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Network analysis

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architech A Cornish practice is benefiting from keeping it in the family with a computer network designed to meet its everyday needs

A recent study by business software giant Sage reveals that a quarter of the 3,000 CEOs, MDs and business owners blamed IT vendors for selling them the wrong products. Which, says newsletter silicon. com, might go some way to explaining the findings that bosses turn to friends and family as the main source (34 per cent) of advice about new software products.

It may just be the right way to go, as Truro architect the Lilly Lewarne Practice discovered recently Most architectural practices use CAD and where there are more than two workstations gathered it is likely that they are networked in some way.

Networking is an arcane art and not all network consultants bother to understand the special needs of architects. On the other hand, some do.

Truro architect the Lilly Lewarne Practice has been running a 12-workstation network for the past 15 months unattended and without a hitch. If your office is not networked that may sound not all that interesting. If it is, you might be either envious or, given the vicissitudes of networking, even bitter. You are almost certainly familiar with the practice's background experience. Lilly Lewarne had become fed up with the limitations of its existing network of AutoCAD workstations based on Windows 98, Internet Connection Sharing and BNC (coaxial) cabling connecting the slow network cards.

Windows 98 is fine for home computing but it is not great for a business environment. It was never designed to cope with serious networking and the load imposed on it by AutoCAD meant that it crashed regularly - even though the practice members were old hands at using AutoCAD. The old system had grown like Topsy in the hands of various IT consultants and was spread over two floors with an up-to-date network (using Cat5 cabling) in the drawing office upstairs but, inexplicably, no connection to the two admin computers downstairs - although these were linked together with a coaxial connection. This meant that architects could not look at correspondence on screen but had to go downstairs and interrupt the admin staff. Peripherals such as printers were attached to individual workstations.

This added to the load to the system so that printer queue jams, and internal packet collisions and worse, were so common that productivity was hampered - to the extent that sometimes the architects could not get drawings out on time.

Following an expensive but messed-up upgrade by IT consultants, the practice was at its wits' end until it decided to call in the newly qualified son of senior associate Robert Moore.

Under the influence of television's Time Team magic, Tom Moore had read archaeology at Cardiff, but the realities of this itinerant, underpaid occupation, combined with his personal interest in computers, led him to segue into a masters programme in computer science. In some ways, analysing and interpreting existing computer systems is very similar to peeling away the layers of history on some rain-lashed Bronze Age site in the Outer Hebrides.

Tom Moore says: 'I came in and walked round with a clipboard and pen, did a few checks, looked hard, went away and produced a document about the network and what needed to be done.' With this as a base performance specification, the practice decided to call for new tenders. What came in, Moore says was 'off the shelf, costly and over-specified kit when you wanted something simple which was set up in a way you wanted'.

Finding out what the architects wanted was simple enough: Moore asked them. Apart from not wanting regular crashes, long printer queues and worries about security and backups, there was the need for clarity. The first thing Moore decided on was a central server on whose hard drives the central information repository would be located - all the files the practice needed to carry out its functions. The staff workstations networked to the server would have their own hard drives (and USB memory sticks) for everyday applications, such as AutoCAD, local and personal data.

In an architectural practice, Moore explains: 'There is almost always more than one person working on a project.' Instead of having to pass the files around the network as before, it makes much more sense to store them in one place where everybody has access to them. For the same reason it makes sense to have all the common peripherals such as printers attached to the server rather than individual computers so that printer log jams are less likely because there is no competition with resource-hungry AutoCAD.

It also meant that printer usage no longer affected everyday work.

Moore says: 'I suggested that [in the server's central repository] there should be an architect area, an administrator area for letters and invoices, a more private practice area for fee costings, accounts, confidential files and payroll. There would be a fourth miscellaneous area for everything else: drivers, anti-virus software, British Standards and the like. So that for people at their screens there would be their own C drive and the four sections of the server repository reading as drives W, X, Y and Z. Staff would have access to these drives according to their credentials.' The drives would be organised in a simple hierarchy based on date and job number and then, in the architect section, the active or dormant currency of the project, and then the file type - such as drawing, photo, image and the like. Moore says: 'we have laid it down that staff need to be consistent - and over the last year they have been. So if you want to see a digital picture, you need the year and job number and there it is.' Imposing consistency Sceptical about the possibility of architects being consistent for any length of time, you are reminded that CAD users have had to become strict about using layers with consistency - or at least have an idea of the possible consequences if they don't.

