All change

Next year, the British Transport Police will face one of its biggest challenges in living memory. Some 5.3 million visitors are expected to descend on the capital for the London 2012 Olympics, and it is the BTP’s job to guard their safety while on the public transport network.

At the same time, the BTP, like all police forces, has had its budget cut, in its case by 3.3% for the next budgetary year. “The [BTP] will have to be creative as it faces the challenge of delivering the same level of service on a reduced budget,” the chairman of the British Transport Police Authority said of the cuts last December.

The force is currently undergoing a radical transformation of its IT infrastructure, prompted in part by that budget reduction. In the words of chief technology officer Cliff Cunningham, the plan is to “virtualise everything we can”.

But with a strict deadline to meet – Cunningham has promised that there will be no major IT upgrades next year – the BTP is undertaking that virtual transformation faster and under more pressure than most.

Servers and storage

The prelude to the BTP’s virtual transformation came last year with the preliminary roll-out of the Police National Database, a system that allows police forces to share information about suspects. The BTP needed some infrastructure to host the system, and Cunningham was loath to put more servers in the data centre at its force headquarters in Camden, London.

“We created a virtual environment for the PND programme, and we gained some experience from doing that,” he recalls. Following that experience, Cunningham drew up a plan to virtualise a significant proportion of the IT infrastructure, including servers, storage and desktops.

It began by upgrading and virtualising all of the servers at its Camden data centre in February this year (using VMware). That part of the project is complete, and some of the server capacity that was freed up will be reused at a secondary data centre in Birmingham.

Cunningham knew that virtualising the IT infrastructure would have an impact on the amount of data it needs to store in the data centre. When inviting potential suppliers to tender, he asked them to provide estimates for the likely storage footprint of the planned system. Armed with this information, he sought out a storage system that could support that footprint.

“When we first looked at what was on the market, we realised that if we bought a box that wasn’t big enough, in many instances we’d have to throw it away and buy a bigger box,” he recalls. “That’s not economically viable – we needed a solution that would allow us to bolt on extra capacity as we grew.”

That led Cunningham to storage virtualisation provider Compellent, which has been acquired by PC maker Dell since the BTP first engaged with the company. Dell Compellent’s deduplication features mean that the force has not yet had to acquire any extra storage capacity to support its virtual transformation.

Next >> Beyond utilisation improvements

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The benefits of virtualisation reach beyond improved utilisation. For one thing, Cunningham also wants to use the technology to improve the force’s business continuity profile. To date, the BTP has not had a disaster recovery site, but Cunningham realised that virtualising the server infrastructure would allow it to replicate its systems across to the Birmingham facility.

He also wants to centralise storage and backup of file and print servers at the BTP’s regional offices. “At the moment, we’ve got users doing manual backups and changing tapes for us, which is risky – people change roles and you need to make sure somebody else is doing it.”

However, the force’s wide area network (WAN) infrastructure has prevented it from doing any of this. Of the 147 sites the BTP operates around the country, only around 100 have access to a 512kbps network connection.

Besides limiting the storage centralisation and disaster recovery possibilities, this also prevents BTP from providing remote support, which means that it often has to put IT staff on a train to provide support in person.

BTP is now in the process of upgrading to a 2Mbps WAN, although it has wanted to for some time. “We were in a contract with a supplier, and when that came to an end it took us longer than we’d anticipated to get through the procurement process,” says Cunningham.

The force is also introducing IP-based telephony at the same time, “just to make things interesting”, he jokes.

Desktop virtualisation

With the network upgrade under way, the BTP is now exploring its options for desktop virtualisation. When combined with thin-client devices, the cost reduction case for this is a persuasive one, says Cunningham.

“We don’t need a fully functional PC sitting on every desk; in some cases we can replace PCs with boxes that are up to 50% cheaper,” he explains. “When you multiply that by several thousand users, that’s a significant cost saving.”
Cunningham is conducting a proof-of-concept project to decide whether to use Microsoft’s Terminal Services or a virtual desktop infrastructure [VDI] system to support those thin clients.

“We’ve selected a number of users at our force headquarters who represent a good mix across the various departments here, and we’re going to run half of them on VDI for two weeks, and half of them on Terminal Services,” he says. “Then we’re going to flip them over for another two weeks. That feedback is really going to tell me which solution suits our needs.”

Whichever approach to desktop virtualisation he chooses, Cunningham hopes to upgrade the desktop operating system to Windows 7 as he rolls it out.

Control automation

Another improvement Cunningham wishes to make before the Olympic deadline concerns systems management. “I want to automate the way we manage the virtual environment as much as possible,” he says.

For one thing, he wants to make sure errors and incidents that occur within the VMware environment are flagged up to the service desk, and can be prioritised according to their urgency. “That means integrating [VMware’s automation tool] Orchestrator with our existing service desk system.”

He also wants to integrate Orchestrator with the force’s change management system, meaning that virtual servers will only be provisioned according to approved policy.

This is a lesson that the force learnt the hard way. After the initial virtualisation project for the PND, Cunningham investigated how many operating system licences were being used in the environment. He found 44 virtual machines running Microsoft Windows that had not been accounted for. “That meant paying £40,000 more than we expected for licences, because those servers hadn’t been provisioned through the proper process,” he explains.

All of this needs to be tied down by February or early March next year, at the very latest, Cunningham explains. He does not expect there to be all that much extra load on the systems during the Olympics – the extra police that will be seconded to the force during the Games are not likely to access its IT systems – but the BTP cannot be distracted by upgrades at such a pivotal time.

“So it’s going to be a busy year for us,” he concludes.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...

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