Case Studies

Servers


Representative office of overseas government agency

A newly established representative office of a government maritime agency required assistance with their server setup after problems with internet and network connectivity during the initial installation. Since no domain had been created, the server contained no data and time was of the essence, the easiest path was to reinstall Windows Server 2012 from scratch and to add roles required for the server to function as Domain Controller and File Server. Network shares were added for roaming profiles, as were a few user accounts in preparation for new PCs.

Advice was given regarding backups and restores, connecting client PCs to the domain, also network structure and security. Basic system administrative tasks such as adding new users with roaming profiles, adding network shares were demonstrated to the designated administrator – a very happy client!

Data recovery from a failing server

When a Dell server was brought to us it transpired that the RAID array had been deleted and recreated under the advice of Dell technical support after problems with the Windows operating system 'blue screening'. Fortunately the owner realised the implications of the next step (of reinstalling Windows using the Dell recovery DVDs) in time and did not complete the actions, although the server was still in an inoperable state with no functioning backup system.

It was clear the hard disks were previously RAID 1 configured (i.e. two hard disks with mirrored content) - and so we made sure both disks contained an exact copy before starting work. The hard disks were then scanned, and it was established that bad sectors were the most likely cause of the initial problems. One of the original hard disks was cloned to a new drive, the RAID properties reinstated and the server successfully booted to Windows Safe Mode.

Initial attempts to repair the operating system were unsuccessful and deemed inappropriate due to time constraints and no guarantee of a stable platform thereafter. The decision was therefore taken to reinstall the Windows server operating system and recreate the domain from scratch. The opportunity was taken to update document management software, improve hard disk space allocation and prepare the server for remote access, switch from POP3 email accounts to using Microsoft Exchange, also to implement more reliable backup procedures.

The rebuilt server with data restored from the original hard disks was installed on site and PCs re-added to the domain. This setup remained in operation for the next four and a half years before being successfully migrated to a replacement server.

Internet


Solicitors switching leased line internet providers

Switching Lease Line internet provider meant replacement hardware, changes to Public IP addresses and a lot of forward planning to ensure that the right connection was installed and that internet and email services were not disrupted.

Investigation work was carried out to determine the most suitable connection based on current and future bandwidth needs, distance from telephone exchanges or points of presence, capacity for non-disruptive service upgrades and the value for money offered by varying lengths of fixed term contracts.

Once selected, the new ISP was contacted well in advance of the current contract expiring in order that the necessary physical cable and Cisco router be installed and tested by the ISP's engineers, and Public IP addresses assigned.

We then set about reconfiguring the existing Watchguard firewall to duplicate incoming and outgoing services on both Leased Line connections. MX records and Reverse DNS records - necessary for continuous flow of email - were updated to reflect the replacement Public IP addresses. Remote users' VPN links were also updated in advance. Testing was carried out in the early hours of the morning; the only time we could be sure remote workers would not be disturbed.

The two Leased Line connections ran in tandem for a period of time until, at around midday on a Wednesday the old ISP disconnected their Lease Line connection, resulting in no loss of internet connection or access to services.

WiFi hotspots for college staff, pupils and visitors

With more and more employees being encouraged to 'bring your own device' ('BYOD') to work, staff at a college regularly required access to the corporate network from their own laptops over a secure wireless connection.

At the same time, students at the college seemingly all had laptops, tablets, PDAs and phones which they would regularly use for their work, research or recreational purposes. Visitors, including parents, officials and maintenance engineers would also enquire about WiFi access at the premises.

We installed Cisco Wireless Access Points that provided for multiple wireless networks to be broadcast simultaneously: one for staff members only which allowed access to the corporate server and other internal network resources such as file and printer sharing between devices, and another for students and visitors which isolated each device connected, allowing only direct internet access from that device and blocking all other communication between other devices on the same wireless network.

This approach was both efficient and cost effective for the college as it meant a single internet connection could be shared between staff, pupils and visitors alike, without the need to completely overhaul the security of the college's internal network.

Cabling


Cabling a public library within normal opening hours

We were tasked with running additional networking cables from the front desk of a public library, through cellars and then under floors, to a Communications cabinet located in a private room at the back of the library, without disturbing workers or the general public.

The cellar walls are two feet thick in places and required careful drilling since the area was also used for storage. Many of the existing cables had to be tidied or relocated in order that they, along with the new cables, could be insulated from power lines and protected from being trapped and damaged by the moving bookshelves.

Where flooring needed to be lifted, only a very small section could be accessed at any given time since cordoning off the entire length of causeway - nearly half the total distance of the cable run - was not an option.

This task was a very rewarding, if time-consuming job!

Cabling a listed building

Extra care was needed to ensure that none of the plasterwork on the walls and ceilings was damaged when removing the existing cabling, some of which was pinned directly to walls or skirting boards and then painted over several times, making extraction tricky. This took almost as long as installing the new cabling! New cable runs needed to be installed through lofts and cellars to minimise the amount of trunking used, an interesting part of the job which resulted in finding artefacts dating back to the early 1900s and beyond.

Previously, all the computers and printers on an entire floor would lose network connectivity; simply moving a desk or chair and disturbing cabling or wall sockets could cause havoc! Good quality cable was used throughout for voice and data and this had an immediate beneficial effect, greatly improving network speed and reliability. The entire job was finished over the Christmas holiday period while the firm was shut and completed, as planned, in time for their return in the new year.

Security


Local Authority securely accessing remote database

The database in question had been created in conjunction with the Metropolitan Police Service and resided on a remote server not accessible directly over the internet. As such, a secure site to site VPN link was required that could be closely monitored and used by the database team at the remote site to provide support to the Local Authority users.

