A Medium Sized Customer Undertakes a Technology Refresh – and a Fresh Approach

Mark Arnold, MVP

This article briefly summarises what would normally be a multi page case study of how a customer brought technology to bear in order to reduce the total cost of IT ownership, achieving more through a process of business change, technology refresh and inter departmental cooperation.
The Customer

The customer was a local authority in the north of England serving the needs of some 300,000 citizens. The authority decided to embark not only upon a systems refresh programme to replace their ageing and disparate hardware estate but also on a software refresh and a systems consolidations exercise. Those familiar with local Government workings will not be surprised to learn that the IT budgets had been devolved to such an extent that Departments A through F had individually procured servers and were each running a simple Intranet application. Six physical servers were doing what was well within the capabilities of one. Moving on from the physical scope for savings and efficiency gains the support organisation had little in the way of systems monitoring and control; what they did have didn’t work properly due to a lack of skills and the age of the applications concerned presented an integration barrier. None of the management suites were Active Directory integrated.

The customer and services provider decided that, to achieve and maintain the “Excellent” status from Central Government, an extensive investment programme was necessary. Throwing money at a solution was not enough; the customer needed an integrated approach and a realistic migration plan for both systems and services based on true business need and the capabilities of the personalities involved.  Luckily the customer had deployed Windows 2000 Active Directory some years previously, although not in the greatest of health. A programme was instigated to bring the Active Directory up to date by clearing up the directory and aligning the structure into a departmental one that would be able to serve the planned infrastructure refresh. In addition, the upgrade to Windows Server 2003 Active Directory was scheduled, as was the migration of approximately 20 legacy Windows NT4 based domains.

The customer was still running Microsoft Exchange 5.5 which was a barrier to almost everything that the customer wanted to utilise going forward such as Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003, Microsoft CRM and a number of 3rd party Workflow and document management solutions.  Servers and storage were also an issue for the customer. They had a vast archipelago of information, there was no Storage Area Network and a significant proportion of the server estate were Tower mount models on low level bench systems, each with their own keyboard, mouse, monitor and UPS. Each rack had one or more UPS and the server inventory ranged from between one and six years old.

Infrastructure Architecture
The architecture proposed was as follows:
• Windows Server 2003 Active Directory
• Microsoft Exchange Server 2003
• Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003
• Microsoft SQL Server 2003
• Microsoft Systems Management Server 2003
• Microsoft Operations Manager 2005
• Microsoft CRM Server 2.1
• Microsoft Virtual Server 2005
• Microsoft ISA Server 2004
• Microsoft BizTalk 2004

• KVS Enterprise Vault
• Meridio
• K2
• Sybari Antigen
• WebSense
A line was drawn in the sand and the customer undertook to force through the necessary political changes which were causing the significant waste in hardware and operational management terms. 
From this position the service provider and the customer agreed to engage a nationally renowned solutions vendor to design an HP blade server based infrastructure and a Hitachi based Storage Area Network. The HP blades and the HDS SAN were pre-selected since they were the standard approach adopted by the service provider in its own data centres and the quality of support for the platform was already assured. Whilst this may have appeared to tie the customers hands in terms of hardware vendor selection the customer saw a business benefit in leveraging the existing support capabilities rather than include extensive infrastructure training plans for the support organisation.  Two blade systems were chosen, the ProLiant BL20 and BL30. Any quad processing requirements would continue to be served by DL560 and DL580 units and there was no requirement for anything greater than four way processing.

Where there was a requirement for a cluster such as the ISA, Exchange and SQL Servers the BL20 system was chosen and where no cluster was required the BL30 was chosen in a Boot-from-SAN configuration. The decision was taken to always maintain a BL30, unused, in the rack to ensure rapid recoverability in the event of a server failure. The service provider, customer and hardware vendor undertook a series of workshops where the customer elucidated their vision and the applications that were “definitely in” as well as some aspects of their vision that were still conceptual. In this relationship the service provider did not hold the Enterprise Architecture brief but did hold the Infrastructure Architecture portfolio as well as the operational implementation and support briefs.  The HDS 9570 SAN was proposed by the vendor as being the one that, although significantly larger than would be required in the first year, was capable of meeting all the proposed storage requirements, including the Boot-from-SAN I/O considerations, well into the future.
As identified earlier the Exchange 5.5 implementation was a barrier to a number of aspects of the overall architecture so the upgrade to Exchange 2003 was placed at the top of the migration list. One mandate from the customer was that the Exchange environment must be clustered to add an additional degree of resilience to the solution. Whilst clustered Exchange 2003 servers would not normally appear in a design by the author due to the peculiarities of the leveraged support organisations that the authors designs are fed into, nevertheless the customer had shown that they understood the risks of Exchange clusters and understood that Exchange clustering did, in no way, prevent Information Store corruption, the service provider agreed to restructure some support aspects and ensure that highly competent cluster support personnel were available, 24/7 for the customer. This initial undertaking has borne fruit and is now a revenue generating part of the service providers business in its own right.
The customer had a number of Internet connections, none of them resilient and none of them politically available to another (departmental) customer in the event that one connection went down for any reason. The cost benefit analysis showed that the migration to a single, resilient, Internet connection was cheaper and offered a significantly higher bandwidth than the sum of all the current Internet connections. Again, internal departmental political considerations were an acknowledged part of the customer’s undertakings and a large Internet connection was implemented. Existing Nokia firewalls were reconfigured to handle the new connections which were directly connected to a beta implementation of Microsoft ISA Server 2004 Enterprise Edition in a clustered configuration. The ISA servers were designed to handle both inbound requests from citizens and Local Authority staff, and act as the outbound proxy service for Internet requests via a separate server housing the WebSense content management application. To optimise connection bandwidth a very large cache was configured and an audit exercise undertaken on the existing proxy solution to ascertain a list of sites that were popular and contained content that was largely static. Scheduled downloads of the sites into the ISA cache were configured based on this audit.
Information Management
Information management was a source of pain to the customer. Data was held on departmental based file shares, Microsoft Access databases, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and some Microsoft SQL Server databases spread throughout the estate.  Clearly any database strategy going forward needed to be based around a central, resilient platform, from both a support and a data accessibility point of view. The database design called for a number of distinct SQL instances for the varying Enterprise class database requirements and another instance to replace all the Microsoft Access and Microsoft Excel database and spreadsheets that were used across the estate.

