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Ring for resilience

Coleg Sir Gar’s head of IT development Simon Palmer outlines his plans for a resilient, fibre-optic ring network to serve a five-campus college that’s increasingly reliant on bandwidth.

Simon Palmer

As a multi-campus FE college with 9,000 learners and 800 staff, Coleg Sir Gar in Carmarthenshire, south-west Wales, is increasingly reliant on cloud solutions as it aims to enhance the student experience.

Simon Palmer recognises that means it is important to invest in a resilient network with sufficient capacity to support teaching and learning.

“Students may take videos on their phones and tablets as part of their coursework – whether they’re working on an art project or perhaps filming cattle in fields as part of an agriculture course, for example.”

One of the college’s five campuses, Gelli Aur, is a purpose-built farm campus with 344 hectares of land near Llandeilo, 14 miles away from Carmarthen.

“We want to make it easier for students to upload those videos from home or from a remote location.”

For essential office systems, he explains, the college increasingly uses SaaS cloud services such as Google G Suite, Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft OneDrive. “But that means that if the network is down, these services are down,” he adds.

To help solve challenges like these, Coleg Sir Gar has plans in place for a ring network, which resiliently links all of its five Carmarthenshire campuses, while upgrading internet links to 10Gbit/s because of the extra bandwidth required for cloud.

For an FE college, of course, it’s vital to keep the networking solution cost-effective while helping to limit the burden on a small IT team. Simon says:

“We are keen to save money and be efficient – we have to do everything the most efficient way to get stuff done.”

And that’s where he hopes the fibre solution should be an advantage.

“We’ve designed a network which doesn’t use MPLS (multi-protocol label switching) – avoiding the need for expensive and complex hardware at each connection site, with maintenance schedules that you have to be constantly aware of.

“By putting high-bandwidth links in, we can also get rid of servers at remote sites, which massively simplifies the network.”

Overall, the benefits are that there is less hardware to manage and less chance of an outage.

“One of the biggest challenges in IT is accidentally breaking something. This way, we aim to have enough resilience and redundancy.

“We’ve also got a telephone project backing on to this, and we’re confident we can carry phone calls resiliently over the internet link.”

In the short term, the plan is to consolidate servers from five sites to one, this summer – which would provide the means for a possible cloud migration at a later date. But even then, suggests Simon, that would be under a hybrid cloud model.

“I’ve thought about what challenges it would give us if we put everything on the cloud.

“For example, if we were patching all our Windows, Mac and Android machines via the cloud, the amount of bandwidth that requires is staggering. Even an Android update can be up to 700Mbit/s.”

The college plans to repurchase a SAN and compute infrastructure or a hyper-converged system, he says, which would work out more cost-effective for the college than putting everything into IaaS.

As a Welsh college, Coleg Sir Gar’s Janet connectivity is provisioned by Public Sector Broadband Aggregation (PSBA) (see below), which is delivered under contract by BT. Jisc’s role, says Simon, has been to provide quotes for connectivity and act as an intermediary.

The falling cost of high-bandwidth fibre connectivity, especially compared to MPLS with its costly network termination equipment (NTE), helps make the college’s solution affordable.

At the same time, Simon relies on the research and education community, including college staff, for support when it comes to the ever-present challenge of maintaining a campus network on a budget.

“We self-help within community groups. And there’s a lot of value in having staff who have been here a long time, who understand our processes – and who are keen to engage in new things in efficient ways.”