Exciting things.

We have whole school enrichment days at our main schools, normally it means all IT is booked out, and the network is just creaking. We don’t always have a direct input – but this is good – staff are confident to use the technology and plan with it themselves.

However, the upcoming enrichment day is one we are heavily involved in – and I am looking forward to it because we are doing some exciting things with IT kit to enhance the day. The theme is communication.

So we start off with a whole school radio station  – beamed lived from our office, on a MAC running NiceCast – and with staff tuning in around the school with VLC player – pupils will have access to Spotify and an expensive Snowball microphone to create 15 minute shows throughout the day, with a lunch time request show played live to the field and into the hall.

11265610_10152793891401691_3347506271467140059_nAnd secondly, we are rolling out skype and webcams into every classrooms – we have recently been linking up with some partner schools abroad via skype, and want to showcase this way of communication to pupils.

Both are exciting use of technology to enhance the day and I know my team and I are really excited to work on it, so much so, that we set up skype between our school ICT support offices, and then wondered why we even had our weekly meetings, when we could be online and connected all day!

Making people listen

I had a fun job this half term – I had to migrate SIMs from SQL 2008 to 2014 – as the next SIMs release doesn’t support it.

Unfortunately the timing wasn’t great, recently we have had a few issues – and in the middle of some staff doing reports via remote desktop.

The migration didn’t go to plan, and it resulted in a night of downtime, as I disabled the server to stop people somehow, magically, loose data (I knew it was impossible, but didn’t want to risk it!)

Being the holidays, it threw into light our ability to communicate with staff during the holidays, or even out of normal school hours when things go wrong. These days our systems, across all 5 schools are used pretty much at all hours, I have seen staff logged on till 1/2am – and some start again at 5/6am – I have seen staff logged in on christmas day!

Our ability, therefore, to communicate outages (particularly in holidays when we complete maintenance and I am loathed to send out all staff emails that many will not read and disregard – and therefore they can think they can do the same with more important future emails) is especially important.

Our school website is hosted externally by Vidahost, so we are able to set up a status page on there, to allow staff, students and even parents who use Insight, access to see any issues. The page, as well as letting us write updates, pings key services to check availability, a quick way for staff to see if it is us – or them!

After updating the page recently with a few issues, I decided to update the pages design, to simplfy it – http://www.st-bedes.worcs.sch.uk/parents-information/service-status/ and to remind the staff of its existance.

A lot of staff emailed me directly, bypassing even the helpdesk, and this is not helpful. Our aim is to provide fast and efficient support, to do this – my team need to see issues that are reported. People have holidays or specific tasks, that may mean they are not on the helpdesk, but there is always someone there managing it – if things are sent to me, they will be dealt with as and when I can, and normally just me forwarding them to the helpdesk.

I wonder in business if this would actually happen. School’s want, nay, need professional IT support to move things forward for them and get best value from the people they have there, that is why many are not outsourcing. When teams put in procedures and resources – we now need to work with staff to make sure they understand why they should use the systems, ultimately it means a better service to them.





Tales of woe: Exchange, SAN and Smoothwall failures

What a week.

It all started last week, when our exchange server just decided to stop working. One of my techies was updating SSL certificates as Chrome is sending warnings that it is out of date. A fairly simple process – but it turns out changing the SSL certificate raised issues from where we removed the old exchange server incorrectly after decommissioning it when upgrading 2010>2013 – causing IIS not to work, so no activesync, no autodiscover, no OWA.

Luckily, once we worked out where the issue lay, a bit of digging in ADSI edit and IIS manager and issue resolved. Phew.

Onto the next challenge, one of the Volumes on our cluster is down to 9% free, some 200GB, it decreases a fair bit each week, on investigation I think it is out Smoothwall server, a new VM, which is now logging.