Another aspect of information management was the document processing and workflow. The customer had already engaged a number of specialist consultancies to review their current processes and procedures, being unsurprised to learn that significant scope existed for improvement. Current electronic document management was based on a trusty war horse in the Local Government arena and it was felt that although a standard offering, the solution and the product roadmap just wasn’t up to the job for everything that the customer wanted. The K2 and Meridio workflow and document management solutions were chosen as the candidates for a pilot implementation, using Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 as the presentation layer.  The use of SharePoint as the interface to what was proposed to be a line of business application presented the customer with the opportunity to develop the desktop further. The user desktop consists of little more than an Internet Explorer session from where all the line of business and office productivity applications can be launched.
The customers PC asset base was very much a mixed bag. Systems started at Pentium II and went upwards to the latest 32bit offering. Operating systems started at Windows 95 and went through to Windows XP taking in Windows NT4 workstation along the way.  Clearly this environment was a support nightmare and also a barrier to the efficiency initiatives being planned.
The approach was a fairly standard one, replace and standardise the entire PC base, over time, with newer models and implement a standard desktop operating environment. A two year initial rolling programme was initiated to be followed by three to four yearly desktop replacements on a lease basis.
As with all organisations there were some systems that simply had to reside on NT4 or Windows 98 platforms because of varying political or application reasons. Where possible, these applications were either replaced by XP capable versions or migrated to a Windows XP environment using the Windows XP compatibility testing tools. Those applications leftover were tested within a Virtual PC; thus enabling a number of diverse applications and operating systems to run on a single, new, system rather than half a dozen old and dusty PCs. Overall the process was successful and although no applications had to be rolled back to physical hardware there were one or two applications that would not graciously make the transition. These applications were marked as being high priority for replacement and no other systems integration work was spent on them. 
Systems Management
The customer already had an SMS2 based management infrastructure but it was virtually unused because there were no skills to support it and the age of the application meant that it simply couldn’t perform a number of tasks deemed essential in today’s Enterprise environment.
A range of monitoring and management applications were tested, boiling down to two vendors; LANDesk and Microsoft. Although LANDesk had support within the service providers organisation the architects felt that the Microsoft offering presented the better solution both on price and dovetailing into the declared strategy of the Customer. Accordingly SMS and MOM were selected as the product set to base the overall server monitoring and server/desktop management environment. 
SMS was be used to deploy the client operating system from bare metal using the OSDFP and Zero Touch tools. SMS became the central support tool leveraging it for remote control, asset and software auditing and patch management. All applications, not just Line of Business ones were distributed through SMS using LDAP queries to group and OU membership. The applications were deployed from Distribution Points in the customers four primary offices to clients based on the end of connections as low as 2Mb. The main data hosted a single Primary SMS Server with a local SQL database since SMS could not utilise a clustered SQL environment at the time of deployment.

MOM was used to monitor the entire Blade farm and those systems that were destined to remain in operation until the political environment was conducive to them being migrated to the blade environment.  The service provider had a number of staff that were retained on site to be available with “local knowledge” in the event of an incident or other situation. The use of the local Knowledge Base within MOM and the automation of a number of tasks enabled the customer to reduce the headcount in the server support team whilst temporarily increasing both the number of servers and the complexity of the environment. All the expected Management Packs were employed, as well as additional packs to monitor and report on applications and systems such as the Veritas backup environment, Cisco for switch and router management and the APC management packs for those systems still protected by individual UPS equipment.
Contact Centre
As with most of the systems infrastructure the approach to contact centre was fragmented in the extreme. No less than 40 separate hotlines existed and no one communications channel was handled in the same place. Even within the same department the people handling telephone queries were not the people engaging face to face with the citizenry or processing email and fax/postal mail originated queries. The customer engaged the consulting arm of their service provider to undertake a business process reengineering review of all channels of communications across all departments.
Not surprisingly the review recommended the establishment of a multi skilled contact centre to be located in a new office that the customer had already committed to build. That contact centre would handle all inquiries and requests, not just from the public but also from internal personnel who were unable to find out what they needed from on-net resources.
From a technology aspect the implementation of a standardised desktop and application set enabled a central contact centre to be established where all users could serve any enquiry, regardless of what their original departmental role was.
The customer now uses the Microsoft CRM application, linked to BizTalk and Exchange 2003 to handle multi channel calls, visitors and process email and fax traffic using a single interface.

The customer now has a modern infrastructure, common framework and operating environment that has enabled them to reduce their hardware and head count at the same time as increasing the number of services offered to the customer. Standardising as far as possible on the Microsoft and partner solution set enables the customer to rapidly respond to the needs of the internal client base and introduce new functionality when a business need is identified.

Mark Arnold, MVP

Comments (1)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Mark did some work for a local authority in the UK when they were going through their technology refresh…

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