Despite radical connectivity advances over the last decade in the United Kingdom rural businesses, and in particular those in the South West of England, struggle to fully utilise the productivity and efficiency gains these advances have brought to businesses elsewhere in the country.
Integrated Networking in Rural Businesses
Like many other rural businesses, Running Deer’s principal site at Butterdon Wood does not have a BT phone line. Up until the summer of 2019, Running Deer used a collection of dongles and smartphone hotspots. However, this solution was woefully inadequate with growth of the business during the last two years.
Along with the inadequate internet connection, ever increasing utilisation of our IT resources required better integration in order for our staff and students to access the IT resources they required at school.
To improve connectivity, we considered replacing the collection of LTE dongles with satellite, AirBand, a BT-line, or by simply consolidating and improving LTE. We discounted satellite due to the number of trees in and around the principal areas of our site. BT proved to be prohibitively expensive.
An excellent solution in other areas would have been AirBand (https://www.airband.co.uk ), a Worcester-based ISP providing fixed wireless connections in the South West of England and in Wales. Unfortunately, due to the location of our site, there is not a good line of sight to their towers and the transceiver on our end would have needed to be on a mast.
This left us with improving and consolidating our existing LTE connection. To do this, Running Deer purchased a specialist LTE modem and router from Teltonika, which allowed us to extend the LTE antenna onto a small mast at our office. With high-gain omnidirectional antenna, we were able to connect to an LTE network with a very high degree of reliability and speeds adequate for most tasks.
We also installed omnidirectional 2.4GHz WiFi antenna, which allowed us to create a hotspot that reaches into all our classrooms and Wulf camp.
To improve IT integration, we considered a number of paid, hosted, and self-hosted solutions including Microsoft Azure, AWS Active Directory, AWS self-managed remote AD, and a self-hosted Linux/Samba AD.
While Microsoft Azure and AWS Active Directory ready to use solutions offered simplicity, both came at a significant financial cost. Furthermore, spinning up the remote machines necessary for a self managed AWS AD would have cost around £98 per month.
Fortunately, I have experience with Linux and Windows networking, and Running Deer was able to acquire a pair of Intel dual Xeon E5606 servers.
These were provisioned with a stack consisting of Linux 4.19, Debian 10 Buster core, and Samba 4.10.7. One server, designated as a file server, was loaded with a LSI SAS 4tb RAID 1 array, and the other server was provisioned with Samba 4 as an Active Directory Domain Controller. This enabled us to implement a number of features for the first time, for example shared directories, user home directories, controlled DNS resolution and as Samba supports both Unix-line and Windows operating systems, allowing users to log in using any Running Deer IT resource.
Both servers were connected to a basic Netgear unmanaged switch and through to hardware and software firewalls to the LTE modem and 2.4GHz router.
I am now investigating extending the 2.4GHz network across the site, which presents some interesting challenges. Most twisted pair cables, e.g., Cat5e, have a maximum rated transmission distance of 100m. To extend the network over the whole site would require a transmission distance over over 300m, and complicating matters further the other end of the network would not have a power supply. However, is possible to use a solar cell and battery bank to power a wifi router and power injectors for RJ59 coaxial cable which supports a far greater transmission distance.
In time we will move our infrastructure to a property which has a BT line. This will enable us to connect Butterdon to the intranet remotely through a VPN, which will also allow our staff to access resources from home.