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National Institute of Agricultural Botany(NIAB)

Industry : Agriculture - Seeds & Food Testing
Scenarios : Infrastructure Upgrade



NIAB charts an independent course thanks to Microsoft NT. After decades of being closely associated with the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Foods (MAFF), the independent seeds and foods testing company NIAB found itself in an unusual predicament. Its network and IT infrastructure was very closely tied to MAFF. As such its communications capabilities were restricted both by MAFF security policies and by the limitations inherent in the MAFF infrastructure.

The Business Need

Yet as NIAB IT Manager Graham Pullen recalls, by 1997 NIAB’s MAFF related business had fallen from around 80% to less than 40%. The company had acquired a substantial number of external clients and wanted to take advantage of modern, Internet-based communications capabilities to improve its range of services for these clients. However, for security reasons no PC connected to MAFF’s Lan Manager based network was allowed to access the Internet. This ruled out both Internet based email and any kind of collaborative, extra-net project with non-MAFF clients. 

The need for a change coincided with a Government policy decision to increase the separation between NIAB and MAFF. "There were a number of changes that emphasised our independence. Instead of MAFF owning our IT infrastructure, we were given ownership of all the IT equipment and solutions. We were given a formal contract with MAFF to carry out certain specialist testing work on their behalf," Pullen explains. 

However, this did not mean that NIAB was immediately free to develop its own communications policy. A group of MAFF staff, known as the Plant Variety and Seeds division (PVS), had long been permanently located at NIAB’s head office. Staff at PVS accessed an Oracle database MAFF IT staff were concerned to ensure that the integrity and security of MAFF scientists in this division was not compromised by any communications solution developed independently by NIAB. 

"Our dilemma was that increasingly, our business demands closer links and liaison with external companies and institutions, often in Europe. We collaborate on a number of research projects with external companies and institutions. The Internet has a vital role to play in this kind of activity, so we had to find a way of both meeting MAFF’s security concerns and of pressing ahead with a modern communications infrastructure for our own requirements," Pullen comments.

At the time NIAB had already set up two web sites, one of which was a public facing information site, while the other served as an access controlled site through which NIAB delivered services to its customer base. However, the site had to be maintained wholly outside NIAB’s own MAFF based network, and as Pullen explains, updating and maintaining this valuable web site through a dial up PC that was denied all access to NIAB’s own LAN was "exceedingly difficult". 

Another difficulty was that email could only go through the MAFF gateway, and as Pullen points out, all NIAB email was inappropriately badged as MAFF email, with a "" domain name. "The only thing that was accurate about this badging was the UK part," he notes. "We wanted to show NIAB as an organisation in its own right and this was definitely the wrong message." Protracted discussions with MAFF’s IT department failed to solve the issue or produce a more independent solution that would at the same time cater for MAFF staff still located on NIAB’s premises.


Supplier Selection

Graham Pullen decided to call on the services of Anglia Business Solutions UK Ltd., a Microsoft Solution Provider Partner.

Sales Manager Tony Rose, points out that the first contact from NIAB in relation to the present contract came following a joint Solution Partner day run by Anglia in conjunction with Microsoft. "NIAB attended and told us that they liked what they saw of NT’s ability to be configured to deal with complex requirements. They asked us to come and talk to them about their difficulties," he says.

The Solution

The solution proposed by Anglia involved moving NIAB lock stock and barrel across to its own NT Server based LAN, with Microsoft Exchange Server providing Internet email for NIAB’s 250 staff, all during the course of a single week-end. The aim was to have virtually no disruption to MAFF PVS staff. A firewall, running on a Mitsubishi workstation with NT Workstation and Firewall 1, provided secure email capabilities and internet access, while filtering software and an appropriate domain structure effectively insulated the MAFF staff on NIAB’s site from any access to the NIAB email and internet.

"We provided NIAB with a leased line to the Internet Service Provider UUNET Dial Pipex. Using Microsoft Point to Point Tunnelling Protocol (PPTP), which is supported by Pipex. In this way, we were able to provide NIAB with a virtual private network (VPN). This enabled NIAB staff travelling abroad to have a secure link to their email," said Tony Rose of Anglia Business Solutions. The same VPN structure allowed NIAB staff at 13 regional field sites to have a secure connection to the NIAB communications server. A local phone call to their local Pipex account established a PPTP connection and established a secure access.

Solution Benefits

According to Pullen, NIAB now has exactly the kind of infrastructure it needs to grow as an independent organisation. "It has been a very complex installation, but we have been very ably and professionally assisted by Anglia Business Solutions. My own image for what we have accomplished is that it has been the equivalent of trying to replace the foundations of a high rise building without disturbing the occupants. I am very pleased with our new infrastructure," he says.

"We are now almost wholly a Microsoft NT 4.0 establishment and our remaining Windows 3.11 clients are being steadily upgraded or replaced. Our telephone bills have plummeted, thanks to the local dial facilities and our staff now have far more functionality, thanks to Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook than they ever had before," he concludes.


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