So the next job was to move Smoothwall to a dedicated machine. Two reasons – I was fairly sure the logging and requests would be hammering the SAN and ISCSI links, and also if I located the physical server near the Virgin box, it would reduce the traffic accross the network, as the VM box is in a different building.

As smoothwall was a VM on our 2008r2 cluster, I exported the server, and then tried to import and boot on the new 2012R2 Dell mini server I had got, only to find you can’t do that. For future reference, 2008r2 needs to either go 2008r2>2012>2012r2 – or forget exporting, and copy and paste the files directly.

A weird gotcha, but a lesson learnt. Box worked today, upgraded the RAM a bit tonight, and then moved into front server room, minimal downtime, but the move did mean a late night, 12:30 finish last night

On Friday the week before, triumphant after the hassle with exchange I was doing easy jobs – one was to get the serial of the SAN to enable a supplier to quote on a JBOD (as I say, cluster storage is filling up!). When logging in to the SAN, which admittidly I don’t do very often, I noticed it was ‘degraded’ – DotHill’s very speedy support identified a faulty controller, which they replaced today.

Only problem being, the controller they replaced (a refurbished product) has failed. Luckily we have dual controllers, so no immediate danger, but a very annoying issue none the less, awaiting a reply and replacement now.

So, an eventful week – but I am focusing on the positives > Exchange sorted quite quickly considering the weirdness, and now old server all gone. The SAN’s failover has worked, twice, the failover cluster, failedover and Smoothwall is on it’s own box, on a VM so can easily be moved again.

At least it’s not been boring!

How to fix Error code: 0x81000037 when using Windows 7’s Backup and Restore.

I have a few private clients that I have setup Windows Backup on to send data to a NAS drive. All works fine, until I get hit by an email saying backup isn’t working.

Twice now, it has turned out to be the same error code, and an error about not being able to read from the shadow copy.

The backup was not successful. The error is: Windows Backup failed while trying to read from the shadow copy on one of the volumes being backed up. Please check in the event logs for any relevant errors. (0x81000037).

I spent an age trying lots of different fixes – but the issue is NOT with your backup drive or location – its actually your PC/Laptop, and probably your anti virus. In my cases, it has been down to Security Essentials, a quick clear of the infected items (History > View all) and the backups work a treat

More info here: http://www.pagestart.com/win7br0x8100003701.html

Damn you, Netgear.

So our Easter work schedule was pretty manic, perhaps more then expected. We have 3 new ICT work areas now, and they have seemed to fit in quite well, no drama there – infact with WDS in place, it was easy, and other then tell techs what to name the machines, I had no input in the actual build of the PCs.

No, my Easter was taken up worrying about the infrastructure work going on around the site. Due to the arrival of some 387 tablets, I had taken the opportunity to upgrade our switches from aging Allied Tellison to Netgear, on the recommendation of our usual infrastructure partner. I had spoken to Netgear at BETT, but I hadn’t really come away that fussed, they appeared to be offering better kit then HP, and my guy was confident in their kit.

The main selling point is that they could run 10GB over our existing OM1 fibre, meaning, we could use our 8 core run to have an 80GB backbone effectively (we have not yet, I hasten to point out!)

So, all goes well, we included in some work for tidying our second biggest cab as well, and moving it all into a nice new cab. We also VLAN off the CCTV, and the wifi, ready to enable Aerohive to manage the DHCP Scope for the wifi clients – enabling us to solve the problem of running out of IP addresses.

Apart from an issue where a switch wasn’t connected back to the VLAN 0, the start of term goes well, until the end of the first day – and the contractor, whilst investigating a newly dead port asks to restart one the main switches, with 10GB link module.

Stupidly, I said yes. It turns out, the switch had crashed, and didn’t like it when new cables were plugged in, simply not detecting them.

Safe to say, the switch did not restart. Even taking it out, and trying to get into the console only confirmed the kit was dead.

So, you would think getting a replacement was easy? It was only a day old anyway really, and we hadn’t even had it delivered for that long. Well, you have probably guessed, it wasn’t.

