Providing critical infrastructure for Ireland’s education sector

10 July 2023

HEAnet, the national education and research network for Ireland’s education sector, serves more than one million users across the country. Its remote network infrastructure is crucial to connecting students, researchers, and staff to essential resources. The state-of-the-art network consists of several resilient layers that provide national coverage and connect their users to the rest of the world. For users across Ireland, it’s crucial that HEAnet maintains comprehensive control of their critical remote infrastructure to prevent downtime.

With its existing out-of-band (OOB) solution reaching its end-of-life, HEAnet needed a replacement that could roll out to more than 50 remote sites. These point-of-presence (PoP) locations provided critical interconnectivity between sites; however, some of these PoPs were placed in extremely remote locations that were difficult to reach. On top of this challenge, HEAnet employed a limited number of technical resources, most of which were needed to uphold the organisation’s four-hour service-level agreement (SLA).

HEAnet opted to outsource the job to an experienced managed services provider (MSP), aiming to maximise uptime and minimise time to resolution, which meant they required a solution that could: replace their existing OOB solution; provide centralised management and in-depth control; reduce infrastructure complexity; and provide resilience through LTE failover and high availability.

A truly open operating system

To lead the implementation, HEAnet chose Rahi Systems as its MSP.

Rahi deployed ZPE Systems’ Nodegrid services router (SR) family of devices. One of the biggest reasons for choosing Nodegrid was that it provided a complete total cost of ownership (TCO) to HEAnet. Because of Nodegrid’s hardware modularity and truly open, Linux-based Nodegrid OS, the TCO was clear from the start. This included hardware (with LTE cellular module), software, support, and warranty.

At its two large sites, HEAnet deployed the Nodegrid Net SR (NSR) complete with LTE cellular module for backup connectivity. With one NSR, it was able to replace both a console server and central access server at each location, while gaining cellular failover and additional switching capabilities. At the 50+ remote locations, it deployed the Nodegrid Gate SR (GSR) also with onboard LTE capabilities. This replaced a console server at each site while introducing additional serial connectivity. Running on all Nodegrid devices is a multi-core, x86 Intel CPU and the powerful Nodegrid OS. These allow for fast data speeds and responsive out-of-band management of all connected devices, which would prove critical to managing HEAnet’s optical, MPLS, and IP infrastructure.

Rapid deployment with added resilience

The Nodegrid solution proved much faster to deploy than offerings from competing vendors. Whereas other solutions required a full day’s worth of effort to bring sites online, Nodegrid could be set up in only a fraction of that time. Because Nodegrid supports true zero touch provisioning, it can automatically build entire environments in as little as 30 minutes. This allowed a single engineer to fully deploy and install two sites per day — including removing old kit, installing new kit, racking, stacking, and other proper installation protocols.

The NSR and GSR also come with plenty of serial interfaces, which allowed teams to connect critical routers, firewalls, fibre equipment, webcams, and rack PDUs to the consolidated solution. Both large sites ran parallel to each other to provide high availability and provided centralised console access to all 50+ distributed remote locations. HEAnet was also able to deploy an extra-stable VPN tunnel that dynamically follows available connections, for added resilience to downtime.

Nodegrid replaced HEAnet’s existing OOB solution to give support teams centralised, in-depth management capabilities of all critical remote infrastructure. Nodegrid also reduced the hardware footprint to simplify deployment and operations, while providing a robust platform for serial connectivity, cellular failover, making sure the sites were never offline, and redundancy.

Because Nodegrid eliminated complexity by consolidating the hardware footprint and centralising OOB access, uptime became extremely resilient while resolution times were minimised. With only a single Nodegrid device at each location, teams could connect and gain access to a plethora of critical infrastructure, including routers, firewalls, fibre equipment, and PDUs. This drastically expanded the control of their OOB network, and Nodegrid’s built-in LTE meant they didn’t have to add additional devices and complexity to gain cellular backup.

More reliability was baked into the solution in the form of an extra-stable VPN tunnel. This dynamically changed to follow current available internet connections, keeping sites online regardless of provider interruptions and outages. With devices directly connected to the internet, HEAnet did not have to compromise on security. The vendor neutral Nodegrid OS enabled the deployment of its choice of solutions to keep infrastructure protected and includes a powerful virtualisation layer to accommodate changing future needs.