Communication channels no longer a concern


1 Oct 2003

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Ask someone to name an Irish non-governmental organisation working in the developing world and the chances are they will say Concern. Founded in 1968 in response to the Biafra crisis in Africa, the organisation has built up an enviable reputation at home and abroad. More than 2,000 people work for Concern in over 30 countries and it has operatives in Iraq and Liberia, presently two of the most troubled countries in the world.

In addition, there are a number of fund-raising offices in the UK and the US, and the organisation employs about 120 people at its Dublin headquarters that are split between Camden Street in the city centre and Rathmines. Keeping everyone in touch is not an easy task but Concern’s IT manager Sylvester Murphy (pictured) and his technical support officer Martin Shiels keep the communication channels open.

“Our job is to put in place an infrastructure to make the work of Concern’s people more efficient and more effective,” says Murphy. “We have a heavy dependence on communication flow between the field and here. The information provided from the field is used for funding campaigns and in schools and so on, and IT supports the transfer of that information.”

The plan is to offer a variety of service levels to all Concern workers no matter where they are. At the moment email is available universally. Each worker has an email address of the form firstname.lastname@concern.net and can access email over Concern’s virtual private network.

Additional services such as database access will be rolled out at a later stage. This will allow workers to access templates for project proposals, for instance.

Murphy and Shiels are already able to use the network to offer worldwide technical support from the Camden Street offices. “Last week, I set up a printer in Kinshasa, restored files in Kabul and ran a backup in New York, all from my desk,” says Shiels. But, are the internet links to those parts of the world reliable? “There are reliability issues,” concedes Shiels, “but they are manageable. For instance, our operation in Afghanistan runs off a generator. Now, obviously they can’t run the generator 24 hours a day but we know when they will be up and when they will be down, and we can time our communication accordingly.”

Communication methods also vary depending on location. “In a conflict zone, the infrastructure may have been destroyed,” says Murphy. “However, in other areas, it may have leap-frogged to a quite advanced level. While broadband may not be available everywhere, dial-up service generally is. For more remote locations, however, CODAN or packet-switched radio is used.

“Connection speeds over the entire network can vary from 2400bps to as high as you like,” says Shiels.

To manage such a diverse network, Concern turned to a supplier called Allied Telesyn for its communications hardware. The organisation is a long-term customer. “We chose Allied Telesyn because it does exactly what it says on the tin,” jokes Shiels. “We have specific needs for specific services. You look at the spectrum of what’s available and you choose what fits. Also their pre-sales service is excellent.” Allied Telesyn switches and hubs are used in Concern operations throughout the world wherever possible.

In a recent upgrade to the Dublin backbone, Murphy and Shiels identified the 8350GB switch as the most appropriate for their needs and Allied Telesyn provided three units on approval. “This switch is an essential element of our infrastructure. Without it we would not be able to provide the services we do,” says Murphy.

The installation was handled by Paul Pendlebury of Prospect Network Systems that works with Allied Telesyn in Ireland. “Concern had pre-picked the 8350GB because it wanted gigabit connectivity with both fibre and copper options,” explains Pendlebury. One of the outstanding features that Allied Telesyn offers, he says, is quality of service (QoS). “QoS is very important to Concern as it runs soft phones between its two Dublin sites. It has its main PABX [private automatic branch exchange] in Camden Street but the console that runs that is in Rathmines.”

The two sites are connected by the Bord Gáis dark fibre ring. “This means it has 1GB full duplex connectivity to run a voice over IP [internet protocol] link as well as data and applications at an affordable rate,” says Pendlebury.

According to Shiels, the new switches improved the network service from the moment they were switched on. “We migrated from 10 baseT [10Mbps] networking to 100 baseT [100Mbps] and we had been using hubs as opposed to switches in the past so our people here noticed an immediate increase in network speed,” says Shiels.

For Concern workers across the globe, however, the hardware is not an issue, but rather what they can do with it to make a better life for the people of the developing world.

By David Stewart