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-7. Why do you need to know about firewalls?

- Firewalls are filters that keep unauthorized users and data out of your company's intranet (see Figure 2).

- But if students are inside your company's intranet, and are trying to take e-learning courses that are coming across the firewall from an outside Web site, you need to be sure the firewall is not filtering out the e-learning course data. If your firewalls are filtering things you don't want filtered out, the e-learning course might not work properly.

Intranet firewall.

Figure 2. Intranet firewall.

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Firewalls exist to keep unauthorized users out of your company's intranet. Figure 2 shows what happens. Unauthorized users cannot get into the company intranet, but the authorized user can.

A firewall essentially acts as a filter. Besides filtering out unauthorized users, firewalls are sometimes set up by the company's IT department to filter out certain kinds of data. For example, the firewall could filter out files bigger than two megabytes or filter out streaming audio or filter out streaming video.

But if students are inside your company's intranet and trying to take e-learning courses that are coming across the firewall from an outside Web site, you need to be sure the firewall is not filtering out the e-learning course data. If it's being filtered out, the e-learning course won't work.

You need to be sure that the firewall is not going to filter out anything important coming from e-learning courses coming from external Web sites. Think about file size, video, audio, and any other special features of the courseware.

-8. Will your company's IT infrastructure support the growth of e-learning?

- Do you have the network bandwidth to run the e-learning courses you want?

- Are your employees equipped with computers that let you run the e-learning courses you want?

- Will your e-learning system scale up to handle a large number of students?

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Your company's IT infrastructure includes:

- Networks

- The computers that your employees use (laptops, desktops, etc.)

- System and application programs and the computers on which they run (usually called "servers")

Such an IT infrastructure is a lot like the infrastructure for a city—including the electrical lines, water lines, phone lines, buildings, subways, etc. The key things to know about any infrastructure are that:

- It's expensive to set up.

- It's expensive to operate.

- It needs constant maintenance and upgrading, especially as usage grows.

In almost all cases, your company's IT infrastructure will already exist. You will not be establishing an IT infrastructure just for e-learning. You will use what's already there and being used for e-mail, running business-critical applications, and running other more mundane computer applications.

The question is whether your IT infrastructure can support the e-learning you want to run over it. There are these factors to consider:

Network Bandwidth

Network bandwidth refers to the amount of data that can get across the network in a period of time. Many people metaphorically think of the bandwidth as the thickness of the pipes in the network. I'm sure you've seen the difference yourself when you're connected to the Internet with a 28.8Kps modem or when you're connected though a high-speed line.

As your need for e-learning grows, your need for bandwidth will grow for two reasons:

- Increased traffic. More users sending and receiving more and more data.

- Increased use of video and audio, and other high-function e-learning courseware that can transmit large amounts of data. Thin pipes will limit the usage of such things as audio and video and will cause delays when downloading large files or complicated Web pages.

The question then to ask is "How big are the pipes in your company's intranet?"

The thing to be aware of, however, is that you might be able to control the size of the intranet pipes in your company, but if you're using the Internet itself, the size of those pipes is out of your hands. (Think of the times when you got the message "net congestion" when streaming audio over the Internet.) You might be surprised to know that the thickness of pipes is not uniform across the Internet—some parts have fast, thick pipes and some are slow, thin pipes.

Student Hardware

Your employees will need a computer to access the e-learning courseware, and it's probably a safe bet that they already have one for other business needs. Keep in mind the following:

- Student machines need maintenance and occasional upgrading as the state of the art moves onward.

- This goes double for computers being used by e-learning instructors.

- Some companies provide the latest in computer equipment to their employees. Some don't. If you're going to use e-learning courseware that uses the latest technology, make sure that each employee's computer can handle it. I wish I didn't know about companies who wanted to stream audio to their employees as part of a learning experience, only to find that the computers their employees had on their desks were missing the audio cards.

Also, think about whether you are expecting employees to use the e-learning courses only at the office, or from home (or on the road). What capabilities do you expect them to have at home? The most important thing to check here is the bandwidth. If many employees are going to connect with a 28.8Kps or 56Kps modem, then e-learning that sends large amounts of data is going to appear very, very slow—and ultimately annoy the students.

Scalability

Scalability is connected to growth. In general, you want a scalable e-learning system so that, whether you're teaching twenty people or 2,000 people, you do not run into technology barriers. What's a technology barrier? In the old days of personal computers, when they ran DOS instead of Windows, there was a 640K memory barrier. You could run programs as long as they fit within 640K, but after that you had problems. In short, DOS didn't scale. When things got bigger, it didn't expand gracefully to accommodate the bigger things.

In terms of e-learning, you don't want to find that your e-learning system works just fine with 100 users but breaks down if you have 500 users.

It's important to note that there are other scalability barriers besides the technology. Instructor-led courses are not scalable like self-paced courses. An instructor can handle from twenty to forty students at a time. If you have hundreds and hundreds, you'll need more instructors.

 
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