Luton Sixth Form College was the first sixth form college to be established in England in 1966 and is considered to the one of the jewels in the crown of the education system.
The College offers a very broad curriculum and provides students with the most modern facilities and resources available to help them achieve the very best, learn new skills, employ new experiences and become leaders of the future.
Delivering an outstanding education experience whilst promoting a passion for learning is something the College prides itself on. They believe that the students should be everyone’s focus in the College to provide them with the opportunity to excel in all they do.
In order to achieve this, the College is dedicated to ensuring that funding is spent on high quality education and services for its students and not on old and inefficient resources that impact the delivery of teaching and learning for all.
The delivery of ICT plays an exceptionally important role within the College and as such, they invest heavily in the latest technology to ensure there’s no disruption to or impact on how IT services are offered to students and teaching staff.
However, the IT team at Luton Sixth Form College were starting to notice a difference in the way things were running. Rob Moir, IT Infrastructure Manager at the College, explains the situation they were facing, “We’d been running traditional virtual server farms at the College for some time to aid the delivery of IT services to students and staff. At the time this offered us the ‘best of both worlds’ so to speak, including server consolidation, redundancy for failover, high availability and optimised resource utilisation.
“We had two live virtual farms and a test farm in place but we were really starting to notice a difference in the performance and reliability of these systems. To be honest, one of them was that old, it was starting to crack at the seams! The whole thing was starting to show its age and was becoming completely unreliable.”
There were several areas of weakness that had become apparent: printing capability for staff and students, disruption to the MIS system, problems with the College finance system and much more. Speaking about this further, Rob explains, “We were starting to notice and be informed about so many issues it was becoming slightly concerning for us as a department. We want to be able to provide the very best for everyone at the College, but the fact our people were experiencing problems with printing, accessing e-mails, taking the register, arranging lessons and so on was not good. As well as this the College finance system was also being affected which would ultimately end up impacting students with financial assistance etc.
“We knew then that we had a requirement to improve the resilience and reliability of the system before it became a complete detriment to everyone at the College. Indirectly, it was impacting the delivery of teaching and learning and it became obvious that there was a desperate need for change in the way we delivered resources and the way the network was run and managed.
“We’d already been looking at replacing the current system but, with so many issues and problems that kept arising, we decided to bring the deadline forward. Finding budget in these situations is always challenging, but the issues highlighted showed sheer weakness in the business we were running and as such we managed to secure some funding to improve the existing infrastructure.”
With a secured budget in place, and a desperate need for change, the College set out looking for a partner who could help them improve the way things were run and to restore faith in the services that were available to staff and students.
As a standard process when going out to tender, the College put bid proposals together themselves and send them out to a number of vendors. However, due to the sheer scale of the project and the fact that the existing infrastructure needed a huge overhaul, the College decided to change the way they did the bid proposal for this particular project.
Talking about the process further, Rob explains, “We usually spec everything up ourselves and send the proposal out to a few vendors. But, because we needed a radical transformation to our current infrastructure provision, we decided to go out to a number of vendors – of which Stone was one – and asked them to put a proposal together based on all of our requirements instead. We informed them that the College was having business problems and that we wanted to replace the existing virtual server farm.”
Having acknowledged that the College needed a new solution that would improve availability, performance, capacity and redundancy as a minimum, the suppliers went away to put a bid together for this infrastructure project.
Speaking about this further, Rob comments, “Out of everyone we went out to, we had a total of six proposals back. Five of which came back to us with traditional solutions not too dissimilar to what we already had in place and wanted to get rid of! It was only Stone who brought something new to the table and proposed we on-board a hyperconverged platform and Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery (BCDR) replica solution.
“I’d actually spoken to Stone at BETT and was interested in hyperconverged systems at that point anyway. They talked me round the Stone Integrum – their hyperconverged platform – and the structure of it and the way it was explained to me by Craig and Paul at the show made a lot of sense.
“Don’t get me wrong, the solutions offered by the others would have helped us for a while, but in the long term we’d have still experienced the same issues we were already having further down the line. It would have kept a single point of failure and this wasn’t something the College wanted or needed. We needed something that would be reliable and lasting and that wouldn’t cause the issues we’d been experiencing for so long.
“As well as this, they’d also priced the hyperconverged platform and BCDR solution for less than the other traditional solutions that were only replacing the virtual server farm. I know how expensive hyperconverged platforms and networking can be so Stone’s solution came in at a great price point compared to anyone else. For me, this really spoke volumes about the value proposition of the Stone Integrum as well as the performance and ability of the solution.
“The proposal that was put together by Stone was just a cut above the rest. I felt they really understood the business and what we were asking for. They knew exactly what we wanted to achieve and put together a proposition that would not only bring value but would also eliminate and reduce problems, as well as providing a reliable system that would work in a way that helped us achieve exactly what we needed to. They really listened to us and thought about what we wanted and put together this solution that just fit the bill perfectly. It was from that point that we knew we wanted to partner with Stone for this project.”
With both a solution and partner in place, all that was left was to start the deployment of the Stone Integrum and BCDR solution into the College.
