My Way: JANET(UK)

The Joint Academic NETwork (JANET) brings the UK's educational and research communities together. E&T speaks exclusively to the head of the ICT team that manages it.

E&T: When you joined JANET(UK), it sounds like you were thrown in at the deep end somewhat. What was the biggest spam issue you first had to resolve?

PETER KENT: The software solution that was in place at the time was causing the exchange email service to fall over on a regular basis. It wasn't ideal. We rely on email to such an extent in terms of communicating with our customers. Every minute or hour of downtime impacts on productivity - which is obviously not good. So we saw this as a priority. We managed to sort out the reason why it was bringing down the service, to make the existing solution stable. But it still wasn't blocking anywhere near the amount of spam we wanted.

E&T: Had you had experience of tackling these sorts of issues in your previous career?

KENT: Prior to joining JANET (UK) I worked for Oxfordshire County Council, and my team there delivered an internal IT email service to the 6,000 county council staff, and then also a schools email service to 220,000 teachers, students, and the like. So, luckily, in this specific area it's something I've got experience of in terms of in-house solution and a completely outsourced solution.

E&T: What factors informed your approach to dealing with this?

KENT: My gut instinct was to run with the outsource system that we'd used at Oxfordshire County Council. It had worked so well that it was ideal for here. But because of the infrastructure that we're running internally, it wasn't possible to go for a completely-outsourced service. So we were stuck with going for a software-based solution, or an appliance type solution.

E&T: How did you identify the right solution?

KENT: We had a look around the market. One of my team had worked previously with Sophos and found it quite good, so we did a market appraisal: we looked round at various reviews, and it came down to a couple of solutions that were most favourable. We had a chat with Sophos, and liked the 'three-clicks' interface of its ES400 product. I quite like it myself as someone who is not deeply technical.

E&T: What was it that worked for you?

KENT: It's based on a very simple user interface that I know our end-users here (some of who are very highly technical, some of who aren't) can use easily. We didn't want to implement a solution and find it was blocking all our email, and conversely from an internal PR point of view, the last thing we wanted was to introduce something that was worse than our existing solution. The Sophos solution has been brilliant.

E&T: You could see the benefits straight away?

KENT: Yes, the benefits were pretty much immediate. It was a fairly overkill solution for what we needed: we only have 130 staff, and I think the appliance will handle up to 85,000 messages an hour, we're nowhere near that level, to be honest. What we do as a company, however, relies so much on email that we wanted comfort, knowing that it can handle way above the level of emails that we get.

We've also got reliability, as we've put a secondary device in our DR site, the idea being if the device fails or the site ever goes down, email will continue to flow via our DR site. So it should be as resilient as possible.

E&T: So now the email issue is resolved, what's next on the task list for you?

KENT: We've got 38 projects now. My team is myself plus four, and everything needs internal services. But we are very fortunate because we obviously have a great deal of networking expertise in the company; we're able to draw on those individuals' knowledge for specific projects.

The latest project we're looking at is wireless implementation. We've got our own JANET(UK) security team, and they look after the security on the core JANET network, so the team's able to engage with them. We've also got somebody who offers wireless advice to the JANET(UK) community about setting-up wireless network universities.

E&T: You've got internal sources that you can tap into?

KENT: Yes, and its extremely useful - in addition to saving us a lot of money in consultancy.

E&T: Does this make it easier for you to deal with such a high workload when you have such a small team?

KENT: We certainly find it difficult, but I think it's the same in any IT department whether you're traditional or something a bit different like us.

E&T: Specifically?

KENT: It's managing attention between reactive works of fixing things that are broken and delivering new projects and improvements.

I wouldn't say we use a particularly high level of consultant contracts, I think we use less than traditional IT departments. We are able to draw on internal expertise, and that helps us a lot.

E&T: How about management, is it easier - and more enjoyable, to work with a small group of people?

KENT: It's quite nice to have a small team. I've managed teams a lot bigger; up to 40+ staff, and coming down to four staff allows a lot more personal interaction which I think is good.

It certainly allows me and them to discuss things more than you would with a large team.

E&T: Do you favour a formal or informal style?

KENT: We do a lot of discussions informally; we are in a new open-plan office, and it's easy just to talk over the table, and chat about issues as and when they arise, which you can't do in a large team.

E&T: But do you find with a small group you might be missing important skill sets?

KENT: I'm very fortunate, [because] some of the guys in the team have a very broad range of skills. We've got a very good mix of people. One of the team has been here for almost ten years, and knows the company and the people inside and out.

Myself, and one of my guys who has only been here for 18 months, bring to the party a knowledge of how things work in the outside world, and it's good to have that mixture of opinions.

E&T: Are you saying that you all agree about everything?

KENT: Sometimes we don't agree on everything, but it's always good to have that mixture of opinion so we can tease the right solution out.

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