• Dell and the Derbyshire Schools BSF Project

    Schools have come a long way since 1999 when the first roll out of the NGfL (National Grid for Learning) funded networks began to hit schools. Mainly provided by the likes of Research Machines and Viglen these often consisted of 1 server and a classroom’s worth of desktop computers.

    As the years rolled on and the NGfL project gained momentum and the newly arrived network managers began to exert better control over the planning, expansion and budgeting for these annual network upgrades. With the still high costs of ‘tier one’ vendors; no one could afford to buy HP or Dell, let alone justify buying more from Viglen or RM the smaller local companies began to get a slice of the pie in the supply of desktop computers and servers, often with mixed results. Some were affordable high quality units, others were not and the (usually) cheap components ensured high failure rates. It kept life for all of us old hands both interesting and frustrating in equal measure.

    Then in 2003 the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) program was announced. The ambitious scheme to rebuild almost all UK high schools was both well received and criticised in equal measure, praised by politicians of all parties for its ambition to rebuild many older schools which were in a poor state of repair, but equally made many sceptical of just how this could be afforded.

    In 2010 the project was officially scrapped by the new incoming UK government as unaffordable it still left some projects underway where contracts had reached ‘financial close’ i.e. all the agreements had been signed and legally work could not be cancelled. And it was to one of these schools, the Heritage High School in Chesterfield, that EduGeek found itself as a guest of Dell Computers (UK), the IT provider for not just Heritage but a cluster of local high schools including The Bolsover School and Springwell Community College, all built under BSF, to see what they had done in partnership with them and Derbyshire County Council to deliver cutting edge IT equipment, infrastructure and facilities to staff and pupils.

    Laying out the Ideas

    The schools had started to liaise with Dell as early as 2008 and once the deal for the new build had been reached in 2009 they began to install and implement the infrastructure with a focus on 3 particular areas as Tim Beeby from Dell explained.
    • Access to IT – IT should be available everywhere possible, not just in selected suites and classrooms.
    • Quantity of IT – There should be enough computers available that pupils should be able to access IT wherever and whenever they need it.
    • Teaching of IT – IT should be integrated into as many lessons as possible and through this method, IT is taught throughout the curriculum, not just via a specialist subject.

    Judy Matkin, the BSF project manager for Derbyshire county council said that they wanted to ensure the new build networks had no legacy baggage from the older school networks they replaced and so they ensured that their priorities and the essential features of this new infrastructure were:

    • Backbone - All networks were kitted out from scratch with Juniper switches working to the latest standards.
    • Wireless - Wireless is hugely important and each school has complete coverage both inside the buildings and in selected outside areas via a managed Aruba wireless network.
    • Security and integrated systems - All school systems are integrated. From security cameras, door control, printing, library management and canteen purchasing it’s all run using the same AD authentication.
    • Single sign on - All staff and pupils can log onto any system in any school in this BSF cluster (some pupils move between sites for specialist courses) and access any resource with just a single identity, this includes web based services such as the individual schools’ VLEs and the use of proximity cards for room and resource access.
    • Unified communications - All the schools have a UC solution for collaboration between schools and communication with the ‘outside world’.
    • Any time, anywhere learning - As was mentioned by one of the heads present, this part of Derbyshire gets hit hard by the snow and ice in winter and it is important that even though children cannot get into schools, they can still access the curriculum online via their VLE’s.

    With an allocated amount of £1450 per pupil to be spent on IT for each build, including staff training and an amount of this ‘top-sliced’ for specialist projects within each school, such as green screens in Heritage and Macs in Springwell College for example, the schools have gone a long way to ensure that things were done right the first time and not in need of ‘tweaking’ later.

    The Implementation

    Tim Beeby also went on to explain that it took 84 weeks of discussion to make sure the schools’ exact needs were met for the period of the 10 year contract as existing IT support staff were TUPED (employment contacts transferred) across to Dell, teacher training on new systems was custom provided and equipment suitable for the task in hand was purchased - such as ruggedized netbooks and tablets for outdoor and school trip use and classrooms fitted with dual use whiteboards and projectors that use the eBeam system so they can be used both interactively and as traditional whiteboards with marker pens.

    And it seems to work as Gordon Inglis, the headmaster of The Bolsover School which opened its doors in November 2010, told us they now have whiteboards and projectors in the PE department changing room to assists in discussing and explaining tactics before games which saves time on the pitch and the sports hall even has a screen which has helped them hold a real-time rowing race against a partner school in Texas.

