Node4’s Managed Data Centre solution keeps West Midlands Trains on track

West Midlands Trains is owned by Transport UK. Operating London Northwestern Railway and West Midlands Railway franchises, it runs over 1,300 services to and from some of the UK’s busiest and most well-known stations, including Liverpool Lime Street, London Euston and Birmingham New Street.

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“With less than a dozen staff, West Midlands Trains has a relatively small IT team but an extensive remit and heavy responsibilities,” explains Steve Roberts, Head of Information Technology, West Midlands Trains. “We maintain a vast distributed IT infrastructure that covers ticket machines, customer information screens, CCTV, help points, IoT sensors, back office systems and applications. To give you a sense of scale, we operate from 160 stations. The smallest ones have around 20-30 IT assets, while our largest sites can have up to 800. We have to maintain data centre connectivity for each site and each asset — and provide them all with reliable connectivity.”

The Challenge

Before engaging Node4, West Midlands Trains had three data centres. One provided centralised internet connectivity and disaster recovery, one housed the production servers that supported all the IT assets, and one contained all the network interconnectivity infrastructure to 3rd parties.

“The Birmingham data centre was located within our HQ building. It was a purpose-built space with cooling and fire suppression but no backup power,” Steve Roberts recalls. “A few years ago, the building suffered a major electrical fault, and we — alongside all the other building’s tenants — lost our electricity supply for around five hours. Relying on an external generator, we recovered quickly and with no significant impact on train services. But the incident fast-tracked our decision to move the servers to a managed data centre with the latest security, backup, disaster recovery and redundancy capabilities.”

Steve and his team originally planned to move the servers — and the network infrastructure — to the same managed data centre that provided the organisation’s interconnectivity infrastructure. However, he was unhappy with the delays he’d experienced when the site was first brought online and the subsequent poor customer service. No longer confident in the provider’s capabilities, Steve spoke to his counterpart at East Midlands Trains to find out which company they had used after their recent successful datacentre migration.

The Solution

“My colleague told me they’d chosen a Midlands-based company called Node4. This was music to our ears as we wanted a data centre within an hour’s drive from Birmingham,” comments Steve. “When we looked further into Node4’s credentials, we found the company had great references from other rail operators and public transport companies too. Additionally, their data centres run on 100% renewable energy, which is good to know from an ESG and sustainability point of view. Spurred on, and with growing optimism, I arranged a site visit.”

Impressed with the company’s positive attitude, cultural similarities, and modern facilities, Steve changed his plans and decided to migrate all one hundred of West Midlands Trains’ servers to Node4’s main data centre. Today, that data centre also houses the train operator’s perimeter firewall, provides the base for its centralised internet connectivity and is the origin point for all site-to-site VPNs. To ensure availability and redundancy, the servers are backed up to one of Node4’s secondary data centres with auto-failover in place. These are connected by two independent internet links delivered by different telco providers.

“Node4 is integral to our organisation,” Steve explains. “Its data centre supports our commercial operations — enabling customers to buy tickets from ticket vending machines or station ticket office counters — as well as our customer information and safety infrastructure. Importantly, it also houses the rail operation and train management systems that ensure drivers, crews and services are in the right place at the right time.”

The Results

A fast and well-planned data centre migration

There was a relatively small window to move the servers from the organisation’s HQ to Node4’s data centre. The last West Midland Trains service enters the depot at approximately 1 am, and the first one departs at around 4 am. Literally, every second would count.

Steve recalls Node4’s meticulous preparation in the days before the move: “We got the network infrastructure and perimeter firewall up and running — and tested the failover — in advance. On the actual night, we shut down non-critical servers at 11 pm and were given the approval from rail control to shut down the critical servers at midnight. All the servers were wrapped and transported from the Birmingham location to the Node 4 data centre where they were unloaded and racked with connected power cables by 2 am. Our business critical servers were back online at 4 am and non-critical ones by 6 am. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the pressure we were under that night, but Node4’s team were professional, calm and exacting in their approach at each stage. As a result, everything went according to plan.”

Precision project management to hit migration targets

“Node4’s team took on an important project management role right from the start,” Steve comments. “Too often you hear of spiralling data centre migration costs, which are often due to poor planning and execution. This was not the case with Node4 — they worked behind the scenes to keep the two internet providers on track, ensuring the links between the primary and secondary data centres were installed as scheduled.”

Excellent onsite support, customer service and positive attitude

Steve also notes the incredible contrast in onsite support and general customer service compared to his previous data centre provider. “Node4’s data centre ‘hands and eyes’ service is just so helpful and obliging. If a drive fails in a server,” Steve explains. “I can log a ticket, ask Node4 to check it, send a part if necessary, and Node4 will fit it for me.”

He concludes: “This is part of Node4’s wider can-do attitude that we’d all recognised at that initial site visit. It proved I was right. We did indeed all hold ourselves to the same high standards and accountability. So instead of putting up barriers, causing delays and becoming a bottleneck, Node4 finds solutions, solves problems, and generally makes my life so much easier. It’s an absolute pleasure to work together.” 

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