network managers not familiar with this solution.
  • Contact firewall@cybera.ca to get started.


 

Cybera is a not-for-profit technology-neutral organization responsible for driving Alberta’s economic growth through the use of digital technology. Its core role is to oversee the development and operations of Alberta’s cyberinfrastructure — the advanced system of networks and computers that keeps government, educational institutions, not-for-profits, business incubators and entrepreneurs at the forefront of technological change.

Working with government, education, and private sectors, Cybera is creating a community that champions vital networking and computing services and utilities for everyone, everywhere. We also provide member organizations with unbiased, highly skilled expertise on technology products, processes or services, and access to shared IT tools.