So here was a clearly thought-out network structure that related to the way the practice operated but one which seems beyond the ken of the average IT consultant. The practice went for it.

Data security is a constant worry for any practice, and Moore decided on a DDS4 backup drive using 40Gb 4mm tape cartridges for daily backups, plus a cheap 120Gb USB removable hard drive which somebody loads up with the entire contents of the server drives and takes home every night. Moore says if the office was burned out one night it would be possible to physically take the removable hard drive around to the homes of staff, download the relevant files to their computers and the office could be up and working, albeit dispersed, that day.

Assembling the kit Moore got the kit together, some of it new Dell OptiPlex high-end boxes with three year warranties, fast graphics cards and lots of memory. In addition, there was the cabling and the two servers. He says: 'We did the migration over a weekend. We did a lot of planning and talking with the staff. I did a whole sheet of notes on what I was anticipating they would see when they came in on Monday. If you do it right you don't have to come back. So I tried to do it right the first time. Over the next day or so they transferred their files into the new directory tree and in this first week I did a little tweaking. But that system has run from that weekend more than a year ago without a hitch. I have replaced several PCs which had come to the end of their time and installed a wireless network for some staff who use laptops - and for the conference room; architects don't like trunking around their interiors. The backup system sends email reports to a member of staff and the server does a daily check-up on activity. I have told them what to look out for and they will email dodgy-looking things to me.

But there has been nothing so far.' The server has been down a couple of times, both due to staff errors that were quickly sorted out, one in just a few minutes.

And then there is the kit. Most of the workstations had been upgraded to Windows XP, which is quite network-friendly. Moore bought a Dell PowerEdge1600 RAID server. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives, here involving twin 80Gb hard drives, which effectively duplicate each other's data. As part of the deal (servers are quite expensive) he acquired a free second less-powerful server, a Dell 600. Because there was virtue in separating internal and external operation, he has used this for the practice's Internet connection, including a firewall and wireless networking.

The anti-virus security here is complex and multi-layered - and inherently safer because it based on Linux.

Moore decided to run the servers with version 8 of Red Hat Linux, using Samba to talk to the Windows workstations - they had to be Windows because that is AutoCAD's current operating system of choice. In the server field (though not the desktop), Linux and Windows are running pretty close. Moore says: 'Actually you can get a network to run with any operating system if you plan. Without planning you can make even a Red Hat Linux system run very badly indeed.

The Lilly Lewarne network is working well because we planned it and did a lot of talking with the staff about what they wanted.

We love Linux 'Having said that, I believe that Linux has helped a lot. The Windows 2003 server is pretty good. But it still suffers the standard Microsoft problems.

Its file system fragments so you have to de-fragment the drives from time to time. It does get hit by viruses because its Internet browser, Internet Explorer, is so tightly integrated into the core. With Linux there is no regular rebooting, virus attacks are rare, it doesn't eventually run out of memory, you turn it on and it works.

'That's not the only thing in favour of Linux. Cost was a major factor.

Using Microsoft would have added considerably to the costs. It could have got to the stage where it would have jeopardised the whole project.

Oh, and there is the cost of the Windows backup. I was reading some tests about Linux backups and noticed that Arkeia was offering (at www. arkeia.

com/arkeialight. html) a free singleserver Linux version of Arkeia Lite.

I had used it before: it is used by big corporations. Fantastically, it is provided free to the Linux community, as its site says: 'To acknowledge the contribution of thousands of Linux users who have donated time and expertise toward the goal of making Linux a viable alternative OS.''As Moore says:

'Using Red Hat really lowered the cost of the whole project.' Tom Moore is now systems administrator for a large commercial group in the South West. He can be contacted at info@192dot168. co. uk

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