Helping make the most of an IP network

31 Jul 2003

Founded in 1951, the National College of Ireland (NCI) — then known as the National College for Industrial Relations — has a history of academic excellence. In 2002, the college moved from its original location in Ranelagh in Dublin’s southern suburbs to a purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility in Dublin’s docklands, close to the International Financial Services Centre.

At the same time, the college awarded Esat BT the contract to supply and manage its telecoms infrastructure. As a result, the company has installed a converged data and voice solution based on Cisco IP (internet protocol) infrastructure, supporting 120 IP phones. In addition to being one of the country’s most sophisticated IP telephony networks it is also one of the largest. The company also provides NCI’s external connectivity.

This is very important as the college has over 30 off-campus centres located around the country. To provide distance learning Esat BT became involved very early on and the company was chosen not just for its technical ability but also for its philosophy, according to college president Joyce O’Connor. “Esat BT’s involvement started at the planning stage when we were looking at moving the college to the docklands,” she says. “The philosophy of the college is that everyone has the potential to be a leader of tomorrow. We enable our students to see how leadership can be achieved. What we learnt was that Esat BT was also interested in leadership.”

Ronnie Hamilton of the college’s IT department is quite pleased with the new system. “Voice and data are on a single network,” he explains. “We have a backend network with a core of switches where all the configuration is done. We then have a number of smaller communications rooms around the facility that have other switches linked to the main room. There are then several servers that are run through a call manager. That’s a big database that manages all the voice traffic and passes it through routers connected to exchanges and such.

“Because we use voice over internet protocol we only have to run one cable from the communications room to the desktop. That cuts down on initial cabling costs. The phone plugs into the wall socket and the PC plugs into the phone,” he explains.

There are two connections to the outside world. The first, for voice, goes through the main exchange. Data, on the other hand, goes through a 19Mbps (megabits per second) connection to the college’s service provider, HEAnet.

The bandwidth comes in handy for several reasons. For a start, the college streams course content over the web to the various remote centres. Users point their browsers to a specific URL and are able to view the real-time content. In addition, the college has a dedicated videoconferencing unit for use over the IP network. “We have just used this to interview someone in the US instead of bringing them all the way here,” says O’Connor.

For use within the college, there is a Citrix server running Nfuse to allow secure connections from a PC. Students can log on and get access to any application running on the server such as a word processor or spreadsheet. And because the network is divided into virtual LANs, the network is relatively easy to secure. “It is only possible to log onto Citrix from a classroom,” explains Hamilton.

Overall, the college is happy with the work done by the vendor, and not just for technical reasons. “I think there is a kind of empathy between us and Esat BT,” says O’Connor. “We have a good working relationship that isn’t just based on technology. It’s a marriage of mission and strategy.”

By David Stewart