Mount Pleasant Independent School District (MPISD) is a K-12 school district located in Titus County in Northeast Texas. The district operates eight schools serving approximately 5,400 students, and employs roughly 1000 people.
Noe Arzate, MPISD’s CTO, is committed to providing students and teachers the best technology available. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, he led the district’s technology transition to remote learning.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic to the district’s websites surged. Parents and students in the community visited frequently in search of information about the district’s remote learning plan. The district’s existing web infrastructure was unable to keep up with this increased demand.
MPISD also had experienced problems securing its public websites. Its existing web application firewall (WAF) was unable to both allow its web applications to work and protect them against attacks. SSL certificates for the school’s 60 public-facing websites were managed manually.
In addition, the district used its internet service provider (ISP) to manage the DNS entries for its 60 external-facing websites. This meant the district relied on the ISP for visibility into most of its network traffic. And, since the ISP relied on another third-party provider for some of this functionality, gaining visibility into a potential security incident could take 24-48 hours, which was far too long.
Noe Arzate initially sought out Cloudflare because using Cloudflare’s infrastructure would allow him to manage his external DNS entries himself and achieve the required level of visibility into the district’s network traffic. He was very impressed with the process, saying, “It is really nice to be able to, just with the flip of a switch, click on a couple settings, and all the traffic is being proxied through Cloudflare. That is a big plus, because we did not have that visibility.”
After working with Cloudflare, he wished that the district had been able to make the switch earlier. A few months earlier, his team was experiencing issues where its web application firewall was blocking API calls for a SaaS solution used by the district. With the limited visibility that they had into their network traffic, it took a while to diagnose and correct the issue. He is far less concerned about similar issues occurring in the future, saying, “Now we can see all that traffic that's traversing through our domains. So we can see if there is a problem.”
As traffic surged during the pandemic, MPISD switched to using WP Engine for its web hosting. After making the switch, the team was happy to learn that WP Engine uses Cloudflare and that it is available as part of the bundled service package. By combining WP Engine and Cloudflare, the district had access to analytics and metrics that were not previously available. Arzate says, “I can see the improvements after moving into WP Engine, and, now that we have Cloudflare in front of it, I can see the things that we need to concentrate on to improve on the performance of the website.”
The switch to Cloudflare also simplified management of the district’s web applications. In the past, the district’s IT team manually created and renewed SSL certificates for its applications. Now, all of this is handled automatically by Cloudflare. According to Arzate, “I can just tell Cloudflare, ‘this is the SSL certificate authority that we use.’ Cloudflare picks it up from there, and they take care of the deployment of the certificates. Which is great because I don't have to worry about it anymore. It’s just a one-time thing.” By automating the certificate management process, Cloudflare eliminates the worry that a misconfigured or expired certificate will break a critical application and provides significant time savings.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the accessibility and security of online learning resources is critical to the district. When its existing WAF didn’t meet MPISD’s needs, it chose to switch to Cloudflare WAF.
When asked if there were any surprises about the deployment process, Arzate said that there were but in a good way. “One of the things that was surprising is how easy it was. Many solutions require three, maybe four days just tweaking the web application firewall. That was not the case with Cloudflare. We proxied the traffic, flipped a couple switches, and that was it.” In the end, he said that it took about 20 minutes to set up only because he wanted a complete understanding of how the system worked and how it was configured. That way, he could more effectively investigate potential issues and explain any problems clearly to the support team.
While MPISD partnered with Cloudflare after the COVID-19 pandemic began, it has already seen dramatic improvements in its network performance, visibility, and security. According to Arzate, “The experience with Cloudflare. If I could just give it a rating from one to 10, I will give it a 10. It's been great. It's been simple. It's been easy. And it's not just a product, it has to do a lot with the people that you work with.”
Rather than simply asking peers what they are using, Arzate is a huge proponent of seeing what tools are available in other industries and investigating how they can be applied in education. His advice to CTOs in education: “We forget the technology that's available to Fortune 100 companies, it's also available to us. We just have to know who to talk to and how to communicate with those people and then figure out a way to bring that technology to our school districts. At the end of the day, once we have that in place and you have the right people in place, it just becomes a better experience for the end users.”
Cloudflare enables MPISD to investigate potential incidents in minutes, rather than days
Deploying Cloudflare WAF took 20 minutes, rather than the 3-4 days of other solutions
“One of the things that was surprising is how easy it was. Many solutions require three, maybe four days just tweaking the web application firewall. That was not the case with Cloudflare. We proxied the traffic, flipped a couple switches, and that was it.”
“The experience with Cloudflare. If I could just give it a rating from one to 10, I will give it a 10. It's been great. It's been simple. It's been easy. And it's not just a product, it has to do a lot with the people that you work with.”