Meet the team behind Vinnies' network overhaul

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Meet the team behind Vinnies' network overhaul
Nick Prior at left, with Jon Evans.

The St Vincent de Paul Society NSW selected Azzurri Communications to upgrade its ageing network. CRN sat down with St Vincent de Paul Society’s IT infrastructure manager Nick Prior and Azzurri Communications’ managing director Jon Evans.

What is driving the St Vincent de Paul Society’s need for a better network?

Nick Prior: There are various aspects of services and information that we want to make available to our staff, our volunteers and our members that we can’t at the moment. How do we meet their needs at our 250 Vinnies shops? How do we make sure they’ve got access to the information they need? How do we provide the facilities for them to collaborate so that they’re not working in isolation, so they can actually share ideas and information across the shops?

We’ve got 250 Vinnies shops across NSW. To be honest, I don’t think we’ll have 250 shops on our MPLS network because there’s not the requirement, as long as they can upload their information to a website or a hosted service, but each of those stores provides a service to the community, so we’re looking at how to provide a service so that those 250 stores have access to the information they need without generating hundreds of Vinnies logins. We need to make sure we’ve got the bandwidth and capacity on our core systems so they can access that information.

What do St Vincent de Paul Society’s members need the network for?

Nick: Information for providing financial assistance, vouchers, what benefits and help they can receive, and documenting the help they have received. We’ve got youth programs, homeless services, support services, migrant and refugee services. How do we allow our members to collaborate more effectively? It’s around sharing information.

It’s only really in the last four years or so that there’s been a central IT support function for the society, and we’re very much about providing a service not only for 1,400 employees but also 16,000 volunteers and members. We’re not there at the moment, but obviously the network’s going to be the key to that.

How did this relationship come about?

Jon Evans: I went to the Vinnies CEO Sleepout last year. I did it again this year, just recently.

Nick: We were going to approach the ‘Big Five’ network providers. We had written up our requirements. We deliberately didn’t tell them the sort of network we wanted because we were hoping for something that was going to be innovative.

To be honest, the larger network providers were very disappointing in their responses. We had three companies present to us and Azzurri was the only one that came in and actually wanted to understand what we were doing and what our pain points were and how they could address those. I remember it was Jon who sat down and asked, ‘Right, what’s your problem with your current network?’ They actually wanted to understand that. That really made an impression on me.

Before that, we’d gone to the Big Five and someone said wouldn’t it be a good idea if we approached the people who have supported us through the Vinnies CEO Sleepout. We were quite open about how this was a tender process: you’re not being given anything, you’re just being given the opportunity to throw your hat in the ring. Azzurri came back with a very competitive and realistic network design and their approach in the interview stages [impressed us] as well.

What WAN infrastructure did you have?

Nick: It was an MPLS network but it was very much based on ADSL2+ connections. We had implemented a ShoreTel VoIP solution. That’s what we had before and we weren’t able to make the most of it. A lot of the connections that we had just weren’t meeting our requirements due to shortcomings of the exchanges. We were trying to move away from the single point of failure for things like internet browsing.

How was that impacting St Vincent de Paul Society’s operations?

Nick: On numerous occasions, somebody here would send out a 5,000 recipient mail shot with a half-meg attachment and our three strung-together internet connections would really struggle with the upload speed of one meg. What’s wrong with this picture? We had three ADSL connections here providing internet access including VPN connections, remote terminal servers, mail shots, internet browsing, emails: we were just really struggling with the performance and availability of those connections.

What does your new network look like?

Nick: We moved from having 20 sites on an MPLS network to 32 – soon to be 36 – and increasing bandwidth from ADSL contended connections to uncontended connections: 10 down and 10 up. I think there are only four sites on the network that have ADSL connections and that’s just due to their location, but they’re also small sites as well so it’s not entirely inappropriate. That was a significant increase in bandwidth and obviously an increase in sites, for an eight percent increase in opex over three years.

We’re reducing or removing a single point of failure in terms of internet browsing by having active-passive internet connections hosted in separate locations and having a Palo Alto managed firewall in place.

Is there a key vendor’s technology you are using?

Jon: Yes, it’s a Cisco end-to-end MPLS network.

Other than Cisco and Palo Alto, are there any other key vendors?

Jon: We have a ScienceLogic management platform. We give full access to our clients so they have a high level of management visibility if they want on the services we provide.

Nick: The majority of the backend stuff is invisible to us. We don’t need to worry about that or know about it. That’s ideal for us.

