Behind the scenes: Paul Hart and the development of IT at the LMB
Paul Hart, the LMB’s IT Manager, is one of the LMB’s longest serving staff members. He joined the LMB as a junior instrument service engineer in 1982 (long before the establishment of an IT department), having previously worked in the engineering department of a golf equipment manufacturer. As technology has evolved, so has Paul’s job at the LMB; from the Instrument Service Department, to Electronics, to Information Technology.
Here, Paul recalls his time at the LMB and the development of IT here, how he was responsible for designing the IT system in the current building, and the challenges of IT support during a pandemic.
Joining the LMB
I’ve always been interested in engineering and fixing stuff. I love taking things apart, solving the problem, putting it back together, and making it work. When I joined the LMB’s Instrument Service department, one of my interviews was with Aaron Klug, who was then Joint Head of the Structural Studies Division, who asked me, ‘How does an engine work?’ I replied, ‘What do you want, two stroke, four stroke or diesel?’ He asked for all three, so I told him and got the job. I then learned to repair most of the scientific equipment used in the LMB.
In the early 80s, after Instrument Services became part of the Electronics Department, one of my first major jobs was to install this new thing we had called a ‘network’ around the building. The network was a single piece of cable and, as the youngest person in the team, I was left to crawl through the ceilings with this bit of cable between my teeth! I didn’t know what impact this piece of wire would have on my career at the time.
Getting hooked on computers
One day, in 1986, a box turned up with a funny looking computer in it, with a tiny screen and small letters on the front which said ‘Macintosh’. No one knew how to use it. So, I took it out of the box, read the manual and figured out how to make it work. It was fantastic – it had this new thing called a mouse and when you moved it, the little pointer on the screen moved too. Another one soon turned up, and also the first consumer laser printer – all made by Apple. It had A4 paper and could do graphics, and different fonts, and was a revelation compared to the poor images we were used to with dot matrix printers.
That was my introduction to computers. I instantly loved them. Around the same time, I bought myself a second-hand Commodore VIC20 computer, and taught myself the BASIC coding language. I was one of these people that sat in his bedroom all night writing code and playing with computer stuff.
By 1990 we were up to about 100 machines, and I had become the local Mac expert. Apple had just started their self-service programme, so I went on a two-week course so that I could start fixing Macs in-house, rather than sending them out to a dealer. Eventually all my computers, parts and boxes, overtook the space in the Electronics Department, so I got my own little office and, later on, got another person – Marc North – to help with the computers.
Things got busier and busier and we got two more staff. LMB had one of the first Ethernet networks which, unknown to me at the time, I’d put in years earlier. Initially it only ran at ten megabits a second, and was done with something called ‘thick wire’, which was a piece of wire thicker than my thumb that ran all around the building. To put a computer in, you had to drill a hole in it and screw in something called a bee-sting. If you messed it up you had to go a metre down the line, because outputs had to be spaced apart. It was a bit inconvenient, so we moved on to something called ‘thin wire’. This was easier but still a continuous loop, so when you unplugged it in order to add someone else in, you disconnected every single person on the network. To solve this, we moved to structured wiring, whereby every computer had an individual wire. We rewired the entire building with that.
Eventually I got a Mac IIfx computer – which I would have to say is the machine I feel the most nostalgia for. I still remember the specs; it had a 160 megabyte hard drive, an eight-bit graphics card so it could do 256 colours, and a 13 inch monitor which seemed massive compared to the old 9 inch ones. It cost more than a small family car at the time. After the web first started, I used this computer to build the LMB’s first website. I took a copy of the lab brochure, scanned all the pictures, and then literally typed the whole book back into the computer. I thought it was fantastic. I went to show the Director, and he said, ‘We don’t want all our research on the web – take it off immediately!’ A few years later, the next Director came to me and said, ‘It’d be really good to get this research on the internet.’ That was my first foray into building web servers.
We were getting more and more computers in at work, and they didn’t have passwords on them at that time. So, I wrote a password protection programme – it was a very simple programme, but it did the job and no one else had written one. I published it on the internet, so in the end loads of people used it. In fact, I once got an email from the Marshall Space Flight Centre at NASA asking to use my password software! I also learnt Perl programming language and used that to make a searchable database for our Stores department. It even had a little animated shutter that went up when you entered the page that said ‘Welcome to Stores.’ I made that in Mac Draw Pro, one frame at a time, moving a window up a fraction of a second. That was cool, but it took me hours. I would later use those Perl skills to write the software that controls the current LMB network.
The biggest challenge
Several year later the new building project came my way. I’d worked on a couple of new building projects, but never as a lead. I was asked to be the consultant for the IT design for this building. It was a massive project. We were moving from something like 2000 sockets in the old building, to 12,000 in the new one, 6500 of which are active sockets which are live all the time. There were 1500 IP phones we had to put on the correct desks. It was a challenge – almost certainly my biggest challenge – but I’m always up for a challenge. I had to design a VLAN (virtual local area network) system, which the LMB had never had before. That’s a software defined network, where you have multiple networks going up the same bit of wire and when you plug a device in, the MAC address of the device tells the switch which VLAN to put it on, automatically. So, your computers, telephones, audio visual systems, and anything else, can all access the right network through the same piece of cable, without repatching it.
To get that to work, I had to write a huge database and map every computer, phone and network device, in the old building to a seat in the new building. It took me about six months to design the VLAN scheme, write the code and put each computer in the right location. The code to make this work was all written in Perl using knowledge I’d learned years before from the stores search.
The move team brought the computers over from the old building, connected them in the new building and, like magic, it just worked! We told everyone it could be up to three days to get your computer up and working, but, in the end, it was almost instant. I think we had nearly every single person, bar a couple, connected within an hour of moving. They couldn’t believe it – and to be honest, I couldn’t believe it either!
Another problem I had to solve was that the new building was using the same IP address range as the old building, and we had machines moving over, like the mail server, that people in both buildings still needed to access. I spent months figuring out how to fix this, but we came up with a design where we ran a piece of network between the buildings using fibre optic cable and put a firewall at either end. We built another network IP range in between them and used network address translation (NAT) and DNS changes to allows the servers to be seen by users in both buildings at the same time on the same IP address, regardless of where it was actually located.
The whole IT project was massively stressful, because it had to work, and it was all my design. At an early meeting where we had to discuss what could go wrong with the project, everyone was focusing on potential issues with network. I wrote on the board, ‘Paul is dead’. When asked why, I said, ‘That’s the only thing that’s going stop this project working.
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic
Sorting out a process for everybody to work from home during lockdown was another big challenge to deal with. We had several issues with it, as ordinarily we don’t let people work from home for security reasons. We didn’t want every computer in everyone’s home connecting to the LMB because it would be a nightmare to protect from computer viruses. I’d had a discussion with the Director and Chief Operating Officer on Friday 13th March about the possibility of Boris [Johnson] locking down. Over the weekend I came up with a plan which allowed three levels of virtual access.
Level One was a web proxy access which we already had ready. Level Two was allowing your home computer to remote control your work computer – but only allow the remote control protocols for the network, so your home machine could never infect your work machine. Level Three was taking your work machine home and giving that computer full access to the network, as if it was in the building. So, over the weekend, I built a FileMaker database to check the Mac addresses of all our computers against their inventory numbers and IP addresses to make sure non-LMB computers weren’t given wider access to the LMB network. I used the same database to generate a Level Two and Level Three password for every single person, regardless if they were going home or not. All of that was uploaded to the firewall that runs the VPN. This meant we had everything ready to go.
On Monday morning, I said to the team, “Right, lock the door, put a sign up that we’re closed. Today I want you to write a guide to connect your home machine – be it Mac or Windows – to your work machine – be it Mac or Windows – for both Level Two and Level Three access.” We had all that done by Tuesday – less than four days since we started. The guys worked really hard. We had loads of people ringing us up, and we were helping people out solidly for several days after that. But the majority of people went home and found that everything just worked. Within a week, we had pretty much everyone who needed to working from home. The Government locked us down on the 23rd of March 2020. That was a challenge, but that’s what we do.
Taking a break from computers
There’s lots of other things to get involved in at the LMB: lots of events and gatherings. I help with the barbecue in the summer every year. I’m not a bad barbecuer – no one’s died so far! And, since the year I joined, I’ve been involved in every Christmas party in some way or another. I must have manned the door for 20 years plus, and I’ve been involved in the house band. They wanted someone who could do electronic sound mixing. I hadn’t done that before, but the lead guitarist showed me how, so I’ve done that for a few years.
Away from work, I have four major hobbies; I’m a scuba diving Instructor, I like shooting, I fly model aeroplanes, helicopters and, more recently drones, and I like making things out of metal. Over the years I have basically tried to build the LMB’s Mechanical Workshop in my garage. Actually, my lockdown project was to turn my standard milling machine into a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling machine. When Robot Wars was on the TV I formed a team from the LMB with the Head of Electronics and the Head of the Mechanical Workshop, and we built two robots for that show. Since then I’ve also been building a 1/8 scale Tiger Tank from scratch – it’s taking a lot longer than I thought. You can see it in the picture, above, of my bench in the new building (left hand side, top shelf)
That’s why working at the LMB has been pretty fantastic for me. I like fixing stuff, and I like computers, and that’s the job I’ve got. I have been allowed to fix things, design stuff, and play with computers – pretty much all the things that I wanted to do – for almost 40 years, and get paid for it. You can’t really complain about that!
Paul was interviewed for the 2021 LMB Alumni Newsletter on the 24th of November