I took a punt and ordered the switches from Softcat, knowing they had a good relationship with suppliers, or so they claimed. Of course, the true colours of any supplier comes out when something goes wrong, and Softcat would not direct replace. We had to talk to Netgear.

This I did, and after a 30 min product registration was told I could send it back to Netgear, and they would then dispatch a second had refurb unit – or – in the unlikely case I didn’t want to replace my 1.3k switches for a refurb, I could give a code to SoftCat to send me out a new device.

Well, it appears Softcat and Netgear, then had an argument, and much to my annoyance the new switch almost got delayed again. Softcat, in fairness, did send one out pre 10 am, but still, the whole process was frustrating, and made me accutely aware that we need to ensure that we have hardware on site to manage the situation again if the kit dies. You can have all the server redundancy you want, but don’t forget your switches! As servers are useless without them!!




Unrealistic expectations from users is a common theme of tickets and conversations in any IT support team. Our users, as consumers do, demand that products work to their exact specifications.

Unfortunately, the world of IT isn’t like that – it is often ‘best fit’ solutions that are in place. As much as it surprises some members of staff, we cannot command developers to include our specific wants in SIMs, or Windows, or Office.

These demands to get it working how users expect it, or to fix an issue that has no fix get bigger as IT systems are used more. Because of the impact our support and development has had at the schools we manage – IT is critical to their day to day function, and complaints are louder and more complex then ever before.

When networks are just left to ‘run’ the wants and expectations from staff die out with any enthusiasm they had for using IT.

So, in effect, these unrealistic expectations are proof you are doing your job right. Managing them is a key tool in continuing your networks development. Don’t just say ‘no’- offer alternatives – but don’t shy away from ensuring staff have an understanding of how software development works that they understand how unrealistic their demands and expectations of you are. No doubt, you will share their frustrations – make sure they know this too.

I always point staff to the fact that we never stop evaluating, to ensure we learn when things do go wrong. They go wrong for many different reasons, and staff need to know what these are. So when things go wrong (like internet outages) make sure you inform them of the reasons (even if it is you) – if users understand this more and more, it makes dealing with outages and issues so much easier.

For instance, our new deployment of tablets hasn’t defaulted to the existing iPads, iPads were the wrong choice. So when we get the demands (like today) to rewrite iOS to actually be Windows, we can point out that we have let someone else do it, and just bought windows tablets.

On the flip side, don’t expect people to care or want to understand too much. They are not you, and they will come back to the fact, it’s your job to get their IT working.


Projects Update

So it is getting closer to Easter, an unusual time for me to have big projects on the go, but with our new financial year as an academy running alongside the academic year, Easter, and not the summer holidays is the key time for things to be done.

This will be a bit weird, and somewhat demanding – but at least we can say the summer term is for testing, summer holidays for rectifying and Autumn term for go live for any major projects.

Project 1: 387 Windows 8.1 Tablets & Complete infrastructure upgrade

This project involves deploying 16 tablets in most classrooms, and then some additional bookable trolleys around the school. I have worked closely with MillGate to get this one right.

It has been quite a big job with many different elements, for instance, an upgrade of our internet to 100mb for the extra use.

Over Easter we are upgrading, and Vlanning our switches, to give us a 10GB backbone, and more redundancy. The aim is the aerohive wifi should also start dishing out its own IPs to help us not run out of IPs

We have gone for Netgear, purchased via Softcat and installed by M&J Data Networks. Some £10k of switching gear is ready to roll out…

The tablets themselves, after a few early hiccups at VeryPC and the end of TAP, are on their way to us early April, with the first one currently at work as I wonder how on earth to image it.

I am currently thinking the only real way to image something that wont PXE boot is to create a custom image on 20 Memory sticks, which will join them to domain via their USB to NIC adapters and then deploy software via GP. That is tomorrows job however…

Our wall mounted cabinets are on the way, which means I need to go around classrooms and find out who will need additional power for charging units.