What benefits have you seen?

Nick: The great thing is guaranteed bandwidth. We can actually put the quality of service on there for things like video recording, terminal server traffic and voice as well.

Jon: They’re synchronous services now rather than asynchronous before, or uncontended, which are the two things that you want from a decent quality network.

Nick: The new link with Azzurri has an active and passive link so if one fails it will fail over to the other one and that’s 20 down and 20 up, which is significantly better than our three [8MB down, 1MB up] DSL connections that we’re trying to get rid of at the moment.

How does this help St Vincent de Paul Society at a grass roots level?

Nick: We have people who are accessing our systems that aren’t on our WAN, therefore, by having the much larger internet connection and the much larger pipe from the Azzurri network to this site – where some of the systems are hosted – people are able to connect to systems without dropouts. The connections are more reliable and allows us to address other issues such as being able to print to sites that aren’t on our network. That requires a different technology solution that we couldn’t put in place on the previous networks because the stability just wasn’t there.

It’s allowing our conferences and our grass roots members improved access to some of our key systems for providing services to clients and also for collecting data that we’re required to report on.

They’ll go out and do home visitations, they may give out food vouchers or electricity vouchers. We need to record that so that we report back to funding bodies, donors and the community. They’re able to do that online now rather than on bits of paper and sending things in. That helps us collate the information more efficiently now.

Does this compare with any similar projects?

Jon: St Vincent de Paul Society is a sweet spot client for Azzurri and when I say ‘sweet spot’, it is an organisation that has quite a lot of sites – 32 in this case – and it has lean IT. The challenge, which is very common to all our clients, is you have a lot of sites, which means you have inherent complexity. You then have a lean IT team which means it’s increasingly harder to manage and maintain that complexity.

Because we are a managed service provider, we really do go in and say, let’s take that management burden from you and deliver a proper managed service. That’s different from the carriers who say, here’s a network with routers on the end, get on with it, look after it yourselves.

What credentials does Azzurri have for projects of this type?

Jon: We’ve got thousands of circuits on our network. We call it our comUnity platform. We’ve been doing networks like this as a business for over 20 years, and over eight years in Australia. We have thousands of clients. Every engineer in our business will have a Cisco qualification, from CCNA upwards. The data network has always been our longstanding piece of our core business.

What challenges were there?

Nick: It was providing the information to Azzurri that would enable a smooth, expeditious rollout. Due to the nature of the society and the fact that it’s a very grass roots sort of organisation, access to some of the systems and some of the network components actually proved quite difficult because we don’t administer everything on our network. I think this proved a bit of a challenge and again, as Jon put it, for a lean IT team to be communicating with sites that don’t necessarily understand the technology or the terminology of IT, to get that information for us was quite a drawn-out process.

Now that we’ve been through that we’re in a far better position of knowing what’s on our network and that we can actually manage it now.

Jon: It was a very mixed environment, all different flavours, all different types of kit. I think now they’ve got a very consistently designed architecture.

Nick, any comments about St Vincent de Paul Society’s relationship with Azzurri?

Nick: It goes back to the selection process and the interviews and the presentations and the fact that Jon was actually interested in what our pain points were. He wasn’t just coming in to do the hard sell. They’re looking at opportunities to improve the service we provide to our clients and customers.

What is next?

Jon: I think the point of this now is they have the foundations. The network is a very robust foundation to enable unified communication, video collaboration, etc.

Nick: We have to do everything in quite a measured approach in terms of understanding the financial impact. That’s the same for every organisation probably and a bit more so for a not-for-profit. So it’s understanding the economies of scale and having the resources to sit down and do those calculations and understand what we’re getting into.

We have quite a few fragmented platforms that we use for various applications and we’re trying to consolidate those.

How does all this fit within St Vincent de Paul Society’s overall strategy?

Nick: In line with the society’s strategy – one of them is around collaboration and communication – we’re really trying to bring as many sites as we can on to the network so it’s a lot easier to share, communicate and collaborate.

We’re probably at the beginning of our IT strategy phase in terms of mapping that out and understanding what the business requirements are so we can deliver on that. Any strategy is going to rely heavily on the network so a lot of that is going to be around unified communications, video conferencing, and making the most of our ShoreTel phone system with lease cost routing.

We’re not doing anything ground breaking, or anything like that; so it shouldn’t be hard for us, but a lot of it is around change management and how we successfully implement change across a large user base.

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