Networks never so easy

28 Apr 2005

Businesses can now avail of mature, stable technologies with value-added potential when they set about building their communication networks. That was the key message at last week’s technology management briefing, How to Optimise Your Communication Networks, organised by Silicon Republic and Trigraph Professional Services.

Put simply, the fog is starting to lift around a confusing array of converging technologies. Organisations will find it easier to harness a new generation of protocols and standards that will deliver a return on investment and increase competitive edge. At the half-day briefing, a customer, consultant and carrier were all singing from the same song sheet making a case that was hard to resist.

The acronyms that have enabled this quiet revolution are IP (internal protocol), a communications standard that enables packets of data and voice to be carried on a single path, and MPLS (multi-protocol label switching), a switching standard that routes the packets while offering improved quality-of-service analysis.

First speaker, Donal O Seaghdha, principal consultant at Network Insights, described IP as an “evolutionary peak”. In the bad old days there were extremely resilient local area networks but it was difficult and expensive for organisations to extend their reach across wide areas. IP and MPLS have changed everything. Another key component is a new generation of router, the network device that provides the gateways, enabling organisations to distribute their architecture and applications throughout their infrastructure.

David Yeates, senior manager in charge of IT at EBS, explained how the Irish building society had done exactly this, distributing a common set of applications to the regions using a managed service IP network supplied by Eircom. The challenge of building a wide area network across 22 branch offices, 31 regional agents and a further 53 affiliated offices was testament to how MPLS and IP can make the seemingly insurmountable both affordable and relatively easy to deploy.

The complexity is in the ‘clouds’, the points where the organisation connects with the carrier, but the whole appeal of the managed service, according to Yeates, is that this is not the customer’s problem.

O Seaghdha reiterated this theme, stressing that technology was less important than the business benefits. “There are now so many flavours of bandwidth and technology but the good news is that you need not be as concerned about the down and dirty details,” he said. It’s about thinking in upside down pyramids, according to O Seaghdha, where the pointy bit at the bottom is the network technology. Layered upon it are more core business concerns such as security, application hosting and the main business drivers. It’s the business drivers, said O Seaghdha, that will determine which carrier you go to.

He also argued the time was right for organisations to seek out a single supplier, a one-stop shop for their communication needs. He said the differentiation between vendors had evaporated and the obvious step was to have one point of contact rather than a chain of providers.

Eircom’s product, Business IP Partner, won the EBS tender process because it met requirements without overcooking the technology or over-extending the outsource agreement. The solution is flexible enough to deliver a wide range of access technologies to its MPLS network, from DSL in the regions to Metro Ethernet between the main offices and the disaster recover centre in Dublin. As a managed service it alleviates the need for elaborate in-house training while adding value with other services. But the decision to hand over network responsibility was not taken easily by Yeates and his team. “The biggest issue was loss of control,” he said. “We did not want to be a prisoner of outsourcing organisations.”

O Seaghdha offered an insight into how third-party service provision was evolving to the customer’s advantage. “Outsourcing services in the past had been about low-level functions,” he explained, “but now it’s about high-value tasks such as the analysis of firewalls, the high-value trawling of data by a provider as opposed to organisations having to use their own manpower to track everything.” This allows the customer to put the onus on the carrier to deliver more value — “service level agreements with teeth,” as O Seaghdha put it.

Ed Manning of Eircom Consult described how the relationship between the vendor and customer had changed dramatically. “We’re matching technology to the customer needs rather than throwing boxes at them,” he said. “IP is easier to manage and understand and from a resource perspective it will justify the business case.”

He also talked about new ways of working, scenarios where videoconferencing is instantly accessible on the desktop rather than in another room in another part of the building. Manning did warn, however, that organisations need to think through the consequences of converged services that IP delivers. “It places challenges on organisations as their respective IT and communications departments struggle for power. The management of this isn’t always great,” he said.

“The communications function often gets taken over by the data people. Telephony skills are important. You have to pull them together in one group.”

Pictured at the event were (from left): Eircom’s Ed Manning, ESB’s David Yeates and consultant Donal O Seaghdha

By Ian Campbell