Case study: Portsmouth Cathedral overhauls IT on a budget

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Case study: Portsmouth Cathedral overhauls IT on a budget

Arif Mohamed

You might consider a Church of England cathedral to be an unexpected user of IT technologies such as thin client systems, mobile Blackberry devices and power over telephone lines. However, Portsmouth Cathedral has been pushing the envelope with its IT system for several years.

Portsmouth Cathedral is the Mother Church of the Diocese of Portsmouth, a geographical area that includes south-east Hampshire, Portsea Island and the Isle of Wight. The cathedral is the base for the Bishop of Portsmouth and the focus for diocese-wide church services and events. As such, its clergy are highly mobile and have complex diaries, both of which make them ideally suited to mobile and remote access to data and the cathedral's network.

Challenges and limitations

Three years ago, Portsmouth Cathedral was experiencing daily limitations and failures with its IT infrastructure. It ran a client server set-up based on a Linux server that ran bespoke business software and a legacy calendar system. The equipment was managed partially in-house and partially by a local one-man-band IT support firm.

The main problems the cathedral was facing in 2004 were based around not being able to coordinate its booking systems with all the different parties involved. It did have a legacy diary system for room bookings and making staff appointments, but it was not easy to use and required a high level of skill.

Accessing the internet and the business system were also tricky, and it was a very difficult environment to work in, with users frequently complaining about the technology.

Due to the physical layout of the cathedral, only a few members of staff had access to the IT network, e-mail or internet services, and the network could not be accessed remotely.

The cathedral's 30 staff wanted to get more out of the IT system, and realised it was time for a complete IT overhaul. However, the organisation only had an IT budget of £28,000 a year, out of a total £550,000 annual discretionary budget.

Thin-client system answers prayers

In 2005, the cathedral approached local systems integrator Taylor Made Computer Solutions, a Microsoft Gold Partner and a Citrix specialist. Taylor Made recommended a thin-client system because of the challenges involved in cabling up the cathedral for a client-server system. Many of the cathedral's heavy wooden fixtures could not be moved, and the layout of the cathedral meant that under-floor cabling was not an option.

In June 2005, Taylor Made introduced a new IT system that it first installed, tested and benchmarked on its own premises before installing at the cathedral.

The new system comprises a series of HP Proliant servers running Microsoft Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003 and Citrix Presentation Server.

A number of workstations were replaced with HP thin clients to access the Citrix services, and broadband connections and desktops running Citrix were introduced for remote offices and personnel working from home.

"There is quite a lot of data going backwards and forwards, and Windows Terminal Services is a great system, but Citrix takes it to the next level for speed of access to data," says Ian Lockwood, commercial director at Taylor Made.

The answer to cabling problems

Unusually, Taylor Made introduced a central broadband internet connection to allow all network services to be accessed from a single point, eliminating the need for additional data cables or wireless technology.

The cathedral is a listed building, and therefore offered limited cabling possibilities, says Lockwood. In addition, there were a lot of staff who worked from home and from a church office in Portsmouth.

Taylor Made circumvented the cabling problem by using the cathedral's existing telephone lines. It modified the standard phone plug sockets, putting voice and data traffic over the telephone system by using VHDSL (very high digital subscriber line) technology. "Lots of different bits of technology went into this to make it work. Our engineers had fun," says Lockwood.

VHDSL is a variant of HDSL (high bit-rate digital subscriber line) and provides a data service at rates of between 10mbps and 26mbps over 300m. These fast speeds mean that VHDSL is capable of supporting new high bandwidth applications such as HDTV, as well as voice over IP and general internet access, all over a single connection.

To secure remote access to the organisation's network, the cathedral implemented Safeword for Citrix, a two-factor authentication system that uses key fobs as the hardware element to generate single-use passcodes.

Under the new system, the cathedral carries out data back-up on site using Veritas software and tape drives, and the network is monitored remotely around the clock from Taylor Made's premises.

Lockwood says Taylor Made is able to resolve most problems from its offices, and rarely needs to dispatch an engineer.

An unusual customer

"Portsmouth Cathedral is a very unusual customer to have, but it has the business requirements that many of our solicitor clients have: the need to communicate internally, coordinate its programmes and services, and it needs to communicate efficiently and effectively with its customers via the website and e-mail."

In 2006, John Murphie, administrator and chapter clerk at Portsmouth Cathedral, joined the cathedral staff and took on the role of IT manager by default because of his interest in IT and his administrative remit.

A retired member of the armed forces, Murphie is responsible for the smooth running of day-to-day cathedral activities as diverse as human resources matters, writing contracts, managing diaries and organising the cathedral's services.

Adopting new technologies

Murphie now leads the IT change programme and is keen to see the cathedral investigating new technologies such as Blackberry devices and interactive web presentations, as well as offering website visitors online booking and other facilities.

The first application that Taylor Made brought to the cathedral in 2004 was e-mail, with the website built shortly after. "These have really been accepted as part of the business," says Murphie.

Murphie is currently helping the cathedral staff adopt a shared online system based on Citrix Presentation Server that they can access from their offices, their homes or any of the thin client terminals in the cathedral itself. This will facilitate team working and save staff time on all sorts of activities, says Murphie.

"The next move is to get people using message board software to pre-empt some of the more routine business meetings. I want to be able to invite people to collaborate via a private domain, so when you get to the committee people know what their positions are. It will mean better communications and fewer meetings," he adds.

Murphie says Taylor Made has been very engaged in implementing the IT system, despite originally seeing the cathedral as "an odd place for a computer system to be in". But this has meant they have given the cathedral "a good deal of attention", he adds.

Unlocking the potential

Murphie says, "We came fairly late to computing, but we are making up time now. Almost three years on, and we are now beginning to really unlock the original Citrix system's potential. The reason we went to thin client is that it is easier to manage the network and allow clergy to access the system. Plus, Citrix has allowed us to do things like virtual tours on the website."

He adds, "I tend to take these things quite slowly, but I have upgraded to a Blackberry that I will personally trial. The clergymen travel a lot, and if this works for me, I will try to get them to adopt it. They will be able to make phone calls and answer e-mails out and about."

Murphie said that the main problem the cathedral faced was with staff IT adoption and training. The clergy team at the cathedral were not particularly familiar with technology, and they were used to working independently, so found it hard to collaborate using the new system.

Training the clergy

Taylor Made offers a range of training for Microsoft Office packages as well as for Citrix as part of the IT installation, and took on the task of helping the clergy become more IT literate. The training led the clergy up a steep learning curve of the new technologies.

This included teaching them the ins and outs of the collaborative diary features of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook 2003, and the generic diary environment for managing cathedral events and appointments.

Murphie says, "People do not naturally trust computers, but because the Citrix system has been so reliable it has become easy to trust. We now use the Citrix system for doing things like creating and distributing management papers, for research and for regular communication by e-mail."

The system has also helped the staff work together and adopt flexible working practices, says Murphie.

For Murphie himself, the system has reduced the time he spent mailing out Chapter minutes from three and a half hours to eight and a half minutes.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Murphie hopes to add tools to help the cathedral be greener and more efficient, such as projectors in meeting rooms to save on the number of presentation print-outs that are required.

He is also investigating making church services available by podcast, and introducing an online facility for people to purchase books and souvenirs, or tickets to Cathedral events and concerts, directly from the website.

As for Taylor Made, Lockwood said it has been approached by an IT manager for the Church of England, and is looking into a similar Citrix system for them. It goes to show that even a two thousand year old organisation like the church can benefit from technology.

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