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Leadership / Digital Transformation

From Anthrax to Hackers: This Porton Down Business Wants a Major IT Overhaul

Few places loom as large in the country’s imagination as Britain’s Porton Down,  the oldest chemical warfare research installation in the world.

Now a company based at the site — and responsible for making Anthrax vaccines for the British army — says it is looking for professional help with an “extensive programme of work to create a new ICT core infrastructure” as it seeks to separate itself from the Public Health England systems it has relied on since 2015.

While no hazmat suits will be required, contractors will be working in a highly regulated environment and cybersecurity is a priority, Porton Biopharma said in a public information notice posted to a contracts board.  The company did not specify a budget for the “fixed price” 24-month pilot contract.

porton downDespite being based at the government site, Porton Biopharma is a private company.

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It employs approximately 350 people at Porton Down, and is sole manufacturer of the UK’s vaccine against Anthrax — one of the world’s most virulent biological weapons.

It also provides services to develop a “broad range of microbial products” for commercial clients and makes a Leukemia medicine, Erwinase.

The company is investing heavily in new IT infrastructure and wants a “completely independent ICT operation”; a task it describes as strategically important.

(Porton Biopharma was spun off from the Health Protection Agency; an entity dissolved in 2013, with its functions transferred to Public Health England. It was registered as a private company in 2015 but has continued to rely on PHE’s systems.)

What’s Needed? 

After agreeing a five-year technical strategy in 2019, Porton Biopharma wants to set up a new primary hosting and network solutions, along with cybersecurity controls and use-cases in what will be initially a six-month pilot project. ICT services organisations have until January 24 to express an interest.

The system specifications are already clear. They include:

  • An HCI-based hosting platform – currently specified as Dell-EMC VxRail stretch-cluster,
  • A physical network underlay (limited scope),
  • A perimeter firewall (to be specified by the company),
  • Software-Defined Networking overlay technology (circa 30 endpoints) – currently specified as Cisco’s SDA solution,
  • Horizon VDI for application and desktop virtualisation (2-3 pilot application environments).
  • MS Windows domain(s) dedicated to the company – including all domain-related services and inter-domain trust for testing purposes,
  • A “coherent IDAM/RBAC ecosystem.”

Contractors with their foot in the door will no doubt, if performing well, have good opportunities to tender for the “broader enterprise ICT core infrastructure that will be built-out in subsequent programme phases.”

Porton Biopharma is seeking to expand its commercial scope under the leadership of new commercial director Dr Soren Demin; who previously worked on technical due diligence for a range of tier 1 investment banks and hedge funds seeking to invest in biotechnology. Demin joined Porton Biopharma in 2019.

Porton Down, meanwhile, was most recently in the news for its work identifying the “military grade novichok nerve agent” used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in nearby Salisbury in 2018. After that attack several Russian GRU officers were detained by Dutch police after trying to hack the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) headquarters in The Hague. The organisation was investigating the Salisbury poisoning.

Banner image: Neutrophil engulfing anthrax bacteria. Credit: Volker Brinkmann, in PLoS Pathogens Vol. 1(3) November 2005. Creative Commons. 

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