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Thorough network upgrade underpins University of Law’s IT

Legal education specialist the University of Law has undertaken a multi-million pound future IT project to refresh its networks, Wi-Fi and datacentre infrastructures across multiple locations

The University of Law (ULaw), the UK’s longest established independent specialist provider of legal education services, has completed a major upgrade to its core network, datacentre and wireless infrastructure to support a thriving business across multiple locations.

ULaw specialises in the Legal Practice Course (LPC), a postgraduate, vocational course that represents the final step towards becoming a solicitor in England and Wales, which makes up 80% of its business. It also offers bar council courses, legal diplomas, and is looking to add more courses around business and law.

It already works with 90 of the UK’s top legal practices and has trained over 60,000 lawyers to date at its locations in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Chester, Guildford, Manchester and Leeds. It is owned by Global University Systems.

CIO Tom Brady first joined the business in May 2014, after a stint in charge of IT services at optical equipment supplier Carl Zeiss, just as ULaw was considering an upgrade to its IT with a specific emphasis on underpinning its infrastructure to make it fit for the future.

Brady immediately set about conducting an audit of the university’s existing IT infrastructure, including surveying students and staff.

“It became obvious there had been considerable underinvestment, and a number of issues were causing pain for both staff and students,” he told Computer Weekly.

Among other things, he found inadequate storage, an ageing Novell-based email system, weak Wi-Fi networks and consistent server outages that was damaging the student experience at a time when ULaw was experiencing massive competition from rival institutions.

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More worryingly, said Brady, a single point-of-failure at its one datacentre was limiting ULaw’s disaster recovery capability, putting the institution at considerable risk, while ULaw’s 44-strong IT team was up to the task, but were “doing too much fire-fighting”.

“There was a real and urgent need to rebuild from the ground up and implement more effective collaboration,” he said.

An immediate priority was to build out a more resilient datacentre architecture to enable the introduction of fully virtualised applications, improving performance and resilience, and bringing ULaw’s disaster recovery procedures back up to code.

Brady has now taken space in the Telehouse West facility in London’s Docklands to manage day-to-day operations and some backup, and is using its old datacentre to backup.

Working with Roc Technologies, ULaw completely overhauled its campus network, delivering new cabling, and both a fibre backbone and secure wireless networks around its distributed sites. This element of the upgrade took six months, and was one of the more complex parts of the process, particularly in its older sites – its Guildford base is a listed building, for example, while in all locations much of the work had to be done at night to minimise disruption to ULaw’s daily academic life.

“There were several unknowns, such as asbestos in some places, and we had to work around the curriculum,” said Brady. “We can say there was no impact to student services, but we hadn’t initially reckoned on some of these challenges.”

Improving coverage

For the upgraded wireless infrastructure, Brady deployed 400 new access points (APs), around the university properties, paying particular attention to coverage in areas such as stairwells and corridors.

This was especially important for Brady, because previously devices had not been able to roam seamlessly around the campuses, and students and staff often had to reauthenticate their devices, and has supported a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) drive.

“We have about 2,000 PCs in various labs, but more and more people would rather use their own devices, so at our Moorgate and Birmingham sites we now don’t have PCs, but charging facilities and signage explaining how to connect,” said Brady.

“This is enabling us to spend more smartly – instead of PCs, we can buy better laptops and get better network coverage and support.”

The new backbone also supports a video solution that allows ULaw to stream workshops and lectures to students to further enhance the learning experience. “We could never have run that on our previous network. It would just have collapsed,” he said.

Now that the underlying infrastructure is fit for purpose, Brady said he was also looking to introduce new services into the mix, raising the possibility of putting more IT into the cloud. On the communications side, he is exploring a Skype for Business implementation which will allow him to replace legacy telephony equipment for the university’s staff.

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