A network struggling to keep pace with an ambitious college
Lewisham Southwark College is a large inner-city further education college with around 13,000 students. Its commitment to providing a first class learning environment requires a high quality IT infrastructure, in this case one based on an HP wireless platform and network.
Unfortunately the system proved to be unstable, with regular outages and a generally unsatisfactory service for users. The wireless network was unreliable, with the loss of a single edge switch bringing the whole network to its knees for 20 minutes or more.
Dan Humphries, the College’s recently appointed Head of Infrastructure, recognised that the issues were due to failures in the installation process and hardware configuration rather than problems with the hardware itself. It became apparent that an expert HP partner was needed to rectify previous mistakes and ensure that the College could derive maximum benefit from its investment in HP hardware.
DTP: the right solution at the right price
When Dan joined the College he confirmed that the hardware was good quality but that a new partner was needed to undertake a major IT infrastructure service overhaul. HP recommended DTP, one of its eight UK Platinum Partners. Whilst HP’s endorsement was obviously a major plus for DTP, the company still had to go through a full tender process.
Cost is, inevitably, a key factor when public expenditure is concerned and, in the case of Lewisham Southwark College, it carried a 40% weighting in the decision making process. But a competitive price alone would not secure the contract; the winning bidder would also have to demonstrate a clear understanding of Lewisham Southwark’s needs. Dan sums up how DTP came through on both counts:
“DTP did a good job of writing the proposal. They proposed the right solution at the right price. They were significantly better value than the competition and their solution was geared to our requirements.”
Dan was also impressed that DTP took the long view and was confident that their IT infrastructure service capabilities would bring long term rewards. Given the financial constraints under which the College was operating, this was key. As he says:
“It was difficult because we didn’t have the budget to put this right – the College had spent its money so that was that. DTP was very good in recognising that if they could make this stuff work for us there was other potential business. If they could turn this around, there was an opportunity for them.”
So in September 2013 DTP started work to tackle both software and hardware issues across wireless, core switching and edge switching. Dan was impressed with the way that they started the process:
“The first thing DTP did, free of charge, was an audit to gather information about the network to understand how it all fit together. At that point they identified a number of shortfalls in the system.”
Those shortfalls were across several areas, relating mainly to the way the system was configured. But some hardware upgrades were also required. In summary:
- Edge and core switches were upgraded. There are now 250 access points across the College’s Lewisham and Waterloo sites.
- Installation of a new core switch allowed the routing protocol to be changed from RIP to OSPF, leading to significantly reduced recovery times.
- The spanning tree protocol was upgraded from Rapid (RSTP) to Multiple (MSTP), delivering operational benefits in terms of network recovery following an outage. Before, a problem would pull down the whole network for 20 minutes or more. Now, according to Dan: “It’s almost unnoticeable when we have a problem.”
- DTP’s AuthentiGATE guest wireless software, which works with the HP system, was installed, making it easier to grant network access to one-time users.
- Network management tools were upgraded to enable the network to be managed better and expedite the identification of problems.
A stable network with few outages
After two years of problems, users are now enjoying the benefits of DTP’s work. As Dan puts it:
“For the first time in years, the network has now had three or four months of stability and the number of problems and outages has definitely fallen off.”
Ongoing maintenance can also now be carried out more easily. Dan says:
“We recently did some work which involved taking down part of the network and the impact was minimal. Before, it would have had a widespread effect.”
“Other vendors didn’t see the complexity”
Lewisham Southwark has found the experience of working with DTP to be a positive one. Dan feels that, unlike some other suppliers, the company understands the education sector:
“The common problem is that people underestimate our needs. They think ‘oh, it’s just a college’, not realising that underneath is a network that’s probably as good as a financial trading floor. We’re talking 3-4,000 end-points. Other vendors didn’t see the complexity.”
There are specific requirements relating to network availability as well.
“With 2-3 hour lessons, if a teacher has planned to use technology they have to get it right first time. They have a curriculum to deliver. You’ve got one shot at using technology in that lesson. You’re working in a constrained environment.”
Dan also points out that educational establishments have to make their networks available for more hours per day than many businesses:
“Core work times for the college are 9am-5pm on weekdays. But then there are evening classes from 6-9pm, plus exams on Saturdays and other classes at weekends. So there aren’t many windows for downtime without causing major problems.”
That constrained environment makes particular demands on companies like DTP who need to take the network out of service for maintenance and upgrades. This might only be possible at specific times on specific weekends. As Dan says:
“Suppliers need to be flexible and DTP was certainly that. They were very good at working around those timing issues.”
DTP was chosen to ‘put it right – and that’s what they did’
Overall, Lewisham Southwark College is very happy with the outcome of the project, as well as the productive and trusting partnership that has been built with DTP. As the College moves into a new project phase, which will involve adding further access points and other new networking systems in the recently refurbished Waterloo College Campus, DTP and the College can look forward to the new set of challenges that this will bring.
“The working relationship with DTP has certainly been a good one. They understood where we were trying to get to. DTP was HP’s partner of choice to put it right – and that’s what they did.”