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Built to Last: COVID-19 Drives McLaren's Infrastructure Modernization

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While it’s tempting to think of the construction industry as one of the last holdouts against modern technology and processes, that’s far from the truth. Construction companies today are actively adopting everything from artificial intelligence, advanced analytics and augmented reality to 3D printing, robotics and supply chain optimization.


That’s the path McLaren Construction Group was on when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, causing the UK-based company to speed up an already ambitious infrastructure modernization plan, improve file storage and data protection, and become a cloud-first enterprise. The company, which has operated throughout the UK and United Arab Emirates since 2001, had been growing exponentially year over year, and its existing infrastructure was showing signs of strain.


At the time, McLaren had an on-premises data center to provide production services for its dozens of construction and other sites. Each site connected to the data center via mostly MPLS links. The data center hosted all applications and massive amounts of unstructured data, including architectural design and planning documents, spreadsheets and tender documentation for construction processes. For backup and disaster recovery, the company relied on Microsoft Azure.


“Our unstructured data was growing at a rate of about 25% per year, not only because our business is growing, but because of new technology like drones that take aerial views of projects. Every time a drone goes up, it can generate between 10 and 20 gigabytes of data,” said Daniel Blackman, McLaren’s head of IT. “We needed a better way to centralize and protect all of that data.”


By 2018, it was clear that the company had to evolve its architecture and rely more heavily on the cloud. The first step was moving away from MPLS toward a Citrix-based SD-WAN architecture to improve control, performance and manageability in a cloud-based environment. Next up was bolstering security. Blackman’s team chose iBoss, a Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) platform that delivers network security through the cloud as a service.


The third piece of the puzzle was replacing its existing storage, backup and disaster recovery solution with the Nasuni Cloud File Services platform. The goal was for Nasuni to be the cloud-based file repository for all applications and unstructured file data.


“With our data needs growing so fast, and the fact that we have to keep documents for at least 12 years, we needed a solution that would consolidate both of our active and archived data, and layer on protection as well,” Blackman said.


Once fully implemented, McLaren would have one Azure blob of object storage with multiple filers. If one is lost, another could be spun up in about 15 minutes. Blackman said he also was looking forward to the ability to laterally move data to where it needs to be on demand, and taking advantage of Nasuni’s remote access capabilities via its mobile app.


COVID-19 Changed Everything


When McLaren signed with iBoss and Nasuni in late 2019 and early 2020, respectively, the original plan was for the IT team to spend 2020 phasing in the technologies, making sure everybody was fully trained before they went live. That plan was derailed just a few months later, when the pandemic hit and most workers were sent home.


When that happened, the company’s existing infrastructure simply couldn’t keep up. IT services failed across the UK and disconnected from the UAE due to the surge in connectivity from home along with those who remained working on site. In the UK, construction was considered an essential service, which meant that some workers had to remain on site, and those workers still needed to access files and communicate with partners.


Much of the problem was traced to an older VPN integrated with its firewall, sized back in 2016. The IT team was already aware that it was nearing the end of its useful life, simply because it couldn’t handle the capacity. McLaren’s traditional file storage and data protection infrastructure also wasn’t built to handle this type of capacity. It simply wasn’t designed to have hundreds of people working from home using it at the same time.


To keep things running, Blackman’s team made the difficult decision to temporarily prohibit remote workers from accessing company data via any type of internet service so the staff onsite could remain connected. In the meantime, the IT team established anAzure VPN gateway for its remote workers so they could enter the McLaren infrastructure and take some of the load off of the data center. But that also was temporary; the pipebetween the data center and Azure was only designed for backup, which runs during off-peak times, but these loads were running 24/7. To make matters worse, it was the company’s aging MPLS connecting to the Azure service—not the more modern SD-WAN. Considering that McLaren had about 30 terabytes of data at that point, it was simply too slow.


Blackman knew that situation wouldn’t hold for long. The only choice was to speed up implementation of the infrastructure modernization changes that had been underway before the pandemic. The first steps involved migrating its data center fully to Azure and speeding up the implementation of iBoss. What should have been a year-long project became a weeks-long project. By the end of those few weeks, the entire business no longer went through the data center or Azure for protection. Instead, it went through the iBoss cloud, with an assist from the Citrix SD-WAN.


The next step was shifting 30 terabytes of data across two dozen drives to the cloud without interrupting anybody’s work. The team accomplished this by using multiple Nasuni filers to stage the data to the cloud, and then switching everything over drive by drive in the evenings. And they did it with a skeleton IT crew in a very pressure-filled atmosphere.


“Because of the pandemic, a lot of our IT staff was furloughed, but at the same time, IT requests and issues had gone up by 100%,” Blackman said. “Yet we managed to migrate 30 terabytes of unstructured file data to Azure seamlessly with a single member of our team managing and delivering that project in a matter of weeks.”


While McLaren would have gotten there eventually, the company was able to realize its goals much more quickly, thanks to the pandemic. Today, it has a scalable, agile and adaptable cloud-based architecture that will last for years.


With the fire drill over, Blackman is turning his attention to his next project: working toward ISO 27001 information security management certification and embracing data analytics.


“There is a big need for data intelligence around the data we have,” he said. “We want to get to the point where we can take advantage of big data analytics, where we can harness the data not only while it’s actively being used, but afterwards, to increase the understanding of our data as a whole.”

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