Joined up and ready to roll

27 Feb 2003

With all the go-faster stripes that IT has been adding over the years, it has to be acknowledged that truly joined up computing is still not entirely with us.

In business applications the question of integration between systems is top of the agenda — establishing yet again that information and communications technology (ICT) is still a long way from the total solutions of our celluloid and literary visions.

But there has been light years of progress in a short time on two fronts: in physical networking, linking computers in local areas, multiple locations and ultimately worldwide; and in exchanging data easily between any computers almost anywhere in the world through the internet, the ultimate network of networks – so far.

From the point of view of any individual organisation, the questions for some time now are all about ‘what do we want to do?’ rather than what technical specifications or equipment to buy. It’s actually the same conventional (if often ignored) wisdom as with software: first decide on the applications you want, then choose the hardware to run them on.

The primary function of ICT today is connectedness, which then enables applications and actions. In fact, in many respects data processing power in business is only effective when it is collective. You have to hand it to Sun Microsystems for the prescience of its decade-old slogan ‘The network is the computer’. But nowadays that network does not need to be either physical or permanent.

There are really just three types of networking a business requires: local area (LAN), for a single workgroup or location; wide area (WAN) to connect multiple sites; and ad hoc to connect with customers and enquirers, partners and suppliers, service providers, state agencies, specialised services or whatever as the need arises.

Since the internet answers the last need so well – and has been the most significant business phenomenon of the last decade – it is not surprising that the technology and language of the internet has worked its way back along the systems. So all email now conforms to internet conventions, documents are in formats such as HTML (hypertext markup language), XML (extensible markup language) and above all the reigning networking protocol is IP (internet protocol).

The obvious step for some time has been to bring the oldest wired network of all – telephony – into the digital and IP fold so that a single converged electronic network will carry all of our needs.

Voice over IP (VOIP) is the solution, which has been a little tricky to implement. In network terms, if all the voice signals are now in a digital bitstream you have to give it real-time priority with no degradation or delay. That means either a dedicated channel for maximum (ie peak) voice traffic within your overall LAN bandwidth or a system to sample every packet of data and give it the appropriate priority.

The first loses some of the advantages of having everything on the one network in the first place while the other adds a high level of data traffic management complication. The fact that super-quality audio only takes a small fraction of typical LAN bandwidth is, unfortunately, beside the point.

But while no one is yet prepared to declare a full state of convergency, we are rapidly getting there. VOIP has overcome most of the quality of service problems over both LANs and WANs and all carriers now offer it with guaranteed quality of service over networking services nationally and internationally.

Many of those practical technical issues have been shifted up the chain from the user organisation’s network architecture to the telecoms provider level. The leading international carriers such as BT, WorldCom, AT&T, Cable & Wireless and so on have transformed their cable, fibre and copper into IP networks – arguably, the real initial convergence is between the internet backbone and the world’s traditional telecoms infrastructure.

A small segment of that, but one which exemplifies the implications, is the provision of public wireless internet access hotspots so that users of mobile devices, laptops or personal digital assistants can log on to their own networks via the internet. When you do that, the connection is actually a temporary VPN (virtual private network) between your office and you in airport lounges or hotel rooms or wherever VPNs are more becoming the standard answer to any organisation’s need for a WAN. “VPNs to link multiple locations are clearly the area of most interest to business at the moment,” says Peter Evans, product director of Esat BT, “whether for data only or, increasingly, for both voice and data. There is now a wider range of different technologies in the market to allow a solution to be tailored to the current and projected future needs of a business. The scale can go from a single point-to-point connection to a multi-branch organisation such as a retail chain or financial institution, on the island of Ireland or across continents.”

There can be some confusion about the role of the internet in VPNs: the virtual bit means that it is end-to-end digital and so the data stream can be managed in the same way as any computer network.

Over the carrier’s network that means that instead of a dedicated pipe, such as a leased line, what you have is a standing software instruction to prioritise this traffic 24×365 and route it whatever way is available. Actually, for economy or other reasons you might have a 10-hour/5-day/50-week VPN.

Neither do you care if your data goes through Termonfeckin or Tokyo so long as the performance is guaranteed to the level you need. Where the internet comes into the picture is as a cheaper option for part of the haul or as the universal access channel for occasional users such as e-working staff or customers and business partners accessing areas of relevance to them. Security? Yes, it’s an important consideration but it will be looked after by the service provider and is now well proven in practice and more than adequate for normal commercial purposes.

Race to be first with public hotspots

At the start of the month both Esat BT and O2 scrambled to be first with working ‘hotspots’, ie designated locations that provide the mobile business with a wireless LAN environment where they can access high-speed communications.

Esat BT’s first wireless local area network (WLAN) is based in Dun Laoghaire harbour and will be marketed under BT’s Openzone brand.

The hotspots allow consumers to use the internet without having to plug in their computer. Instead users will just need a laptop and WLAN access card. This card will allow the customer to access data at speeds of nearly 10 times faster than a standard modem and customers will be able to receive and send large volumes of data at broadband speed. Users will need to be within range of the service (in the case of Openzone, approximately 100 metres).

The BT Openzone 300 service costs €32 a month per user for 300 minutes. Additional minutes will be charged at 24c per minute. BT Openzone 900 will cost €64 a month for 900 minutes, with additional minutes charged at 15c a minute. BT Unlimited costs €136 per month for unlimited use.

Esat BT already has Openzone sites in the UK including scores of hotels and coffee shops.

Esat BT chief executive Bill Murphy said: “As well as supplying WLAN to Dun Laoghaire harbour we have extensive plans to spread the public network to hotels, airport terminals and train stations around the country.”

Customers can avail of the service in Dublin through a subscription account and/or via a pay-as-you-go scratch card.

Both companies are claiming that their service is the first public hotspot. O2 has revealed that its initial rollout of a WLAN infrastructure has cost the company €1.9m, of which €111,000 came from the Government. As well as this, O2 has revealed that it is in discussions with overseas telecommunications companies to establish roaming agreements for customers of the service.

O2’s WLAN service went live at 12 locations in Dublin, Limerick, Galway and Cork. Locations in Dublin include Heuston Station, The Burlington Hotel, The Westbury, Bewley’s Hotels at Newlands Cross and Ballsbridge, Jury’s Hotel, Towers Hotels, Shelbourne Hotel and The Hilton. Other sites include the Westwood Hotel in Galway, the South Court Hotel in Limerick and Maryborough House Hotel in Cork.

The service will be available in two different pricing models, by voucher or through contract. Laptop or personal digital assistant users wishing to get internet access at any time in one of the above locations can purchase a voucher at a designated point that can give them access in one hour or 24 hour formats.

Under the contract system, for O2 subscribers, a €10 monthly subscription would give the user approximately one hour of free access per month, with each session of 20 minutes thereafter costing €2 per session. For occasional contract users that haven’t registered as subscribers to the WLAN service, the charge is €3 per 20-minute session.

To coincide with the launch of its WLAN service, which follows a rigorous six-month trial period, O2 unveiled the Nokia D211 data card, which includes GPRS functionality and costs €329.

However, most WLAN access cards can be acquired for less than €100 and will work with the various WLANs created by O2 and its partners. As well as this, Apple iBook users can enjoy instant WLAN access as most iBooks come with built-in AirPort technology for WLANs.

O2 confirmed that the Irish market is being used as a test bed for its rollout of WLAN in the UK and elsewhere in the world and has partnered with Wavelink Solutions Group to promote WLAN usage in various venues throughout the country.

By Leslie Faughnan