    From our point of view the whole setup at the Heritage school came as a pleasant surprise as a quick tour by headmaster Don Spencer showed us. The new BSF funded buildings are not architectural masterpieces with huge glass domes or flowing facades, but well thought out 2 story blocks that give a spacious and airy feel to the site and provide a bright learning environment to the school’s 950 pupils. The classrooms even have CO2 detectors in them to automatically adjust the flow of fresh air to ensure pupils can keep attentive in lessons.

    Each block is based around an open learning space on the ground floor - each one with tables and chairs for pupils to use as an independent study area. The introduction of individual toilet cubicles with sinks in the corridor, overlooked by CCTV, is also great way to prevent vandalism, bullying and absenteeism from lessons.

    And does all of this technology work at a the sharp end where it matters? Well the pupils we spoke to tell us it does. In one classroom we visited pupils were busy taking notes on laptops, shared one between two, and they seemed very happy with the solution being offered to them telling us they liked using the laptops but didn’t get to use them as much as they would prefer, which is probably a good indicator of not just how integral IT has become to lessons, but as to a shift in how pupils think they should be doing schoolwork. The pupils we observed in several classes have also come up with an ingenious method of note taking. As the pupils email is provided via Outlook Web Access they take notes via email. Using this method they can easily share them with their classroom partner as soon as they finish the lesson. They tell us it is faster and easier than uploading it to their user areas, and (I don’t know if they realise this) has the added bonus of being searchable!

    The Solution

    So, down to the nitty-gritty… how did Dell provide the solution?

    Talking with Tim Beeby and Mike Rendall (Senior Consultant at Dell Services), Dell were keen to provide a solution built around Microsoft technologies and limiting the use of third-party tools or proprietry add-ons as much as possible. At the same time though, Dell were committed to ensure that the Microsoft systems had integration with all the other chosen systems – be they access control, printing, library management, etc.

    There is essentially three parts to solution – Dell-hosted services, school-hosted services and endpoint devices. Each part is described in a little more detail below.

    Dell-hosted Services

    In order to provide shared services between the schools, a number of services are hosted by Dell in a data centre. All these services rely heavily on Active directory (a single domain) and Forefront Identity Manager which uses data extracted from the management information systems (MIS) to poupulate the authentication data across all the services. Exchange 2010 and Lync Server 2010 are also hosted by Dell.

    In addition to the authentication and unified communications servers, a number of System Center servers are deployed in the datacentre. These include System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) to manage client devices, System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) to monitor the solution and System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) to manage the virtualised workloads.

    Dell also provides backup facilities using System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) for disk-disk-tape backup and archiving. An option was provided to schools to purchase a DPM server to provide disk backup which would then essentially ‘forward’ the backup to the data centre (disk-disk-tape).

    Remote access solutions (VPN for staff and Remote Desktop Services for students) are also provided by the datacentre. Access to these is via Forefront Unified Access Gateway (UAG) and Active Directory authentication.

    School-hosted Services

    Although the majority of services are managed from the datacentre, several servers are also deployed locally at each school. These services include the following:

    • 2-node Hyper-V cluster connected to iSCSI storage
    • Virtual servers for Domain Controller, DHCP, DNS, file servers and SQL Server
    • MIS server
    • Lync Server with media gateway to connect to the local telephone exchange via ISDN30e
    • SCCM server as a downstream node of the datacentre SCCM server
    • Network Access Protection (NAP) server to prevent unauthorised devices being used on the network

    The wired network infrastructure comprises of Juniper EX4200 and EX2200 switches with 2x 1Gbps links connecting each cabinet to the core. VLANS are then used to separate the traffic into logical networks.

    The wireless network is provided by Aruba and comprises of 2 controllers (1 redundant for fault tolerance) and thin access points providing 802.11n coverage throught the inside of the buildings. At Heritage High School, they had additionally chosen to provide WiFi coverage in a covered courtyard to cater for outdoor lessons.

    Endpoint Devices

    As endpoint devices, Dell provided a range of different hardware tailored towards the kind of usage and situations devices in schools encounter. These included desktops, workstations, laptops and netbooks as well as ruggedized netbooks and tablet computers for outdoor and school trip use.