As nobody owns rooms in our school, over Easter I plan to take a picture of all the locations and then let staff check and feedback.

Project 2: New Rooms

Additional machines are planned for the Staff room, for our learning support area (in a new staff work area) and a small 16 PC ICT room is being remoddled with 8 new PCs and a storage area for trolleys…

This work is a simple as imaging and then installing the new PCs now I have sorted electrics and network installs

Project 3: Main Network Cab #2 Refit

The old server room, is now a backup server room, with, funnily, all our backups in it. It is air-conditioned and it has a cab in it for DR – but the switching in it is awful. So a floor to ceiling cabinet is being installed over Easter, with the new switches. It will be much easier to problem solve here.

Project 4: SSD upgrades 

We use SSDs in pretty much every machine, infact, this last batch of machines to upgrade will be the last ones being migrated, so that’s 40 machines to rebuild.

Project 5: Laptop refurbishment

The exisiting rubbish laptop trolleys will be cleaned up and deployed to 3 key areas: SEN, Science and D&T – all places where they will be nursed till their retirement, and rooms that have plugs in for laptops with dying batteries.

So 5 big projects at just one of the 5 schools, the other schools all need UPS shutdown tests, one needs RAM upgrades in its failover cluster, Impero 5 needs to be rolled out at 3 sites and all the usual holiday jobs. In less then 2 weeks, as, being a single parent of 2 I need to spend time with my kids, and the techies have these annoying habits of taking holiday…

Not a long post this time, but hopefully for those looking for inspiration on what others are doing, this might be interesting!

Fighting talk

Having an IT team to manage is something relatively new to me, I’ve had a tech to manage for nearly 4 years, but I now have a senior tech and 2 technicians, and a 4th I line manage at one of the schools we support.

I have three main ethoses for my team to stick to: “Bodge job are not acceptable” “everyone is learning” and “Because that’s the way it’s always been done is not a reason to keep doing something”

I have worked in a couple of teams prior to managing one, at the first place it was a real sense of being in something together, a clear purpose and a camaraderie which is still there to this day.

My best mate was my boss, and next month I am going to be the best man at his wedding. He instilled in me that a bodge job is not acceptable. It makes an already stressful job harder, as you will always have to fix it at a later stage.

By all means get thing working quickly, but don’t leave it there. Fix it. Change it. Sort it.

At my second school, the environment was different, the management style was different. But it taught me a lot. Some things I would avoid, but one thing I took away was “everyone is learning”

The second school taught me that just because I know it, and it’s easy to me, and it makes sense to me, to other people what I do is an alien world and a completely different language. I got shouted down when trying to roll out new things, I got grief for trying new things because I didn’t explain them well enough, but mostly nobody trusted the third and most important phases my team now lives by:

The most dangerous phase in the English language is “we’ve always done it this way”

I saw this tonight on twitter, and whilst I might not have said it in so many words, it struck a chord on the ethos I have been trying to get for my team, and I’ll be putting a big picture on the wall in the office tomorrow with it on.

You won’t be able to find me someone in IT who has not dealt with that weekly . Even if someone is sat working on a new system you have implemented that they originally opposed, they don’t trust your sinister ideas of change.

All IT people are people who just want to fiddle and make people’s lives harder, because they can. Not for any real reason.

I have been there, I still am on a regular basis – but I have confidence born out of lots of fuck ups, and lots of won battles. Within a month of starting this job, I decided with the head that I would rip everything out. And start again. I’ve done it at 5 schools now.

It’s not easy changing the way someone does their role. But it is precisely because people do not understand what we do that there should be a bit more trust coming our way. I don’t know about heart surgery, but I would sure as hell trust a heart doctor.

We can make things easier and quicker if we understand the bigger picture more, if we get people to trust that we know what we are doing, like people trust doctors. (Do not attempt any medical solutions however, as this will not end well.)

