National Trust for Scotland overcomes legacy network challenge

The National Trust for Scotland has replaced a historical network infrastructure with a core service from Brocade

Conservation and heritage charity the National Trust for Scotland has implemented a core networking architecture to replace a legacy system that was frequently bringing the IT department to its knees.

Created in 1931, the trust oversees 190,000 acres of countryside and 130 IT sites around Scotland, employing 540 full-time and 750 seasonal staff, as well as 3,000 volunteers.

The National Trust for Scotland head of IT Scott Newton said the charity’s whole infrastructure was creaking and causing his department considerable problems in terms of addressing support needs and technical problems arising around its various sites.

The problem needed to be addressed, he said, because the trust was in imminent danger of having to declare its own network a site of historical interest.

Rather than fixing the individual problems one by one, Newton elected to roll out a core upgrade, something which the trust had not done for a very long time.

He entrusted the upgrade to network supplier Brocade because it was important to have full interoperability with VMware, and to be able to exploit the potential of software-defined networking (SDN) – a key plank in Brocade’s strategy – to manage future upgrades more effectively, essentially future-proofing the new network from day one.

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“For me, the way Brocade is investing in research and development, and driving things forward, is what swung it for me,” Newton told Computer Weekly. “I see Brocade on the same tier level as HP and Cisco, but I felt Cisco was built more around acquisition.”

The trust has deployed Brocade’s VDX 6730 high-performance 10GB Ethernet (GbE) fixed-configuration switches, with both local-area network (LAN) and native Fibre Channel ports across its core. Brocade’s technology has been specifically designed to mitigate the problems of under-use of networks to maximise application availability and simplify network archictectures.

It will also be deploying Brocade ICX 6450 stackable LAN switches across its access and campus networks to help its various sites meet future demands placed on them.

“All too often, network infrastructures are still based on principles and architectures that were first established 20 years ago. It is no surprise these networks are unable to cope with the growing pressures brought about by mobile computing, cloud-based services and big data,” said Brocade regional director for Western Europe Joy Gardham.

“We believe a new approach to internet protocol (IP) networking is required if businesses are to take full advantage of these technologies in the long term,” she added.

The upgrade has also seen the trust deploy unified-threat-management (UTM) technology from Fortinet and Xirrus Wi-Fi networking at some of its properties, which will be made more widely available in the future.

Bricks, Bannockburn and broadband

Outside of the trust’s head office, the network build-out was met with a number of challenges at some of its properties, including castles with stone walls that may be six-feet thick and historic houses where visible cabling or access points would detract from the stories the trust wants to put across to visitors.

Our core infrastructure is now also far more reliable and resilient, which has significantly improved the experience for our usersr

Scott Newton, National Trust for Scotland

Equally there are new, state-of-the-art visitor centres, such as the one at Bannockburn, where the network is supporting the use of advanced 3D audio-visual technology to bring to life the sights and sounds of medieval warfare, and visitors can experience an interactive battle game to learn more about Robert the Bruce’s victory over Edward II in 1314.

"Obviously as we are a conservation charity, we work very closely with all our sites and bring in surveyors to make sure we are sensitive to the fabric of our buildings,” said Newton. “If something hasn’t worked we will have to go in and fix it, so it’s key we work closely with the rest of the business.”

The other challenge the project was met with was broadband availability – or lack of it – in deep rural parts of Scotland. Although Digital Scotland has now passed 150,000 premises across the country with fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), it is still not reaching all the trust’s properties.

“We are checking Digital Scotland’s website every week and so far we are seeing very limited availability,” said Newton.

“I’m upgrading the core infrastructure at all our properties and where I can offer free guest Wi-Fi I will, and we’ll get a great front-end experience for our guests, but connectivity beyond my sites is the issue I am facing time again,” he added.

New ways of working

This said, to date, the deployment has been met with great success, according to Newton, who said a drop off in angry support calls from the trust’s other back-office teams was a particularly appreciated benefit.

“We now have 40GbE connection speeds up and down the stack, which is a massive improvement on what we had before. Our core infrastructure is now also far more reliable and resilient, which has significantly improved the experience for our users and helped the IT team to spend time on other projects, rather than focusing on just keeping the network up and running,” he said.

The network deployment will also open up new possibilities for the trust around areas such as remote working and bring your own device (BYOD).

The trust is already exploring mobile working and has deployed Sophos’ mobile device management (MDM) product to help it push out corporate apps to phones and tablets.

Newton added that as a result of the upgrade he was also exploring enabling digital signage capabilities at some of the trust’s key properties.

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