Wiring London's flagship

Could you get a 500 person network up and running in time for a visit by the Queen? The GLA did, and built itself a future proof installation at the same time

Keith Beddard had an IT manager's nightmare. With 500 users in one office, he had to move them to another building in eight weeks' time. The new building was not completed, and he had to install the network. When the time came, he would have one weekend to make the move.

What made it a nightmare was one fact. The deadline was absolutely fixed - as fixed as any deadline in the world. Because it was in the Queen's diary. She was due to open the new building.

If he failed - and public sector IT in the UK is littered with failures -- it would be a very public failure, and would affect the fate of the most controversial arm of government in the UK. Because the new building is none other than City Hall, the office of the Greater London Authority (GLA), the elected body headed by the first elected Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

ZDNet is willing to bet that on at least one occasion, Mr Beddard dreamt that he was in the wiring closet in his pyjamas, trying to untangle the network when Her Majesty arrived.

Most new government bodies have a year of running in "shadow running", where the systems are in place, but no live work is done, to make sure they work properly. Mr Beddard had no such luxury. As one of the GLA's first employees when it was set up in 1999, he had to provide IT systems for the office in its first temporary home, in an office block near the Houses of Parliament, and then plan and supervise the move to the new building, created specially for the GLA next to Tower Bridge.

Given these requirements, the GLA's IT strategy is one of taking safe options, but making sure there is room to adopt newer ideas. For instance, while many green-field sites set out with IP telephony converged onto the same LAN as data, this was too ambitious and risky for the GLA - but it is important to make sure the infrastructure was ready for IP voice when the time comes.

Evolution of IT

In July 1999, the GLA moved into the top floor of its temporary home. In May 2000 there were elections, and the Authority's work started in earnest. While that continued, however, the new building was being constructed, and it finally opened on July 23, 2002.

"The Mayor and assembly had to start work immediately, even though they would have to move in two years," says Beddard. The major challenge was to get best value from IT in one setting - a traditional office block -- for one year, then move what assets could be used to a new building whose requirements are very different. The network in the new building cost £500,000, and the Authority moved about £1 million of IT equipment with it.

The new building, by architect Norman Foster, is a challenge in itself, its curved shape designed to absorb minimum heat from the sun, to allow natural cooling using ground water pumped up from the earth through boreholes, and run through hollow beams. The whole building is intended to be environmentally friendly, and give the public maximum access, two requirements which made demands on the IT infrastructure.

In its temporary home, a Layer 2 network was enough for the nascent GLA, and the body inherited a managed voice service run by the government. In the new building, it now has a Layer 3 network, as well as an IP-ready voice system.

In Romney House, our managed voice service was not user friendly," says Beddard. It made sense to pick up the readymade service and run with it, despite its shortcomings, but to change it when possible. It provided a call-centre based in Glasgow, to answer specific queries from Londoners about services, he says.

Changing data technologies

The move to the new building allowed the GLA to move to better data and voice networks.

For data, it uses 17 Foundry switches in wiring closets on each floor. Fibres in the risers carry redundant Gigabit links between floors, while each floor has copper 10/100 cables to the desktop. The exceptions are the top two of City Hall's nine floors, which are smaller - both are fed from the seventh floor wiring closets. The eighth floor is the Mayor's office while the ninth is the "Living Room for London", a space with panoramic views for public meetings.

The GLA uses VLANs to separate traffic for different groups, and also runs multicast video on the network. The GLA televises its public meetings, using remote controlled cameras in the chambers. Three video feeds are broadcast using IP multicast, so any of the staff can keep up with the GLA's business. This service is handled by special purpose Cisco IP TV boxes.

Meetings are recorded, and the Authority is planning to offer staff the chance to view meetings at a later date, with a video on demand service. "The videos are very popular with the Members," says Beddard.

A new voice network

"There is a lot of pressure from vendors to go to IP telephony," says Beddard, but in his view the benefits were not compelling enough to risk fouling up the opening of the building. "If you have a network glitch, then you have no phone," he says. "People are used to PCs stopping, but expect their phone to work."

The GLA looked for a solution that would let them use conventional TDM digital handsets, but move to IP when they were ready. "Not many applications depend on IP telephony," says Beddard. "At the moment, there is little in the way of benefits, apart from simplicity of administration -- you need the same skills for both networks."

The GLA settled on PBX veteran Mitel, which offers a unified messaging system (that GLA has yet to adopt) and a product which supports both LAN and TDM switching in one box, so the Authority can move some phones over to the LAN whenever it is ready. Beddard is impressed with the voice activated attendant, which can put callers through to a person if they ask for them by name.

When the public call, they now reach a call centre (with eight staff) in the GLA building itself. This is managed using Mitel's ACD application.

The new building made other demands. In order to minimise the heat gain, the GLA had to use flat panel screens. "A seventeen inch monitor gives out 80W of heat," says Beddard. "A flat panel gives out a negligible amount." When the GLA first set up, the flat screens were prohibitively expensive, but by this year, the price had fallen by 50 percent. "We rolled them out in April while we were still at Romney House," says Beddard. The job was done as part of an upgrade from Windows 2000 to Windows XP. The network installation was handled by Computacenter - this allowed the GLA to proceed straight away without rigorous tendering, that could have delayed the project by up to six months. Computacenter is approved under "Gcat" the government catalogue of infrastructure providers. During April, May and June, the building was still being constructed. "There was a constant noise of angle grinders," remembers Beddard. As soon as a room was available, the network was built inside that, and left running for a couple of weeks to "burn it in". The GLA had a network - it was just concentrated in one place, till the fibre was there. As the patch rooms (wiring closets) were completed and fibre installed, the switches were moved out to them. "In late May, we could put the equipment into the patch rooms in racks," he says, "and connect and test the network. Then came the testing time. "We did nasty things to it, like pulling out blades while data was running," says Beddard. The GLA finally got the building, with two weeks to familiarise itself, before the staff moved in with their equipment. "In the end the move happened over one weekend, and it all worked on the Monday morning," says Beddard with some relief. It was just one week before the Queen opened the building. What next? The GLA's IT won't stop there. There is a VPN between the GLA and Transport for London, which runs the tube, allowing the organisations to share databases. It's set up as a tunnel between the two firewalls. "For remote access, we will be using Citrix," says Beddard. The GLA already uses this in the small office it runs in Brussels, at the heart of European government - up to six staff may be there at any one time. IP telephony may come eventually, but the handsets will draw their power over the LAN with a UPS for reliability, and Beddard is still waiting for an application that will convince him. And wireless LANs are ready for a trial. "We're piloting Wi-Fi in the quiet desk areas," says Beddard. These are the places where staff go to escape their phones. However, there is no doubt that, with the move into the new building, the big challenge has been met. What is Beddard most proud of? "We actually got the thing working on time. It was a relief when that was over."
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