Martin King and Phil Morris of Chester Zoo IT Department

My Way - IT at Chester Zoo

Chester Zoo is one of the UK's leading species conservation centres, and a major visitor attraction. The challenges for its IT department are wide-ranging, unusual and even risky. E&T speaks to Chester Zoo IT colleagues Martin King and Phil Morris to get the inside story.

Engineering & Technology: Even a zoo must have its fair share of spammers. What did you have to keep in mind when looking for a new solution?

Martin King: We were running McAfee Anti-Spam at one time, which cut out the blatant spam. However, the more sophisticated spammers use certain keywords to get around filters, and they were still getting through. We have quite restricted bandwidth, and I thought it would be better to not ever see the spam mail. A Cloud Computing solution was therefore a good thing, as it kept mail completely off our network. We use the bandwidth to host our website too, so the more spam we have to sift through, the slower our website.

E&T: Do you have issues in the IT department with activists such as animal rights campaigners, or zoo objectors? Are there any spam problems related to them?

King: No, I do not remember getting any animal activist emails in the time I have been here, and we have never had anyone trying to hack the website. We are well respected in the animal care and also animal breeding [worlds]. We work with thousands of critically-endangered animals. Without us, some of these species may not exist, or maybe even more critically endangered.

E&T: So how do your roles within the IT department differ?

King: I primarily look after the network - all of the switching, routing, cabling, and fibre-optics. I also class myself as an administrator, and this work I split with my colleague Richard De Riso, who is senior network technician. When I started, each of the animal houses had a telephone, and possibly a 56kbps modem, that dialled into a Citrix modem pool. Since I've been here, we have now got every animal house on fibre optics, which is at least 100Mbps; 90 per cent of it is now running off a Gigabit Ethernet network.

Phil Morris:I am responsible for assessing IT strategy and managing the development teams. It's my role to be the driver of the major projects. I typically set the direction, and then encourage Martin and Richard to pick them up.

E&T: Is Phil the man with the ideas then? Or does the team often come to him and say 'We've got this idea, shall we go with it'?

King:He's more based on the overviews, the concepts... I am generally the one to give him the opinions whether something is going to be able to work in our environment, or whether it'll be of benefit for us. Phil is the liaison between us and the upper management, and he tries to get us the funding we need to deliver what we want.

E&T: How are decisions made then Phil? Do you hear about things at events, or are you thinking quite far ahead, trying to work out what the next step will be?

Morris: I go to product seminars; I read the business press, and just keep myself aware of what is going on. It is a question, really, of deciding what's good, what's bad, what's cost-effective, what will work for us, what won't. There some things that just won't work for us - but do work for other businesses - because of the charitable model that we operate under.

E&T: As a charity, how much does cost affect the projects that you undertake, and day-to-day IT?

King: We get really good rates with most suppliers. We did get a reduction with Ancoris, which certainly made the project more viable. If we can say we have saved, say, 25 per cent on our licensing because we are a charity [then it is beneficial].

Morris: In terms of purchasing, a lot of companies will try to sell you on lease purchase agreements, which if you have the status of a tax-paying business is okay, because you claim the tax back on the lease. As a registered charity we do not, so it is better for us to pay up-front in a lot of cases. When I look at software as well, a lot of that is driven by some of the major players, particularly Microsoft, who will give us really substantial discounts, up to 80 per cent. Competitors that do not discount have to really be outstanding to stand any chance of being able to pitch to us.

King: Licensing is our biggest saver - that's why we have recently carried out a virtualisation project with Microsoft. We knew we wanted virtualisation; we just did not know which solution to choose; Microsoft Hyper-V or VMware. VMware was reluctant to give us any charity discount. So it made sense to go to with Hyper-V. At the time Hyper-V did not have exactly the same features as VMware, but we knew they were in the pipeline; so we were happy to take a bit of a gamble, and it has really paid off. We got them at a fraction of the cost, and now the virtualisation has taken us from 27 servers down to three, with more work in the pipeline.

E&T: How about your budget for projects and the department as a whole? Do you have a set amount to play with each year or do you have to go up the ladder and prove to the powers-that-be why it's worth undertaking?

Morris:We have what we call a minor equipment budget, which covers lots of things including PC upgrades and so on. Typically, if there are big projects like the virtualisation project, which was tens of thousands of pounds, then that type of project would be best specified, and then applied for and judged on its own merit.

E&T: Are there then any IT issues specific to running a zoo?

Morris: One of the things that always seems to come up is muck and dust. Chester Zoo is quite a dusty environment, particularly out in the sections, so the PCs will suck up a lot of dust particles. That always causes problems. We had problems with dust getting into the fibre transceivers and creating issues there.

E&T: What did you do to resolve this?

Morris: We started providing higher levels of enclosure. Also moving more towards a virtual environment means the PCs require fewer moving parts, they do not necessarily need fans, so they are not drawing in dust.

King:Also, you have to be very cautious that you're not putting cables where animals might chew through them. We've had fibre optics severed this way before. The main thing is the work entailed in network cabling: the animals need to be put inside for short period while I am pulling the cables through.

E&T: Is there a lot of coordination between the IT and the zookeepers when it comes to arranging when to go in and do the work?

King: Yes. The main thing is to make sure that we are not affecting the animals' welfare. If there is a birth due, we need to make sure that we get the fitting of a fibre optic camera finished in good time to make sure that the parents can relax before they give birth.

E&T: Do any specific instances of this come to mind?

King: A few years ago we had a rhino birth. The CCTV system there wasn't networked, but the keepers needed it done quickly, as they did not want to disturb the female a couple of weeks before she was due to give birth. So we used the overhead fibre optics along our monorail system - a massive project in itself that I had managed. That enabled us to be able to run it into smaller buildings without having to run it all the way back to a network point of presence (PoP). We ended up running about 800m of fibre optic cable to the rhino house so that they could leave the female and the father alone to relax and have their birth in peace, while they monitored them remotely over the CCTV system.

E&T: Do you have much interaction with IT colleagues at other zoos? Is there a 'networking pool', or are you very much standalone in what you do here?

Morris: There doesn't tend to be a lot of interaction between different zoos. There are the occasional trade shows and industry meetings or seminars that we can go to, but typically on the day-to-day stuff we will work independently. There are some projects that we work together on. The zoo industry as a whole is working on a database at the moment called the European Group on Zoo Animal Contraception: EGZAC. We are working with the American zoos to produce a European database. Essentially, EGZAC allows all of the zoos to hold contraception information.

E&T: What is the project's objective?

Morris: Typically, if you're talking about human contraception there's loads and loads of information. When you're talking about contraception for a giraffe or orangutan, there isn't so much data out there. Feeding all the information and experiences back from all the zoos will be the richest source of information that we can get on this database. It will be designed to capture that information. We've been working on it for a year or so now.

King: We always keep trying to progress, whereas other zoos don't get the funding they require, maybe. Not all zoos are charities. I imagine some of the zoos that aren't charities really struggle to get money for IT projects. I certainly wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

Morris: In terms of infrastructure we're at the cutting edge of what's available, both on the physical aspect of the network (and the software). We are running 10Gb connections between the hubs. We are at the cutting edge of the software with virtualisation, so certainly we are fortunate that we have been supported from the board and the senior management with a proposal to move forward, and to be the front. We have and continue to grow quite quickly, and that is always something that I find myself being very mindful of. Buying in at the right level of system is something that I spend some time considering so that we are not left behind, and we have got the scope to grow.

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