Blenheim Palace IT addresses monitoring challenge with services deal

IT team at major UK historical venue supports diverse business through “eyes and ears” services agreement

When you have an IT team with just two full-time staff managing a multifaceted business where sheep can cause network interference, you know you will have some interesting challenges.

This is life for the small IT department at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

Built in the 18th century, Blenheim sits in 2,000 acres of parkland. It opened its doors to the general public in 1950 and has been a tourist attraction ever since.

Today its businesses include farming, property management, supplying mineral water, hosting public events, and even a film location for TV and cinema.

Dave Horwell, IT and systems manager at Blenheim Palace, told Computer Weekly how an agreement with an IT services company had made it possible for an IT team of just two people to manage such a diverse operation.

When he joined the organisation five years ago, Blenheim’s IT was a Microsoft small business server-type environment, he said.

There were many challenges in linking everything together with such a large estate and there were a lot of home enthusiast IT set-ups with “little hubs and routers set up here, there and everywhere”, said Horwell, which was expensive and inefficient.

At that point, the organisation began to move to a “more enterprise spec IT infrastructure”, he said. “Over the last five years since I have been here, there has been a migration away from Microsoft small business server to an environment where all the services are on separate servers with storage separated.”

Better eyes and ears

One of the biggest challenges for Horwell and his colleague was to be able to monitor everything – which is where IT supplier Technology Services Group (TSG) came in.

“There are only two of us and we have to cover everything,” said Horwell.

He needed better “eyes and ears” to be able to find and fix issues before they became a problem, so he turned to existing supplier TSG.

“TSG has been a supplier of IT services to Blenheim Palace going back to the days of Sage Line 500,” he said. “This was through a deal with System Advantage, a company that was acquired by TSG.”

Horwell himself had previously worked for System Advantage and then for TSG after the takeover. Knowing how TSG worked meant it made sense to use its services, he said.

Detecting problems

Blenheim Palace is now a customer of TSG’s SystemCare – an IT support service that detects problems across the palace’s entire server and network infrastructure.

“It watches backup problems and disk space and all sorts of other things, which is important because, with a small team of two, you can’t have eyes everywhere,” said Horwell.

When a problem is flagged up, the IT team then decide whether to deal with it themselves or call in TSG. “We do it in the way that best suits the business,” said Horwell.

Beyond a monitoring role, the relationship with TSG is vital for Blenheim Palace’s IT when it comes to the latest technologies. For example, Horwell is seeking its support for a possible rollout of Microsoft Office 365. “We will need assistance in moving to that and have put it in our budget for this year,” he said.

Unusual challenges

Blenheim Palace has had some unusual IT challenges, said Horwell. One of these was caused by the estate’s population of 3,000 sheep, which forced the organisation to undertake a major infrastructure project.

Electric fences are used to keep the sheep where they should be, and these buzz whenever touched. But this was interfering with telephone lines and causing problems with the asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL).

The IT team had to put in a fixed fibre link to solve the problem. “The cost of running fibre from the exchange directly to us would have been astronomical, so we did it ourselves,” said Horwell.

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