Jonathan (right), with colleague John Donaldson, about to leave the NUMed campus in the middle of a heavy storm
A typical working day for me starts with kissing goodbye to the family, followed by a podcast/audiobook then email triage and some Kindle reading on my walk-Metro-walk commute from North Tyneside into Newcastle city centre. I suppose technically I’ve been heading in to the same job at Newcastle University for the last dozen years, although it has transformed, keeping pace with technology, so that every couple of years it bears little resemblance to the years before. It’s that constant evolution that’s kept me interested, and most times when I look back to how things were done not that long ago it’s slightly cringe-inducing, like going from working on Server 2008 R2 back to Server 2003!
Today isn’t a typical day though. I woke up in a hotel in Johor Bahru, on the southern end of the Malaysian peninsular, with quite an impressive view over the water to Singapore, then had a taxi ride to a handful of practically finished buildings in the middle of a huge building site in Nusajaya, the home of our new branch campus. The demand for places in our Medical School from South East Asia is sufficiently great that we’ve decided it’s worth us going to them and we’re opening Newcastle University Medicine (NUMed) Malaysia.
I arrived here for the final week of a three week on-site project to build the IT infrastructure for the campus ahead of the hand-over from the developers and the arrival of our permanent staff. Much of the heavy lifting had already been done by other members of "The J Team" (because we accidentally all had names starting with J – Jason, John, James, Jeff, Jonathan – although honorary membership has to be extended to Stuart who did a lot to pave the way with the networking, and lots of others have been involved in the pre-staging), so a lot of what I’m doing is dotting i’s, crossing t’s and testing, testing, testing. Things like making sure that we can build PCs with WDS, adding all the necessary software for the teaching and admin functions via GPO, making sure that devices connected to the WiFi can get mail via EAS, and a bunch of more serious stuff, like what happens if we lose power to a building.
It’s an interesting project for a lot of reasons, not least because it’s the single biggest project I’ve been involved in since implementing Active Directory with the launch of Windows 2000. Being on the other side of the planet, we’ve had to make sure that the site has lots of resilience built-in, so that it can happily exist with the loss of the link to Newcastle and one of the two data centres. Being a green-field site, it’s also given us the opportunity to implement some new things, like Windows 7 on the desktops, and Exchange 2010, which we’ll only be able to upgrade to at home when our 3rd party archiving software catches up. In actual fact, because of all the newer technology and redundancy that we’re building in here, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could practically run our much larger home campus off this infrastructure.
Of course a job like this is not without its challenges. I actually thought that my first obstacle might crop up before I arrived, but the airport security in Newcastle and Dubai didn’t seem to think there was anything at all unusual about my suitcase being half-full of 250m of Cat 6 cable or the dozen SAS disks in my hand luggage (because we haven’t got round to sourcing such supplies in-country yet) – I can tell you, patch leads start to get heavy when it becomes sensible to talk about them as a fraction of a kilometre! While we’ve been getting things setup, the time difference has been a barrier to collaboration with colleagues back home – the working days only overlap by a couple of hours, and since we’re about the only folks working inside these building the air con is timed to switch off at 5 – if we work too long into the evening it gets uncomfortably hot pretty quickly.
We’re going to have a full-time local member of staff to do the day-to-day things here like swapping out failed hard drives and dealing with user support, but the majority of the systems management is going to be done remotely from the UK. We’re happy that the link is good enough to use remote desktops, or connect via ILO, although personally I favour using remote PowerShell, and it works well on this fairly high-latency line. The nice thing about that is that it offers a consistent experience for managing pretty much everything that we’ve got out here – both the Microsoft server products and VMware.
I wouldn’t mind coming out here from time to time – the weather is pretty good between the electrical storms, not that we’ve spent much time outside – but mostly I’ll be happy to manage it remotely, so that I can go home to my family at the end of the day as normal, and so that I won’t have to be missing the North East Bytes user group meetings, like I am tonight, or recording the NEBytes Bytecast (podcast), that I’m involved with back in the good old North East where (it’s already been pointed out by some colleagues from Southampton University, who are looking to teach Engineering next-door here) a lot of women wear far, far less despite it being far, far colder!
Infrastructure Systems Administrator