    Every teacher had a laptop which they could connect to the classroom projectors, boards and voting systems. This was also their main device for accessing the Lync communications system. Also notable was the inclusion of a docking station on each teacher’s desk enabling the teacher to have any laptop instantly connected to the projector to show off pupils work to the entire class. This is very handy for when pupils are working on something complex and needed to display their working.

    The pupils have access to laptops and netbooks that are stored in network connected charging trolleys on each floor. The netbook charging solution was particularly clever with units sliding into a dock and clicking into place. Whichever solution, they also allowed for overnight patching and obviously included protection against over-charging.


    Our day at Heritage High School was certainly a very encouraging eye opener. Largely in part to the time and effort put in by the schools, Dell and Derbyshire County Council’s BSF team whose vision and long terms goals have played the deciding factor in the implementation and roll out of solutions and services that will see these schools having the kind of infrastructure, equipment levels and support many schools can only dream of.

    These factors will ensure that in ten years’ time the school we visited will still be offering IT at the level many would expect of up to date high-tech private sector companies. With BSF now cancelled it does leave us wondering whether this kind of network could have become common place in UK schools rather than what may be considered a strange historical anomaly in the evolution of UK schools. It would also be a great shame if the kind of technologies offered in The Heritage High School, Bolsover School and Springwell Community College become the exception rather than the norm. Only time and the future planning and vision of individual schools will tell. All of us now live in an interconnected world, and our schools should reflect this.

    Comments 11 Comments
    1. Trapper's Avatar
      Trapper -
      Eeeee I remember Derbyshire schools when they had them Archimedes machines in 'em. By gum.
    1. glennda's Avatar
      glennda -
      with 1450 per pupil I would hope they get amazing it services - for me that would be almost 2.5 million. To then only be running a system with 2 virtual hosts doesn't sound a lot if I'm honest.would be interested to hear direct from the school staff about the system rather then Dell's pov
    1. Dos_Box's Avatar
      Dos_Box -
      The £1450 was not just for IT equipment, but infrastructure, training, projects and a whole raft of other ancillery kit as part of the setup. And remember, this isn't an annual fee, this is a one off.
      And it was Ric and I that went to see this and this is our report from what we saw first hand. It really is a good example of what a BSF school should be had the project continued.
    1. bossman's Avatar
      bossman -

      I would say that this is probably one of only 10% of all the BSF projects which has a happy ending, I would like to see after the first 5 years how it is managed, as you say the budget was a one off and therefore the when there is no money in the pot to maintain what they have it will deteriorate dramatically. I cannot advocate the use of laptops as these devices are so high maintenance, yes the students and teachers love to be able to carry them around as their own personal kit but they don't last very long in the hands of both.

      I'm not saying it doesn't work, what I am stating is the constant cost to maintain the equipment to the standard to which the new kit performs is taking a large chunk of the school budget year upon year.

      Good luck to those BSF schools who got it right from the off but so many got it wrong due to the shear greed of the consultants and the companies involved in the process. It has also been mentioned that the PFI solution which has been used throughout the country has been a costly disaster due to not being managed properly by those in charge of the funding.

      Thanks to Dos_Box and Ric for this report and I look forward to another in 5 years time to see how the solution stands up
    1. glennda's Avatar
      glennda -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dos_Box View Post
      The £1450 was not just for IT equipment, but infrastructure, training, projects and a whole raft of other ancillery kit as part of the setup. And remember, this isn't an annual fee, this is a one off.
      And it was Ric and I that went to see this and this is our report from what we saw first hand. It really is a good example of what a BSF school should be had the project continued.
      Didn't realise it was from your pov - but i've had a similar type school round here (although not bsf) who had alot of money for an expensive system and talking to students/teachers it just doesn't work in the way it was designed.

      Even so i've got 35 edge switches (e2810-48g) which are around 1200 each - plus my core which was 11000 (e5406zl) that is still under £50000 - i've got 900 desktops - i paid under £300 this year (I3, SSD's, 4Gb Ram) that comes to 270000 + 900 £60 monitors 54000 100 promethean boards plus speakers and installation (around 2200 each) is 220000, 20k for a 100 handset voip telephone system then 4/5 Virtual Hosts (say 8000 each dual xeon 64gb ram each) with a large san call it 50k i know there are parts i've missed but that lot comes to around 700000. plus say 100k for licenses (mainly to capita and Microsoft :P)

      what would happen to the rest of my money? dells pocket?

