Wednesday 3 February 2010

Setting up a London Office

No matter how small a new office will be, whether for a new company or a branch office, someone in Information Technology (IT) should be involved in the planning process of setting up that office from the beginning. If there is no project plan beforehand, then IT should be involved from the moment the lease is signed, or sooner, in order to get that new office up and running as soon as possible.

There are many items for IT to cover, but the main reason for this early involvement is the project critical-path item, communication lines (your connection to the Internet and to e‑mail). This is especially important in the United Kingdom where it can take up to two months for a line to be put in.

There are options for smaller offices that may involve temporary residence in managed office premises and/or temporary “smaller” Internet lines. With this scenario in the past, we have been able to set up a four-person office ready for users within seven business days.

This article will discuss IT options and requirements to consider when planning to set up a new office in London. The word “we” will usually refer to those in IT that would be performing much of the work described, and not necessarily the author of the document.

Managed Office Space
Smaller companies can select from many managed office premises available with little lead time required, sometimes as little as a few days. These will usually include managed Internet communications, furniture, use of a phone system, and a shared receptionist. Some may include managed computer workstations. In this case, there would be no requirement at all to engage or hire an IT person.

If the plan is to eventually move to more permanent premises, however, then IT should be involved even at this phase of setting up. IT migrations are always significantly more difficult and expensive than building new infrastructure. Therefore it may make sense to initially set up new company-owned or leased workstations so that when it comes time to move, they are simply transported to the new office. User accounts, settings, and data do not need to be migrated to new machines.

No matter how small a business, we always recommended that a server is used to centrally store and back up data. Data should never be permanently stored on workstations. This may be managed server space at the managed premises, but again it would make sense to set up an independent one if the plan is to move later.

You don’t usually need to worry about the network in these premises, but occasionally technical requirements may conflict with the premises’ policies. For example, your network may need specific access to an Internet resource that is not allowed through the premises’ network firewalls. In this case, we can request an “open” unmanaged Internet connection from the premises and install your own firewall and manage Internet connectivity independently. This would also become another component that is easy to migrate to a new office.

Communication Lines in London
There are many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and managed Wide Area Network (WAN) carriers, but at the end of the line, there is always the final connection to the building from their network to your network. This is called the “local loop”. In London, this generally means either British Telecom (BT) or COLT Telecom Group. These are the two main companies that will either already have or lay new cabling under the street into the building. You often wouldn’t deal directly with these companies, as we would choose carriers or ISPs that also manage the local loop. In spite of that, it is beneficial to inquire which local loop will be used.

We will come right out and say that we prefer COLT for several reasons. This is an un-biased preference that is not based on an agency or any other business relationship with COLT. This is also the preference of many ISPs and communications carriers.

  1. We usually find that COLT can deliver faster than BT. Usually COLT can have the local loop set up within 30 business days, whereas BT often takes 45 or more.
  2. We feel that COLT are more flexible to deal with. In spite of having the local loop managed by ISPs or carriers, we still have to deal with it when it gets installed to the computer room. For example, if we are getting three circuits installed, all using COLT as the local loop, we can speak to COLT easily and ask that they combine work for the three circuits in terms of equipment (less communications rack space required) and site visits. BT would typically treat this as three separate jobs, install three sets of equipment, and come three times on site. We would find it extremely difficult to get to the right person to facilitate this.
  3. We have found it easier to deal with COLT for any changes required after implementation.
In spite of this, there may be reasons to use BT. COLT may not have cable laid in the neighbourhood of your new office. If you have redundant Internet or WAN circuits, we may choose also to have redundant local loops. We have also come across the situation where the landlord of the building didn’t allow COLT in with a new physical line, but would allow BT in because they already had infrastructure inside the building.

Which brings us to another item that slows this down: wayleave agreements. This is a legal document where the owner or landlord of the building, and also sometimes the occupant of the premises, gives the local loop provider permission to lay cable into the building. The provider will require this document and usually the occupier must pay the legal fees for the landlord to fill it in. The document will include drawings and detailed plans showing the exact cabling route into the building and then to your premises; it may define risks and mitigation plans; and may include a degree of risk acceptance by the carrier. This is a critical-path project item.

In central London, there is also a wireless ISP that may be sufficient as a backup link.

Smaller companies can set up an interim BT DSL phone line (or multiple lines) for Internet services while the main lines are ordered. These are the same type of lines that would be used for home Internet. As with the main lines, there are many ISPs offering DSL Internet, but they all run over a BT phone line, which is a requirement. (There is one carrier, Virgin, that has their own cables to many premises, but they do not yet offer business level support.) This can shorten the lead time for initial Internet and e‑mail connectivity to two or three weeks. Understand that performance will be slower than dedicated business-class lines. Once the permanent lines are in, there is the option to use the DSL link as a backup.

First Step: Analysing, Defining, and Planning IT Requirements
As with all projects, setting up IT for a new office will run smoother, deliver what’s required, and be completed on time and within budget if it is properly planned. For this reason, it is always cheaper in the long run to hire an IT person or engage an IT consultant early in the process. This is a large topic on its own, so we won’t dwell on it here. Suffice it to say that if the requirements are properly defined by management and the IT resource, then we know what to order and build, deliver the results correctly implemented the first time, and have happy users from Day One.

Communications Room, Cabling, and Roof Items
For very small companies with no dedicated communications room (or comms room for short) available, most components in this section may be able to be fit into a special sound-proofed and cooled server rack that almost looks like regular furniture.

Mid-sized or larger companies moving into their own unmanaged premises and having the opportunity to lay out a new floor plan will need to pay special attention to the future comms room or rooms. It or they will have special electrical, air conditioning, fire protection, environmental, and security requirements. Even small comms rooms not much larger than a closet will have most of these requirements.

If there is no internal network cabling or if new interior partitions are being built, then we will need to or want to install new internal network cable runs between the comms room(s) and all points where there will be computers or printers. Wireless Access Points (WAPs) may also need to be installed above suspended ceilings.

For these reasons, we find it hugely beneficial to be included in early meetings with the architects. We make sure that all of these items are considered in the plans early, thus saving the business countless hassles and expenses later on.

Sometimes the architect needs to get government planning permission for items going on the roof, which can include air conditioning equipment, wireless communications antennas, or a television satellite dish. Permission is more likely required when located in the City of Westminster borough of London.

Procuring and Building the IT Infrastructure
While the communication lines are being processed and the server room is getting built, we can procure the network, telephone, and computer equipment, as well as arrange for outside services such as off-site backups and e‑mail anti-SPAM filtering. Documentation can also be started.

After the server room is built, we can begin work installing the servers and networking equipment as well as begin configuring the phone system.

Once the communication lines are in place and the server room is completed, then we can complete building and configuring the computers, telephone system, and other services. This includes servers, workstations, networking, printers, photocopier/scanners, video conferencing and audio-visual equipment.

When all the technical work is complete, it should be documented completely such that there is no continued reliance on one specific person or IT firm. Let the decision to continue with an IT supplier not be forced. Procedures such as backups need to be implemented and documented. Time needs to be spent with key users placing and setting up initial corporate data and there will be the initial period where more support is needed by the end users.

Time Line
The simplified Gantt chart below shows a sample project for simple set-up for around fifteen users. Note how many tasks are dependent upon the communication lines and the comms room. If these are not handled correctly early in the project, they have the potential to delay it by months. It is best to involve IT early to help avoid these pitfalls.

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