Software developer game for VPN option

21 Jul 2003

What do you do if your business has offices in Ireland and the US and you want to network them without shelling out on a dedicated leased line? This was the dilemma facing Havok, a Dublin-based software firm that’s fast making a name for itself in the computer games industry.

Founded by Trinity College Dublin computer science graduates Hugh Reynolds and Steven Collins in 1998, the company now employs 45 people between its main offices in Dublin and San Francisco and outposts in Amsterdam, New York, London and Munich.

The stuff Havok does is as high end as it gets. Its mathematical algorithms are behind the stunning special effects that help drive the sales of computer games. Unsurprisingly, Havok generates huge data files, sometimes thousands of times bigger than an average text email message due to their high graphical content. Not only that, it regularly has to ping these files between its engineering headquarters in Dublin and the various other sites.

A few years ago the obvious way to network these sites would have been via leased line, a permanent dedicated connection between two points set up by a telephone company. However, in recent years a new technology has come to the fore – the virtual private network (VPN). With a VPN, the internet is the vehicle for carrying the data and so it is cheaper than a leased line. To ensure that data remains confidential while it travels over the public internet, it is encrypted at one end and then decrypted when it arrives at its destination.

It was primarily on cost grounds that Havok chose to install a VPN 18 months ago, says IT manager Micheal Lunny. “The company isn’t really large enough to support a dedicated leased line to any of our offices. Although their price is coming down, leased lines are still expensive. The last place I worked in with a dedicated leased line to the States was Iona Technologies and I think we were paying in the region of £5,000 or more a month for the pleasure of a dedicated leased line, which was a very considerable overhead.”

Havok does have a leased line; it’s not an expensive site-to-site connection but simply a fat data pipe – a 2Mbps connection – to the internet, which Lunny describes as “very satisfactory”. Using VPN technology, the company can then connect with its various offices over the internet.

The VPN used by Havok is a product called Firebox 700, a firewall-cum-VPN from US security firm Watchguard, which is distributed in Ireland by Leopardstown-based Systemhouse Technology.

What appealed about this product was that, as well as being considerably cheaper than some better-known VPNs on the market, it was easy to configure and was specifically aimed at small to medium-sized enterprises of Havok’s size.

Lunny points out that where VPNs are concerned it’s horses for courses: there may be other more expensive and sophisticated systems out there but you should choose one that suits your company. That won’t necessarily be the one with all the bells and whistles. He adds that, with the more basic systems, IT staff with a reasonably good grasp of network security systems should be able to install and configure them, making it unnecessary to call out expensive consultants to do the job – another advantage of simpler systems over sophisticated ones.

While speed and reliability of internet connection are obviously important, the overriding priority for Havok was that data would be secure as it moved between sites. “Top of our list of priorities would be that it provides security in a manageable way,” Lunny explains. “There are lots of different solutions you can use but the Firebox has a very user-friendly interface that’s very easy to manage remotely. This is important for companies that want good security but don’t have a lot of time to devote to managing it.”

Although the Firebox 700 uses what is known as 3DES encryption, the industry standard highest-level security, Lunny is far from complacent about security. “It doesn’t mean we have an impenetrable network because a lot of what firewalls are about is management: looking at the data you do let through, ensuring you’ve not left any back doors open and so on. Security is a state of mind as well as some pieces of equipment,” he says.

Having previously worked with Iona Technologies and Enba, the now defunct internet bank, both companies which placed heavy emphasis on network security, Lunny is well practised in the art of computer security but believes the average Irish small business are not. “I don’t think they would have enough experience of security to secure their networks completely so I think it’s something people should be spending more time on.”

He continues: “I think the key thing about security is that you have to think of it as a priority for your business. If you have information on your network that is valuable to you, security has to be on your radar. If you know nothing about security, then you don’t even know what you don’t know.”

By Brian Skelly