      also it shows how these companies are so tied into deals with microsoft that even is solutions on this scale they have implemented a near microsoft system - so even when the school no longer has dell holding its hand its going to be paying a fortune in licensing to said company.

      this obviously is just my point of view but i don't see why BSF always seemed to have the big players RM/Viglen/Dell essentially buying the rights to make shed loads of money whereas if the school/new school had just gone out and got the correct staff with the know how to setup a system like this then they may well be in a better situation in 10 years time then those schools which have been through BSF and had the likes of RM/Viglen/Dell eat at there IT budgets for those 10 years.
    1. Dos_Box's Avatar
      Dos_Box -
      A lot of thought went into the distribution of laptops and their maintenance. For example, all the laptop trolleys are network connected and when docked in them the IT staff can remote boot and do any maintenance they need whilst they are still packed away. I'll have to check my notes in the office to confirm this, but as for 5 years time, there is a hardware refresh due which has already paid for as part of the initial contract IIRC.
    1. broc's Avatar
      broc -
      You don't say how much the schools are paying for their managed service..... The BSF model mandates the school has a managed service & pays an amount per student per year for the duration of the contract. This payment varies according to how the contract is written but can be £100-£150 per student per year. Any refresh within the contract period is normally built in to the cost per student, which the school has to pay over the full term of the contract.

      If you 'do' the sums, you might wonder where a lot of the money goes. Many BSF solutions include extended warranty & service costs & occasionally accidental damage cover which cover the full contract duration. These are paid for up front from the BSF ICT capital funding. This can eat into the capital, especially for laptops. Schools normally remain responsible for deliberate damage & acts of vandalism & have to use the manufacturers 'approved' repairer to maintain the warranty on kit. There are a lot of hidden costs too, system design, project management & consultancy charges soon mount up.

      Bossman is right to be concerned about the total cost of the solution over its lifetime. The schools are tied into the contract regardless of how their budgets might be affected by external circumstances.... Govt cuts, falling rolls etc which may result in extreme cases schools could be forced to make staff redundant in order to pay their ICT costs.

      Picking up on the laptop issue, networked laptop trolleys are fine in theory, as long as staff remember to plug the trolleys in to power & data (& the cleaners don't unplug them) and as long as each laptop is connected to power & data internally. Of course, if you have 20-30 laptops in a trolley all connected through a single 100mbit port it can take a long time for updates to deploy.

      A greater concern is having students repeatedly plugging & unplugging power & data cables on laptops as they are removed & inserted into laptop trolleys. This can quickly take its toll on the equipment, the RJ45 data port is particularly vunerable to damage & as soon as these will no longer retain the data cable reliably laptop maintenance becomes a nightmare.
    1. trolley01's Avatar
      trolley01 -
      A greater concern is having students repeatedly plugging & unplugging power & data cables on laptops as they are removed & inserted into laptop trolleys. This can quickly take its toll on the equipment, the RJ45 data port is particularly vunerable to damage & as soon as these will no longer retain the data cable reliably laptop maintenance becomes a nightmare.
      I have been down to Heritage and seen the laptop trolleys that they are using. Dell have worked with Ergotron to create a laptop trolley for their netbooks which the netbooks 'clip' into and are connected to both power and network with no cables required - a significant advantage over many laptop trolleys that I have seen.

      as long as staff remember to plug the trolleys in to power & data
      This is a staff discipline issue, but the whole process is helped by having ICT systems that reliably and constantly work. We have found here that when staff are given the opportunity to use equipment which is guaranteed to work all of the time, they take the time to ensure that it is plugged in and will be ready for them.

      We are currently working with Dell on the Cambridgeshire BSF project, IIRC Derbyshire was Dell's first venture into BSF, and looks like Cambridgeshire is their last! I have to agree that I don't always see where all the money is going, but I hope that in the end we end up with a solution that works as successfully as the Derbyshire project appears too.
    1. GrumbleDook's Avatar
      GrumbleDook -
      Although Derbyshire and Cambridgeshire are 2 notable presences of Dell in BSF, they have been very actively involved as a partner in many others ... it is just that they decided to cut out some of the middlemen and deal directly in these 2 cases.
    1. znova's Avatar
      znova -
      I am not surprised that you went to Heritage school - staff and pupils there are very welcoming. Should have gone to Springwell! Having worked in all three schools I could talk for hours but it would not be very profesional so I'll shut up now...
    1. Fireballs's Avatar
      Fireballs -
      After 3 years the water is very unsteady!