But here is a key point many techies miss: you have to earn that trust. Learn people’s roles, listen to their issue before blindly rolling out change and only then, if you are still sure you are right, push through changes.

At the end of the day, we know how to make things easier with technology. We don’t know how to teach, and we don’t know how to manage sites and facilities or be a TA. We know technology, and the best way to make use of technology is to make it easy. To make it easier to do something. And to do it better.

Sometimes this means you make unpopular choices, and people do not always appreciate them, or why you have made it. But they need to understand your role better, as much as you do theirs.

The bigger picture is key here, ICT is now a whole school system, there is no curriculum and admin side, its all one big mesh. People see their role, not the fact that what works for admin, won’t work in science, or PE or won’t be passed by governors. Or even, is frankly illegal.

My final poster I plan to put in our office is this:


Like a lot of jobs, being basically the person that people only speak with to tell you things are not working is tough. It makes having a larger team now really quite a good thing to be able to bounce issues and gripes off each other without losing focus or blowing things out of proportion.

But it does make me and my team work hard to get those messages where people are just saying thanks. We get some 200 tickets a week – we get 2 messages a week saying thanks. And that helps us stop being sad and be awesome again

Why iPad’s just don’t work in Education.

I am not a Windows fanboy. I may have a new Nokia Lumia running Windows 8.1 as my new phone, Windows 10 on my laptop, just ordered nearly 400 Windows 8.1 tablets, and manage over 1200 windows devices – but I am not fan boy. 

I am a fan of technology that just works. Whatever it’s role or aim, if it works I am a fan. I am really a fan when it is a step ahead of my aims, and when I realise the software or hardware’s potential, it has the solutions already there to maximise that potential.

So it stands to reason that I love my iPad. I use it all the time. I think for home users with a bit of money, OSX is a great platform, and I think the Apple hardware is stunningly beautiful.

But lets be clear. They are useless devices for anything but 1-1 deployments, and that makes them useless for education.

Even in 1-1 deployments, they are poor, limited devices.

Lets focus on why they don’t work at enterprise level – and this is quite an easy point – it is incredibly difficult to manage settings, apps and policies on iPads.

No other hardware platform requires you to have actually been part of the team who coded the process to actually understand it and be able to do it (which is two different things, I understand what SHOULD happen, but I cannot actually get it to work)

Getting work off the iPads is almost as hard as getting apps on there. If the device is not yours you have to rely on webmail, or Home Access Plus or similar to send the stuff off – because its not your device, you cannot use the default mail client.

So, you point out to me (obviously I already know this…) iPads are 1-1 devices. Yes! Yes they are kind person. But they don’t have to be. And more people need to understand what they are, to stop pushing them to be something they are not.

Now I know there are apps and 3rd party solutions – Meraki, Lightspeed for example to manage iPads, aircatch and foldr for file management – but this is not the point. For a start, most school NM will agree when I say trying to get Meraki or LightSpeed to work through a proxy is nigh on impossible.

I have never met anyone who has done anything other then get ipads working at a basic level (deploy proxy settings, and deploy apps in some crappy work around way that is not what Apple think should be happening) .

They simply don’t have the time to dedicate to the faffing and learning required. So they may have got a company out, and even they don’t really know what they are doing on deployments on the scale of what most schools require.

What I HAVE knowledge on is (usually) ex-teachers who want to showcase what the iPad can do for a school, get them all fired up and ready to go, and then disappears. Because yes – they are fantastic 1-1 devices and that’s easy to show, but they know the deployment and management on the scale schools need is near impossible.

I have spent today trying to get our new filter (smoothwall) to play nicely with iPads. It work’s great on my windows devices, obviously, even on android ones too. But not iPads. And trying to redeploy new proxy settings to the iPads is apparently impossible.

