Project progress update by Neil Shewry

It’s been far too long since my last blog post. The good news is that it’s because we’ve all been really busy planning, designing and delivering new access infrastructure. The bad news (for me at least) is that excuse only lasts so long and it’s about time I took a moment to provide you all with an update.

In short:

  • The south region is well into delivery and due to complete by the end of the year
  • Ditto the south-west region
  • We’re in the process of signing contracts and placing orders for the Midlands region (east and west combined) and also London
  • We’re making some smaller interim changes in the North West; and
  • We’re planning almost everything else

But that doesn’t tell half the story! The lessons learned log is bursting at the seams with all sorts of process constraints and quirks that you only really uncover when you start doing these things. Almost every step and every interaction has contributed to a steep learning curve. Needless to say once we’ve finished the programme we might just about know how to do it all

One of the most pleasing things is the level of interest and engagement we’ve had from the community.

Change is never easy, especially when it’s imposed (as we’re doing to you), but the feedback we’ve had on our strategy and design principles has been really positive, to the point that we’ve undertaken a lot of additional engagement with institutions and regional groups to explain further precisely what we’re doing, and also to collaborate on a technical level where’s there’s been interest to help support our network design processes.

This is really great to see in terms of us making sure we have stakeholder buy-in (which I can’t stress enough the importance of), but also in enabling us to tap into local knowledge of network infrastructure ‘in the ground’ to help steer design and topology decisions. The more of that the better!

Finally we have the series of Tech 2 Tech events, the first phase of which is now coming to an end. We’ve already had great and well-attended events in Bristol, Birmingham, Edinburgh, London and Durham.

The Jisc-led sessions have grown into a really comprehensive run through of the Janet access programme, and the feedback we’ve had has been really positive, but the standout sessions at all events have been the member-led talks, it’s really useful to us at Jisc to hear what you’ve got to say, and having been in the room at all of the events, you seemed to learn a lot from each other too.

Next week we head to Manchester, and then to Belfast in October. After that, we’re looking to continue the series of events with a slight change of focus – more news on that as we have it. We’ve also had a webinar-based Tech 2 Tech – an online version of the physical events – which too was well attended and is something we plan to do more of as the programme progresses.

Neil Shewry, head of infrastructure delivery… thoughts

A year or so ago Jisc announced that it would be embarking on a programme of work to refresh connectivity to all 1000 members and customers – the Janet Access Programme. The new access infrastructure delivered by the programme would be capable of supporting an enhanced set of connectivity services, scaled to last 3-5 years (and more), whilst preserving Janet’s already stellar levels of reliability, resilience and security. No mean feat, given that every traffic graph is pointing up and to the right, while every funding graph is heading the other way.

Fast forward a year, and after multiple procurements, delayed product launches, and a whole load of meetings, and we’re still planning! For good reason though. During my time at Jisc (previously Janet, previously UKERNA) there has been a steady flow of regional network refreshes, and in almost every case the new network would share most of the design principles and traits of the network it was replacing. Such projects were so regular and so predictable that they were very much considered BAU (a contradiction of the word ‘project’ I know).

The changes we’re implementing this time round certainly aren’t BAU, they’re wholesale, so the overall process has needed considerably more thought. Moving from a layer 3 regional network to a layer 2 regional network is one such change that couldn’t be adopted lightly – resilience and rerouting in failure scenarios became a particular hot topic for debate!

The equipment we’ll be using is new (to Jisc) so needs to be tested, which is why we’ve invested in a lab setup at our Network Ops Centre in London, to get our hands on the equipment and start to build some test networks. The set of connectivity products we’ll be using has evolved since we last went to market, so there are new suppliers, processes and technologies to get to grips with. We’ll be deploying more dark fibre where available and cost-effective. All change in almost all aspects of the way we build regional network infrastructure.

As head of infrastructure delivery at Jisc, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’m keen to get on and start actually delivering something soon, but I can’t overstate enough the importance of getting the design right (and then checking it, and then checking it again, and then probably again).

Whilst the key objective of saving public money isn’t impacted by subtle changes to design details, preserving a vital set of services to members is, so there really isn’t too many times every component of every design can be checked, and that is why each project is overseen by a team of expert network architects, engineers and project managers, and further overseen by a programme board, all of whom have their eyes closely on all of the details.

So where are we now? Well we’re ‘getting there’ in terms of confirming the scope, design and implementation plan the first few projects. Design for the South region of Janet has been finalised, and contracts are being drafted with a view to placing orders in the coming weeks; we’re currently putting the final touches to the design of the South West region; and initial planning has started for the London, West Midlands and North West regions.

With each project spanning approximately 12 months from contract to completion, over the next 12-18 months we’ll start to see genuine progress in delivering replacement access infrastructures, connectivity to Members being enhanced, and ultimately benefits being realised, so watch this space!

If you’d like to know more about the Janet Access Programme, you can head to the Jisc website: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/rd/projects/shaping-the-future-of-janet

We’re also running a series of Tech 2 Tech events that all Members are invited to attend: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/rd/get-involved/tech-2-tech-your-role-in-shaping-janet