A four-year journey spanning connectivity, security and accessibility improvement

A four-year journey spanning connectivity, security and accessibility improvement

The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology is a world-class biomedical research Department at the University of Oxford. Over 300 scientists from more than 30 countries aim to discover the molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie human health and disease.

The Dunn School is part of the University’s Medical Sciences Division which has been ranked first in the world for the last six years and is based on the vibrant South Parks Road Science Campus in the heart of Oxford.

There are currently over 30 research groups at the Dunn School, with leaders drawn from across the world – supported by an extensive technology infrastructure. These include applications, servers and storage – running across core LAN, WAN and WiFi networks used by the Dunn School in a hybrid function that includes centrally managed resources from the Oxford University ICT hub – along with an in-house team within the Dunn School.

2017 to 2018 – improving wireless connectivity

As John Marriott, IT Manager for the Dunn School explains, “We all have slightly different constraints, resources and priorities to meet the needs of each schools’ researchers and students – and our local IT environment might well differ significantly between schools across the campus. So, for us, a big focus is ensuring accessibility and security, but we are limited by our own internal resources and expertise, so this is really where our relationship with ANSecurity began in 2017.”

As Marriot explains, The Dunn school at the time had a legacy Wi-Fi network that was starting to show its age – with capacity, coverage and potential security issues. The IT manager brought in ANSecurity (ANS) and several other solution providers to propose alternatives – and as part of the process Marriot notes that ANS were impressive, “…even to the point of sharing the site survey with the other vendors so it saved us the cost of having to pay for multiple site surveys from different vendors,” he explains.

After all the proposals were in, based on technical specification, costs and the experience of dealing with the different suppliers, the Dunn school choose a Ruckus based Wi-Fi solution which ANS would deploy on a building-by-building basis over the next few months. The relationship extended further as the growing demands for accessibility and bandwidth led to a small network switching and cabling reconfiguration project to take advantage of the new Wi-Fi network. “The new Wi-Fi provided much better coverage– even in our older buildings with very old and thick walls,” says Marriot – noting that support calls related to Wi-Fi connectivity dropped 90% when the project went live in 2018.

2019 to 2020 – strengthening security controls

ANS also began a process to conduct yearly infrastructure reviews with the school – and in 2019 this would follow the annual University wide security audit where the Dunn school identified several areas where it felt it could strengthen its security posture.

“We work within an overall base framework defined by the University around security best practice, but each school has a lot of autonomy around how we implement security,” explains Marriott. “So, we brought in ANS to give our systems and processes a more detailed review – to find out where we were doing well and areas of improvement that they would recommend.”

As part of a “Security Lifecycle Review,” ANS deployed probes within the Dunn School network to capture and inspect the types of traffic running across its network, how applications were communicating both internally and externally – alongside an analysis of cyber security best practice and processes.

“This was a very useful process and brought to light several concerns and areas where we needed to block certain types of activities, and potentially strengthen up our controls, says Marriott.  As a result of this SLR, the School switched its largely ‘passive’ managed firewall service to ANS which instead offered an active solution with a monthly review to highlight any needed changes. “We can also raise queries with ANS on things we think need tightening up, and they can give us feedback on areas where they may see a few issues – it is a much more proactive approach and provides us with a lot more value than we had previously,” says Marriot.

The managed security service goes beyond firewall maintenance and includes ongoing assessment of potential vulnerabilities, and remediation strategies – and aims to help the IT team at the Dunn School meet industry best practice through knowledge exchange. Over the last couple of years, The Dunn School has strengthened its security controls with upgraded firewalls, new threat protection software and a continual process of test and verify to ensure that its systems are performing as expected.

2020 to today – accessibility to support secure remote working

In 2020, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers across the University took part in a variety of antiviral and immunology research programmes. This included the process to recommissioning the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology’s containment level 3 facility to support Oxford’s COVID-19 research efforts.

For the IT department, there were additional challenges of having to work with social distancing requirements while also expanding remote access to researchers for various projects that required secure sharing of large data sets across international teams. Marriot turned to ANS for assistance, and it set up a “global connect” platform that allowed the IT team to remote control sensitive security and other areas such as building control, that had previously required local access.

The updated solution also allowed the IT team to more granular control of the amount of bandwidth to assign to staff and applications – including prioritizing resources for key covid projects – and to also consider home working. “….it was a project that we needed to get right quickly, and we are still benefiting from it to this day in terms of the flexibility it offers to administrators and our users to work securely and productively from remote locations,” says Marriot.

Marriot recognises that its strategy of working with the highly supportive Oxford University central IT department along with external expertise from ANS gives the Dunn School the best of both worlds. “And the relationship we have built with ANS over the years can be defined as trusted, productive and comfortable. he quips, “It’s not prescriptive, and allows us to get a second set of expert eyes on every problem and find solutions that work for us while still working closely within the overall university framework.  This is an approach that has helped us to deliver the best experience for the researchers, students and staff working within the school.”

"the relationship we have built with ANS over the years can be defined as trusted, productive and comfortable"

John Marriott, IT Manager

A four-year journey spanning connectivity, security and accessibility improvement