Presidency presents high-tech challenge

29 Jan 2004

Never mind all that top-line political stuff about the new European Constitution, the Irish Presidency of the EU has a clear sub-objective and that is to showcase Ireland as a tech-smart, modern economy. So much of our international reputation in the last decade has been based around our technology industries that it behoves us to offer world-class functionality to visiting politicians and officials, the media and the many other lobbyists and representative organisations that follow the policy forming and decision-making assemblies around Europe.

We most certainly also want to retain our status as the elder smaller state, a role model admired by the new entrants and aspirants for what we have achieved through membership of over 30 years.

Now that we are well into the Presidency term, it is clear that the systems are well designed and in place. The ceremonial opening may not have been its biggest challenge, but the stress tests start soon with big working sessions that are certain to acquire the controversy and all-night sessions characteristic of the EU working at this level. The ultimate challenge will, it is expected, come in May when the accession of the 10 new member states will ensure the maximum number of visiting bodies in Ireland for the occasion.

The lead communications partner in providing the information and communications technology (ICT) services is Eircom. This is predictable, perhaps, given that it hosts the Government virtual private network (VPN), which is the base infrastructure for all e-government projects. However, Eircom is also a technology sponsor, contributing its services of an undisclosed value during the six-month period.

Something of the scale of the ICT operations can be gathered from the rough statistics: more than 200 separate meetings currently scheduled for over 50 locations around the country, of which 40-plus are major events with large numbers of participants, support staff and media. Eircom has overall responsibility for all ICT systems installation and configuration, support and management for the duration of our Presidency.

Dell is one of the other major technology partners, supplying 250 OptiPlex desktop PCs and 200 printers for the major locations, principally the Media Centre located in what used to be the Werburgh Street employment office located conveniently behind Dublin Castle. Microsoft has contributed the software, including the latest multi-language version of Office 2003, while Getronics is responsible for the installation and integration. Photocopying, still the mainstay of all negotiation meetings, is being looked after by Oltech.

“We are providing high-speed internet connectivity — up to 10Mbps — at each location, accessible both through the PCs and workstations supplied and via Wi-Fi to all participants using their own laptops or other portable devices,” explains Dave Murray, Eircom programme director for the EU Presidency. There are dedicated office suites in the castle complex for the European Commission staff and the Irish Presidency team, the current member states and the May entrants (technically ‘observers’ until then) plus candidates Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.

“In the media centre, there are more than 200 workstations of which 50-plus have broadband internet access while the others are equipped with phones and dial-up modem or ISDN internet connections for those who do not use Wi-Fi. Broadcast media, for example, tend to use ISDN. In the Dublin Castle area there is in fact no technical limit to the number of users that can be simultaneously using the telecommunications infrastructure. We are providing for more than 1,000 at peak but Eircom can provide additional lines or Wi-Fi base stations at very short notice,” Murray explains.

Even the 10Mbps internet connectivity, more than most multinationals would have in any single location, can be extended in the unlikely event of overload on the system. Irish support staff, he points out, also have secure access to the Government VPN and through it back to their own offices or other resources. Other specialist requirements that have to be supported include audiovisual editing suites, videoconferencing, satellite links and so on while Eircom’s international partners will be looking to the Irish team to fulfil their customers’ requirements.

Since superior user service is clearly a major element of the ‘Showcase Ireland’ objective, Eircom has given high priority to the dedicated help desk for the Presidency facilities. Multilingual support for any queries or service issues promises speedy and complete resolution. Remote help desk services will also be available through and Eircom itself.

In some respects, Murray explains, the smart ICT front end to be enjoyed by all of the participants in the work and events of the Presidency conceals some engineering challenges behind the scenes. “Guaranteed service levels are the first essential, with a full ICT suite wherever and whenever required, which means network resilience regardless of the location. Flexibility is also essential because in the course of the six months all sorts of external events or developments could change the ICT requirements, such as the numbers of participants or the venues for meetings. So everything is scalable at all locations,” he says.

Eircom advance teams of engineers, including some of the company’s most experienced, will travel to the various regional locations. They will set up the additional telecommunications links (or activate pre-installed resources) that typically include temporary cable and radio links to the core Eircom network, Wi-Fi hotspots and the required number of phone and local area network connections. Each location will have a number of paths to the core network to allow seamless failover in the event of any problems, plus UPS and other electricity alternatives. Support and troubleshooting teams will also be present at all locations. Murray says Eircom is deploying sufficient personnel to handle three major events at different locations simultaneously in addition to smaller meetings.

So will we send all our visitors home impressed by Ireland’s state-of-the-art ICT resources, services and smiling support? Almost certainly yes, barring major and unforeseeable accidents, with everyone involved clearly pulling together to display us at our best. It would at this stage be begrudging to suggest that there are many elements of this project model for the six-month EU Presidency that might be usefully added to the ICT services to the regular domestic market.

By Leslie Faughnan

Pictured are Dr Phil Nolan, chief executive Eircom and Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen