Aston Martin: Using new technologies with circumspection

Network architect at Aston Martin for five years, Darryl Alder explained to us how the British sports car manufacturer has consolidated its network infrastructures across the company’s various sites.

“We managed the network like any other network, but it was a fairly manual process using a CLI; a very traditional approach with a mix of suppliers,” Darryl Alder, Network Architect at Aston Martin, told us during a tour of the Gaydon factory as part of a press program organized by Juniper Networks last July. With the help of the equipment manufacturer, which is also a sponsor of the Aston Martin Formula 1 team, the network manager therefore rationalized all of the communication and security infrastructures. “So instead of having different vendors for switches, firewalls, wireless access points, we consolidated all of that after a transition period.” Aston Martin previously used Cisco equipment with Aironet access points.

It should be noted that Aston Martin’s activity is spread over 10 manufacturing, engineering and sales sites… in the United Kingdom and on the continent. The DB11 V12 engines are, for example, assembled in the Cologne plant, the coupés in Gaydon, near Birmingham, and the DBX SUVs in St Athan, near Cardiff. “We now have Juniper equipment at all of these sites.” Asked about the size of the network infrastructures, Darryl Alder replied that the company uses 500 switches in total, and probably 10,000 access ports. “We have just ordered and installed a number of these ports. There are about 200 hotspots now.” So for WiFi, some production sites are very well equipped, but concessions are also equipped with a switch and wireless terminals. “There is no difference in terms of size, the network adapts well. What we are looking for is scalability”. But installations can also be reduced in size depending on the different projects. “Scalability works both ways.” However, this does not include the Formula 1 part. “They are a kind of separate entity from us. They also work with Juniper equipment, but we are just separated,” Darryl Alder told us. Juniper is also valuable for network automation and management. “With Juniper’s Mist platform, there’s a lot of automation that leverages AI resources. For example, there’s a lot of artificial intelligence helping us manage network ports, because we have the switches on the same platform as the antivirus. So the two pieces of information are correlated. And it helps us to automate and provide troubleshooting if needed.”

MPLS links with SD-WAN overlay

For links between the group’s various sites, Aston Martin uses an MPLS backbone. “However, this is changing slightly, so that each site will have some sort of dedicated internet access. But yes, for all intents and purposes, all the sites are connected to each other”, assures the network architect. The use of SD-WAN is also included, but not to replace MPLS links. “We take an MPLS and an Internet connection and consolidate the two links. We use SD-WAN as a kind of management overlay […] Why don’t we get rid of MPLS? It works well for us. We still have a lot of in-house systems, you know, compute farms and stuff that works well on MPLS. Even though it’s older technology, it works.”

Aston Marin headquarters in Gaydon, but no photos of the factory. Photographs were prohibited during the visit to the production lines. (Credit SL)

For the data center part, the automaker has a main center in Gaydon, but all the sites integrate IT resources and share data. “For example in Silverstone, sometimes you will have technicians, who will talk to other technicians in Wellsboro, using Zoom. Using cameras, they watch the cars and carry out their repairs remotely”. By Darryl Alder’s own admission, Gaydon’s data center isn’t exactly impressive. “It’s a room with server cabinets to house our internal platform, our own applications and things that are really not suitable for cloud resources. If owning a data center is a thing of the past, when you need high-performance, data-heavy computing — for aero simulation, for example — those workloads don’t really go to the cloud, because that’s enough dear. If we had our own private cloud here, it would be easier to use these resources. Like many companies, Aston Martin has always had data centers, long before the advent of the cloud. “A lot of our systems have been moved to the cloud, but we will still have a data center for internal applications, like high-performance computing, which is not really cloud-ready.”

VDI and VPN during containment

“We can also use solutions like VDI and start to retire laptops and desktop machines and replace them with simpler models, because we have the possibility of doing that in other ways, in particular on the cloud, but it is very expensive, and we have to be very careful with the amount of data we have on-premises and in the cloud. The cloud can be very useful for some things, but I don’t think it’s the answer to everything.” During the pandemic, Aston Martin employees came to work on the site for the production part, while others stayed to work at home in VDI mode with a VPN link to Gaydon. We had the ability to do that. It was simply a matter of deploying a VPN client on the laptops. However, there is very little you can do from home. You cannot build a car”.

Asked about upcoming network developments at Aston Martin, Darryl Alder told us that the next step will be to continue with Mist by moving towards full management by integrating wireless, because for the moment we only use monitoring for wired. “We would like to move on to more management. So full management through Mist, and continue wireless deployment. And probably go with our own SD-WAN rather than a service provider, potentially consolidating that too. It’s kind of a five-year plan, but things can still change. »

Technology but without excess

After visiting the Gaydon factory, what is striking is the lack of automation in the factory, which has remained very artisanal with very few robots. Aston Martin produces few cars: 6,000 a year, half of them in Gaydon (coupes and convertibles) – and the other half in St Athan (SUVs). Questioned on this point, the network architect explains: “There are a lot of technologies in the factory, but it is not necessary to inflate it. Everything happens behind the scenes. It’s like the network. We try to keep it simple, we don’t try to complicate it. “. While there are few robots in Gaydon, the factory is quite small, that of St Athan is a little larger, according to Darryl Alder. “There are more robots, but only in areas where it makes more sense to have those kinds of robots and that kind of automation. The technology is there, it’s just a bit hidden, but it’s probably not as automated as you might think. That’s why you think there’s not a lot of technology.

Before arriving at the manufacturing workshops, pass by the mini museum of Aston Martin with some emblematic models. (Credit SL)

The IT team comprises around 60 people out of a total of 3,000. This includes the infrastructure, the operations service desk and application support. In addition, business analysts, project managers, including security personnel. Asked about the shortage of IT staff, Darryl Alder admits that the proximity to Birmingham works in the company’s favor and that the main concern is “to find the right type of person who is not isolated in a bubble, who is able to expand its scope beyond just networking, and bring an understanding of cloud, server infrastructure, or perhaps applications.”

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