Blind Foundation clear sighted on new network

Sue Joyce has an extra factor to consider in her $500,000 nationwide infrastructure rollout: ensuring equipment works well for unsighted users.

Sue Joyce has an extra factor to consider in her $500,000 nationwide infrastructure rollout: ensuring equipment works well for unsighted users.

Joyce is project manager for a major implementation of new IT equipment for the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind. The organisation is replacing unreliable systems, some over five years old, to make the charity more efficient and secure, and benefit from lower support costs.

The charity will move from Windows 95 and Office 97 to Windows XP and Office XP on PCs and laptops, being served by MetaFrame XPa on a three-machine Citrix farm. The rollout of 80 new PCs and 22 laptops will be complete by Christmas, the Citrix server farm rolled out in the new year, and several other, mainly Windows NT, servers installed by March. The hardware includes Compaq Evo D510 PCs, N800c laptops, Proliant servers, a Rittal rack, Compaq UPSs and network switches.

A test database server should be ready this week, with a temporary hardware upgrade to an existing MetaFrame 1.8 server completed this week to cope with the load in the meantime. The server farm will be based at the charity’s Auckland head office, which has 120 staff. Users will be able to keep using old PCs but the farm allows them to operate with up-to-date software, give better performance and enjoy lower support costs.

Blind users benefit from using standard PCs, as they easily run extra software and the latest sound cards are dual channel and so can deal with two sound streams concurrently. A speech software program, from UK-based firm Screen Reader, talks to users and augments the sounds Windows makes, Joyce says. Support should also be improved with new equipment.

A remote control facility will be available to help people operate PCs from an Auckland helpdesk. Training will mainly be hands-on — probably using a staff training in Auckland — and employing books, as budgets are limited, she says.

Networking will involve ADSL from Telecom at small sites, with frame relay links in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Laptop users will dial up to Xtra and use a virtual private network to get into its Auckland LAN. Joyce says the charity has saved money in switching its total telecomms deal from Clear to Telecom.

Planning for the rollout began in August, Hamilton and Tauranga being the first centres to implement earlier this month. Auckland, Manukau, Whangarei, Palmerston North, Gisborne, Napier, New Plymouth, Wanganui, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill and Nelson are in the plan. Completion is set for March.

National implementations are no easy matter. “Large countrywide rollouts over several months are like herding cats in a maze,” Joyce says.

Users in pilot sites are coping well in the move from Win95/Office 97 to XP helped by setting up Windows classic menus so they did not look too different, she says. Some Auckland staff tested Windows XP and Joyce herself tested the laptops and dial-up VPN for several weeks.

Joyce says Windows XP is stable and users can plug in extra devices like new products such as mice and it reconfigures itself within 30 seconds. Microsoft’s charity pricing scheme for software — making it about a quarter of the price — helped make XP possible, otherwise the foundation would have looked at other options, she says. She also believes Compaq and her supplier “appeared to be kind in their pricing”. Much stock will be leased to spread the cost over three years.

Joyce says she took direct control of the project, negotiating directly with suppliers and securing a preferred supplier agreement, because previous vendor-supplied project managers did not work out for “varying reasons”. Suppliers were chosen on the basis of being able to supply goods and services to remote sites, having offices and engineers in the same locations as the RNZFB.

She says she investigated the range of equipment available and matched price and performance within the foundation’s budget and needs, saying she had knowledge of the sites, staff and technical issues.

Joyce advises that internal project management and ownership is important. “Know and understand your network and your users. Keep track of all changes with the potential to affect the rollout.”

Consider staff changes, comings and goings, staff who have moved PCs from one office to the other without informing IT, and make sure staff will be in the office on the day of the rollout. They can help unpack the PCs, check off what’s arrived and execute a formal handover.

With suppliers, carefully evaluate them on a time and materials basis versus them project-manage everything “and inflate the cost on a fixed price basis in order to absorb potential risks”. Be careful about planning installation dates until hardware delivery ETAs are properly confirmed, Joyce says.

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