Speaking about the implementation, Rob explains, “Despite having two virtual server farms and a virtual test system, we only had the provision to replace the most outdated one for now. It was a top priority to get this up and running as soon as we could. With the help of Stone, we were able to get both the Integrum and BCDR solution deployed really quickly and easily.
“I was really impressed with the speed of performance of both solutions – particularly the Integrum. It only requires 2 server nodes to replace the work carried out by 3 in the previous solution we had, and it can fail 10 virtual machines over from one node to another in 45 seconds compared to several minutes for the same operation on the previous cluster! For something that’s doing a lot of incredible things, it’s very simple to work with and really easy to understand what’s going on.”
For Luton Sixth Form College, having this platform in place is already starting to reap the rewards. Speaking further about the benefits of deploying this solution, Rob comments, “We’ve already seen a lot of improvements to the way things are running. The Integrum has a much smaller footprint than the one we replaced – both physically and in terms of network resources: there’s less physical space for poor requirements, better power requirements, the cooling profile is better – the list goes on.
“It’s already proving far more reliable and is also using a lot of basic networking equipment compared to the weird and wonderful things used in the past. This in itself makes it easier to support and easier to manage going forward. We’re looking at pushing more towards the Cloud and some of the solutions around the Integrum have better positioned us for that too.
“The implementation of this hyperconverged platform has allowed me and the rest of the IT team to do several things to simplify the infrastructure configuration: online exams, pupil registration, cashless catering and free college meals, printing, HR; finance, authentication to cloud services such as Office 365 and MLE have all been updated as part of the migration to the new farm. Secondly, it’s allowed us to ‘downskill’ management of the College infrastructure by reducing its complexity, allowing technicians to better understand what’s happening with the network and how the Integrum supports all of the services I mentioned earlier.”
Alongside the Integrum platform, Stone has also provided the College with a BCDR replica solution. Essentially this is an enhanced management and replica host server which provides the site with a platform that’s completely independent of the core solution to host services like Directory services, System Centre 2012 R2: Operations Manager, System Centre 2012 R2: Virtual Machine Manager and full replicated copies of the College’s critical virtual servers from the core Integrum solution. This provides the College with a quick and effective platform to recover from any unforeseen issues, and to have detailed reports on service status site-wide to aide with any recovery efforts. The host server benefits from the latest Intel NVMe SSD drives which offers significant increases in performance over traditional solid state and hard disk drives. This enables the server to comfortably handle all of the site’s virtual server hosting requirements should the need arise.
For Luton Sixth Form College, they’ve also been using this solution to virtualise old physical servers – including an 8 year old server, part of their systems centre infrastructure. As well as this, the College have also been using it as a rapid deployment test bed – allowing them to run their digital signage platform on there too. This had previously been running on their test virtual system which was proving exceptionally unreliable and not always available compared to the BCDR.
Speaking about the backup continuity and disaster recovery solution, Rob comments, “The BCDR solution has allowed us to demonstrate greater availability and reliability for essential college services by taking advantage of Hyper-V replication. This provides an additional layer of resilience on top of the cluster provided by the Integrum platform.
“It’s essentially given us a lot more resources and more breathing space to move around and optimise how everything is deployed. We’ve also started working towards moving to the Cloud with the BCDR solution and we’re finding that’s working really well as a rapid deployment environment for getting things done quickly when big changes are needed and fast!”
The benefits to deploying both the hyperconverged platform and BCDR solution have been two fold for the College – from both a backend IT management point of view and from a teaching and learning perspective. Rob explains, “A lot of improvements have been made in terms of what people are seeing and that makes a big difference. Before we replaced the previous infrastructure with this new platform we were experiencing so many issues. As a result, people were having their faith shook in the delivery of IT and IT as a department. For example, if someone had a big project coursework deadline looming and they lost the ability to print they then start to lose faith in the reliability of us as an IT team.
“Obviously we didn’t want that for any of our students or staff. We wanted them to be able to do what they needed to do, when they needed to do it. There’s no way we could have continued to have a system in place that kept affecting and disrupting teaching or learning within the College, or that kept impacting the way the IT team could deliver a service to these people.
“Everyone’s started to see big improvements – particularly in the general performance of the network. The fact there’s more resources available to allocate to things is going a long way to restoring the faith in our people that everything actually works.
“The enhanced reliability, performance and capabilities of this new system are all positive outcomes for us. It’s done exactly what we needed it to and has allowed us to improve the delivery of service and education across the College.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll be deploying this solution again when it comes to upgrading the other virtual server farms.”
The deployment of this project marks a 20 year partnership between Luton Sixth Form College and Stone. Having been procuring desktops and notebooks since 1998, the College is now made up almost exclusively of Stone hardware with over 1800 devices in use across the campus. Speaking about this further, Rob explains, “We have a mixed bag of devices across the College – from the Stonebook Mini and Stonebook Pro to a wide range of StonePCs.
“Our work with Stone is now continuing with a virtual desktop project that we’re currently implementing. This is going to be a huge one for us as we believe it’s really going to impact teaching and learning in a really positive way and will really help us to continue to deliver an outstanding educational experience whilst promoting a passion for learning.”