A Watchguard firewall was installed and configured with heavily restricted internet access, utilising the WatchGuard WebBlocker, Anti-Virus Gateway and Application Control services alongside pre-defined website whitelists and blacklists.

Although draconian, the strict approach of 'prevention better than cure' helped ensure the security of the database and PCs being used to access it.

Secure remote access for staff working from home or abroad

When we first encountered this particular setup it was clear that the client had been ill-advised with regard to security and general server/network best practices. The ageing software firewall sat on an equally ageing and unstable spare PC and remote access was provided by Remote Desktop directly to the Domain Controller server. This was used by senior partners in the firm to access their email, database and document management system. Several of the domain accounts also had very weak, generic passwords which could easily have been used to compromise network security. Using a Windows Domain Controller server as a desktop PC also meant there was wide scope to inadvertently cause irreparable damage to the entire network.

We worked closely with the existing Internet Service Provider to simultaneously upgrade the internet connection and procure a replacement pre-configured router and Sonicwall hardware firewall unit. The benefits were immediate and numerous: Remote Desktop connections onto the server were ceased, reducing the risk of the server being inadvertently rendered inoperable, or even mistakenly switched off remotely; insecure domain passwords were no longer a potential threat; it allowed any staff member remote access to their own PC via a secure VPN link from anywhere and at any time; perimeter anti-virus and anti-spam firewall functions were introduced.

The option to work from home or remotely was particularly beneficial to several members of staff with family commitments and those who were often required to travel abroad on work related matters.

Web


Newly acquired business requiring a web presence

Whenever asked for our recommendations for registering domains and creating websites we usually recommend that the end user creating a web hosting account directly with a reputable hosting company. That way they can retain ownership and control over their website and email setup without being reliant upon third parties which can complicate matters unnecessarily.

This was the case when assisting the new owners of a Norfolk based Bed & Breakfast establish a web presence in order to promote their newly acquired business. We offered advice as to appropriate domain hosting companies and packages based on their website requirements and assisted with the account setup and configuration to ensure the domains were registered, email accounts created and configured on a laptop, passwords were documented and everything was in place for a website to be uploaded.

Our creative and artistic skills are being utilised as we are currently in the process of further developing the website, initially built with basic pages and content, then with additional content managed elements such as picture galleries and testimonials sections being developed and refined in line with the client's wishes and preferences.

Next on the list will be SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and assisting with marketing. .

Lincoln based charity requiring an easy way to update their website

When the resident website expert was looking to move away from the Lincoln area we were asked to look at making the current HTML based website more accessible so that the charity's remaining resident self-confessed website non-experts could update pages on a regular basis, without the need to learn HTML.

We ran through the site in great detail and pinpointed the main areas that needed to be content managed on the basis that content on the remaining pages only needed updating every few years, which we would be happy to assist with whenever required. We then set to work recreating a select few pages utilising Joomla, PHP and MySQL.

By the time we had finished, the users had an admin login page from where they could edit the Home page using an interface resembling a Desk Top Publishing application, with picture, shape, colour and text tools available to ensure the artistic aesthetics could be retained! Events and picture galleries could also be added, modified or rearranged on the page, with headings and links customised. All this was topped off with a 'single click' method of backing up and restoring the MySQL database from multiple revisions, should users wish to undo changes.

Working to a fixed budget, this was a challenging but very rewarding project!

Database


Harley Street Clinic looking to replace their treatment and billing system

When approached by a Harley Street clinic our first job was to investigate their current, custom written DOS based system. Its functions, benefits, limitations, quirks and nuances were documented and discussed with the clinic's staff, as was the best approach for replacing the ageing system.

The clinic's requirements included the ability to manage contacts, record and track treatments, invoice patients and client companies and to report on invoicing and referrals. As such we reviewed a number of options, including a custom SQL database tailored to their specific needs and proprietary medical practice management software.

It was quickly established that a custom SQL database would not be cost effective and that proprietary software had limitations in terms of functionality, never quite fulfilling the basic (and uniquely structured) requirement of recording and tracking treatments.

We therefore turned our attention to off-the-shelf contact management software that could be customised to an extent and linked to external files that kept track of patients' treatments. Linking the contact management side to the accounts and billing side would have complicated matters greatly due to the unique way client companies were invoiced for work undertaken.

The resulting setup included compromises and slight changes to working practices, although proved a much more cost effective solution than either alternative while helping to drastically reduce the amount of time needed to complete administration tasks - one of the main aims of the exercise. Invoicing was kept separate via Sage Accounts which offered reporting options and eased the process for their accountant.

Legacy systems


A printing firm with an ageing Unix based system connected over a serial network was unable to produce quotations and job sheets when their server, installed in 1988 finally 'fell over' due to failed motherboard components. The backup system had not worked for more than a decade!

The company that had supplied the original system and specialist software package no longer employed engineers able to assist with the setup. A replacement, up to date Windows based system would have required replacement hardware - server, PCs, Cat5e network cabling - on top of the expensive software installation and ongoing licensing costs. Implementation would have taken upwards of a month due to limited availability of third party installation engineers.

Fortunately, we retain hardware of a similar vintage just for such occasions, and were able to clone the original 540MB hard disk and transfer this along with necessary cards into a PC which, after a few minor modifications, ran the Unix system perfectly. As a further precaution we cloned the hard disk several more times and prepared another PC to be kept on standby.

The priority had always been to resurrect the existing system, and now that the pressure is off Fourth Generation is investigating the feasibility of virtualising the server and terminals to give the client the comparatively inexpensive option of running the same system for a further 25 years!