There are reasons why companies such as Virgin Media, BT and others are deploying Windows Tablets to their staff all of a sudden. And a reason why I am so glad I didn’t blindly go and order 387 of them.

My windows test tablet picked up the same settings as the PCs, all I had to do was log off and on.

Yet still, we have 200 of these iPads, and we are continuing to use them – every teacher and TA has one, and we have clusters and trolleys around the place, they captured the mood of a quick device to use cameras and internet on with a good battery life. And we will keep them just for that, as soon as I have worked out how to get the proxy working.

In a way, we had to have iPads to convince us tablets were the way forward – but I can see their prominence as being the defacto education tablet falling sharply with Windows tablets, and in particular, Windows 10 tablets emerging.

The best places they are effective is staff and TA deployment – funnily enough – where they are 1-1 devices. They do engage pupils as they love the technology and use it at home, and some Apps can do some amazing things – but until Apple grasps what enterprise management is, I am firmly a Windows fan boy.



Changing Primary ICT Provision

When I moved from a secondary, to a middle school (years 5-8) I was faced with a primary phase network. By a primary phase network – I mean a network with one thing bolted onto the other, kept going by someone who had been the person who had used computers a bit at home, and their role had morphed into something they were clearly not the right person for. Or supported by county or similar, where not enough time or skill is present.

Staff don’t rely on IT in these situations, because they couldn’t – so in our case at least it was rarely used in lessons, clearly this had an impact on learning outcomes, workloads for staff and progress at later stages.

I sold the idea of a new network to the head of my middle school at the time by selling him a secondary network, for a middle deemed secondary school. What I meant by this was a network with the same level of reliability, flexibility and attention spent on it. Half of the challenge was creating a new network, but the other half was convincing the SMT and staff that this is the way it is actually meant to be. All things that Secondary and high schools mostly realise.

Some staff took no convincing, others resented changes until they saw which way the tide was going. Now they are, rightly so, our biggest critics and our biggest champions. Which is the way I like it.

As we started branching out into first schools (and through my chair of governors role and contacts I know this applies to primaries as well) their networks are a mish mash of outdated technologies and products the school got sold by some flashy sales guys, but has never been adopted or integrated when they realised either the limitations or the county support doesn’t have the time or skills to manage it.

The benefits of rolling out a secondary network into first and primary schools is something I have seen first hand. It’s what the teachers desperately want to enable them to prepare pupils for secondary education. It is what secondary schools need in place at primary level to make the biggest impact across the curriculum later on – but especially in the new computing curriculum.

Networks we have taken over struggled to run anything but office. Security policies and data protection was ignored ‘for the greater good’ – even worse, sometimes the schools simply go overboard in the opposite direction due to a lack of understanding.

One of the most rewarding things I do, and what other schools need, is someone they can ask a few questions to, someone they can tell an outcome, and get a solution that will make it happen.

All 3 of the first schools we support have been less accepting of secondary changes. But now all 3 schools wouldn’t be without them.

“We don’t use email” … “Nobody will use remote access” … are the two most common, swiftly followed by calls (like today actually) when they forget to change their expired password before the holiday and want to use remote desktop or check their email via the Exchange 2013 webmail. We regularly get told now how they cannot live without these things.

I wonder if we took a look, nationally, at the state of first/primary schools IT – and made a real effort to make the IT in them effective, what effect this would have on results and long term budgets. Better results, lower costs, particularity in staffing (because yes, some still pay people to enter marks from a paper register into SIMs)

I strongly believe that an effective IT system is the spine on which schools are now built from. It’ been amazing to transform some schools into secondary networks, and watch them thrive.

Working in a MAC, and I would imagine in other academy changes this is one of the small benefits of academies, that these primary networks are coming under the wing of experienced network managers and support teams, and the SMT that manage them and understand the strategic benefits. Many more SMT are are nowadays of the importance, we are going through a time of change in that respect.

So much so, that the term we are looking for is not a secondary network – it is simply a network, that works.