How a Strong Technology Backbone Helps National Trust Preserve Historical Places


I’m proud of the work we do at National Trust. We are an independent charitable organisation that preserves and protects historic spaces and places in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland for future generations to enjoy. We own over 500 heritage properties, including houses, gardens, and industrial monuments. We also maintain an extensive art collection, including an archive of over 12,000 oil paintings that have been digitised and made available online.

National Trust is the second-largest landowner in the United Kingdom and is financed in part by donations and the contributions of our 5.2 million members. Our properties include the childhood homes of Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as well as numerous estates and castles. 

In 2020, we're celebrating our 125th anniversary. Our recent IT infrastructure upgrades are preparing us for our next decade of conserving beauty, nature, and history in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

When people look at the National Trust, they think history, not technology. But IT is one of the best ways to improve and streamline the way we manage our properties and our activities. 

Setting Our Carbon Targets

In 2010, we set out to reduce our carbon emissions from heat and electricity at our various sites by 45% through investments in renewable energy and high-efficiency lighting. In 2016, we allocated £30 million to more than 40 clean energy initiatives, including a 200kW lake source heating project on the Blickling Estate in Norfolk, two biomass boilers at Upton House in Warwickshire, and a 250kW hydro scheme at Hayeswater in Cumbria.

Our new goal is to be carbon net neutral by 2030. In the coming years, we'll be further lowering our carbon footprint by minimising car, rail, and air travel to and from meetings at our various offices and sites. Reducing our emissions is not only good for the environment but also helps lower our operational expenses. It pays to be kind to the planet, and our green initiatives feed into our overall scheme of reducing administrative expenses so we can put more money into our conservation efforts and building better visitor experiences.

To achieve our targets, we needed to tackle a couple of major problems. Our network and data centre were woefully underpowered and constantly breaking down, and we lacked collaborative tools to work with colleagues remotely. Our incoming CIO, Jon Townsend, took stock of the situation and asked us to come up with a plan to improve our infrastructure.

From Complexity to a Reliable Future

Our base issue was complexity. We used equipment from different vendors and when something went wrong, we'd gather everyone in a room and watch them point their fingers at one another. It was next to impossible to resolve an issue in a single swoop.

Equally vexing was the fact that our internet connection went through our primary data centre. If one of the servers or switches failed, the entire organisation was cut off from the rest of the world.

Most importantly, our infrastructure was unreliable, and we experienced an average of 10 major incidents a week on our network—not our actual switches and routers—and these took four or five days to resolve.

To add insult to injury, all our properties were on at best 2 mpbs DSL circuits. Our network was slow, and when it came to collaboration, our staff often resorted to their personal mobile devices. It was faster and more stable to use Skype on their smartphones than to go through our network.

When revamping your IT infrastructure, don’t get sticker shock. Think of the long-term implications of your investment.

The great thing about Jon was his encouragement to think in the long term. "Don't be too frightened to be ambitious," he said. And his advice made sense. The National Trust is a charity, and we have to invest our money wisely. At the same time, our network infrastructure is the core of our modernisation and security efforts, as well as the cornerstone of our new collaborative tools. It has to be rock-solid and be capable enough to serve as the foundation for a decade of new applications and technology upgrades.

Selecting a Single Long-Term Vendor

We looked past the initial cost. We knew that our infrastructure investment would allow us to build powerful new enterprise systems. We wanted better performance and increased collaboration. If possible, we also wanted to stick with a single vendor.

We looked at HPE because they supplied the bulk of our network architecture, including the routers and switches at our central offices and our primary data centre, as well as most of our laptops. However, we found their solutions weren't in line with our ambitions.

Find IT partners who share in your long-term vision.

Next, we looked at Cisco. We'd already dealt with the company on a smaller project and had established a good working relationship. We said we wanted a five-to-ten-year solution, and their engineers came back with a functional network design. Cisco was already thinking in the same time frame as the National Trust and proved to be the perfect partner.

Upgrading and Monitoring Our Infrastructure

Our first step was to upgrade all our sites from DSL to fibre. Next, we went with new Cisco routers to handle the increased bandwidth and followed up with Cisco ISE to secure our wireless network endpoints. We're also looking into Cisco DNA Center to automate network support and configuration. 

With Cisco DNA, our network engineers would no longer have to monitor our infrastructure manually. They'd be able to see when something goes wrong with one of our switches and repair it remotely within minutes. They could also configure and update network equipment from a single pane of glass at a central location.

We also adopted network edge technology, and we’ll be making our printer servers into virtual machines that reside on intelligent switches. We won’t have to upgrade costly physical servers every few years for this specific application, which will provide cost savings. But the biggest change was in our collaboration hardware and software. 

Collaborating and Reducing our Carbon Footprint

On top of providing the National Trust with an end-to-end network, Cisco also provided our organisation with a comprehensive collaboration platform that integrates seamlessly with our network and our Cisco IP telephony infrastructure. Cisco Webex Teams includes a software component that runs on desktop and mobile devices, as well as smart whiteboard and intelligent conference room hardware.

In the past, our inadequate infrastructure had us struggling with Skype. As a result, remote meetings never took off. We were spending £2 million a year on fuel and generating far too much carbon dioxide. We couldn't attain our emissions reduction targets unless we cut back on travel, but our telepresence capacity was non-existent.

Cisco transformed the way we work with remote colleagues. A few weeks ago, an exec posted to our intranet, raving about a Webex meeting with a handful of people across the country. He gushed that the audio and video were brilliant and that the meeting participants had saved a thousand miles and 34 hours of automotive travel between them.

Silence Is Golden

Now that our new Cisco network is in place, we have security under control, and plenty of room to expand, but the most significant improvement is with stability. We've gone from 10 major incidents a week, to zero. My IT team rarely fields service calls or complaints these days, and you know what they say, "Silence is golden."

Cisco has empowered the National Trust to push our boundaries, to grow and to add value to the services we provide to the entire country. In the coming years, we are looking to add IoT functionality to our various sites.

Right now, National Trust team have to manually monitor artworks and various artefacts that are exposed to sunlight, and occasionally move these objects to preserve them. Typically, we record and schedule these movements on index-type cards that we periodically check.

We are now investigating to affix sensors to these objects that will not only track their location and their length of exposure to sunlight but will also trigger alerts when they have to be moved. We are also looking at tagging our collections of historical items for theft protection and recovery.

We'll also be installing sensors in waste bins at remote nature sites. Right now, we dispatch our rangers every week to clean them out whether or not they're full. We can save money and improve the user experience by sending out staff when necessary.

The best way to plan for the future is to stay on top of your IT architecture.

We rolled out our new Cisco infrastructure a year ago, and I can safely say that the savings will add up over the next decade. I am also excited about the potential of IoT and other emerging technology.

The National Trust is preserving nature and the history for posterity. Our activities may be grounded in the past, but our eyes are set on the future.