Shrewsbury School

I.T. - Then and Now

Leaving Shrewsbury after BumpsSupper for the last time and revisiting the site as an Old Salopian must be an odd experience: the site shrinks, tall and imposing buildings metamorphose into mere pimples at the edge of the common. Tall and imposing brushers become normal human beings, but little else changes the timeless nature of the site: the hunt still runs, willow hits leather, and the sound of eights on the river can just be heard from behind the chapel.

The timeless continuum of Top Common was ruptured in 1996, when the first new building since The Grove, some years before, was permitted to puncture its rim. Although attractive, it is, in itself, not particularly noticeable from the outside unless you intended to park on the old Science car park or expected a view from Science. But, like Dr Who's Tardis, the small and architecturally pleasant exterior contains more than it appears. The Craig building contains Chemistry at one end and, at the other, the new kid on the block: Information Technology.

IT at Shrewsbury has developed apace since the Craig building was opened. The building itself represents the face of IT to visiting parents but, like an iceberg, most of the investment is invisible. The Craig was designed to provide a sound teaching facility for IT, and also to provide room to house the facilities needed to run IT on site for the future.

Shrewsbury was one of the first schools to own and use a computer - a large ICL Mainframe, gifted to the school, was housed in the Baths Building in the 70s, and, under Gilbert Roscoe's supervision, tempted many Salopians into careers in IT in industry from an early stage. The ICL functioned well into the 80s, attracting a small clique of The Knowing into its shadow. However, the advent of the so-called "Micro-Computer" in the late 80s opened educational doors, and Shrewsbury clambered aboard early on, teaching challenging, interesting and difficult IT to all its students using IBM PCs using a small network located next door to The ICL. In 1995, Shrewsbury had its usual Harvard Fellow, and a visiting fellow from the Eastern Block. In those days, the school had a single dial-up email account, and experimental email between a few boys using machines in the Baths Building. The American was shocked at the primitive facilities - the Russian was amazed! The Baths Building was finally consigned to history (and the registrar) in 1996. The stunning change in technology can be seen in the two pictures, which are separated by a mere 19 years.

The Craig Building's heart is a servery. Several tens of kilometres of fibre optic cable spread silently from the Craig, their payload reaching nearly every building and nearly every human on the site. Most buildings are flood-wired for network services and, at its peak during the Lent term, the network consists of around a thousand PCs, supported and fed by around 30 "servers", large beefy machines which store, forward and process data. But the quiet revolution has not been the hardware infrastructure. In a sense, the wires, cables, boxes and power bills are a solution waiting for a problem.

The drive to use the investment started with the completion of the Craig. All boys and staff now have their own email accounts and access to the internet from their offices, studies and bedsits (overfiltered, of course!). Email for many boys is simply the way of communicating - with parents, other boys and staff and, increasingly, for parents to communicate with the school. Email for staff is increasingly important - they are reminded of their invigilations and other duties by emails from an anonymous daemon lurking in the network. They use scribbled email in place of scribbled notes. Many of the daily raft of announcements have moved from the various notice boards to a small panel on the intranet.

The school started teaching web design to interested boys using a small webserver running a very odd "free" system in 1995. Today, there are 5 separate websites housed on three servers, and this is set to grow. Many houses and departments have their own "Intranet site", and all staff have their own websites on one internal server. The small but interesting courses have been replaced by rather more mundane but internationally recognised and certificated courses for all. Salopians now leave clutching the grandly named European Computer Driving Licence along with their GCSEs and AS/A2s.

Vast quantities of data move around the network during the day. Most of the daytime traffic is generated by users opening and closing files, viewing websites, visiting the internet for information. Email is virus checked, and shunted around to its final destination. At around 10PM daily, automated daemons claim the network for themselves, copying, mirroring, checking user accounts. Automatic processes check that machines have space, are not too hot, and have functioning battery backups. Every 3 minutes, another checks that remote servers can be contacted. But hardware failures still occur, the network continues to develop and viruses are a potential problem, so a small number of technicians maintain the systems, which have to run 24 hours a day seven days a week in term  (and some have to perform in the holidays too).

The network in 2004 bears little resemblance to its ancestor of 1994, or 1984. We passed the Terabyte of network storage a year or two ago. The single server of 1993 has become around 30 servers today. Far more attention has to be paid to security these days, particularly since the school is permanently connected to the internet. Our virus checkers update every 20 minutes, we scan all email and web page fetches, and maintain four firewalls, to keep the orcs at bay. Work continues to provide a copy "dark" servery to be turned on if Domesday strikes the main centre - its that important.  At times, the internet connection itself resembles Helms Deep! The cable laid in the last few years is already running at 10 times its original speed. Five years ago, the system was a curiosity for most boys and staff - nowadays, many aspects of life on the site are managed from those kilometres of fibre optic and the services are core to the business of educating our boys. The quantity of data we store continues to grow exponentially. The advent of digital photography and multimedia has provided another way to increase storage needs!

Unfortunately, the quantity of paperwork does not seem to have diminished. We still print emails out on paper, the Common Room still has a vast array of postboxes for staff, and house notice boards are full of notices printed from PCs around the site. One wag once said that a paperless office was about as likely as a paperless toilet: The Digital Revolution has only just started in deepest Shropshire. In one way, little has changed on the site.

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