Networks beginning to creak

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week February 2007

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Bandwidth and latency are among those incomprehensible technical terms guaranteed to glaze the eyes of everyone except teenagers and IT directors. But don’t tune out when they next turn up at a strategy meeting. They could be the difference between sink or swim as a tidal wave of technology engulfs the industry.

  After a faltering start, property has taken to computers with a vengeance. Email, remote data access and web transactions are now routine for the smallest firm. Even phone calls are being routed via PCs through VoIP [voice over internet protocol]. But all this weight can be dangerous.

   IP networks running on broadband links [commonly called ADSL] are a giant leap forward from the ponderous dial-up connections of a few years ago. Faster links [higher bandwidth] are like new roads, however. At first they ease congestion, then fresh traffic emerges and before long everything can grind to a halt again. That is latency – the delay between punching a key and getting a response. 

  It raises problems where a business has put all its eggs in one online basket. As more business is done online, networks are beginning to creak. When an IT manager comes begging for cash to add yet more capacity,  it is easy to cynical about whether this will throw money into an ever-widening pit. But there really is no choice, and upgrading can even cut costs.

  Gerald Eve was a pioneer among property consultants when it switched to VoIP almost four years ago but the strain showed as phone calls began to break up and data transfer slowed. Last year the firm bumped up traffic capacity  by 800% but still cut line costs by 12% after shopping around and settling for a 2Mb broadband link with 8el. The new set-up was impressive enough to scoop top rating as the best private WAN [wide area network] at the Communications in Business annual awards. While the gong brought welcome prestige to overlooked back-room services, even more important was the fact the award rested on hard economics rather than some whizzy use of esoteric technology.

  The upgrade has produced a huge overall return on investment in less than 12 months, which is music to any finance director’s ears. One of the great problems with IT is proving that money is well spent, as productivity is notoriously difficult to pin down. In fact, some hefty studies by management consultant McKinsey have shown that technology can be a complete waste. IT technology director Warren Stephen relies on simple arithmetic. Data such as rents, rates and valuations are held centrally for Gerald Eve’s 12 offices across the UK. Accessing that information is now 18% faster. That, plus reduced line rent costs, has yielded the overall 30% return.

  It has also underpinned the merits of IP systems. Businesses have been switching to networks for years, linking computers within offices to store and share information. Email between different offices is also routine. Combining the two techniques is a logical next step. VoIP brought huge advantages, says Stephen. These include voice mail, a system where email and faxes can be read out over phones, easy switching of extension locations and various applications on phone screens such as news and information streams.

   A WAN linking the whole office network also transformed the way Gerald Eve handles information. A database was written to hold all rating and office accounting information centrally for access via web pages.   Disaster recovery has also been centralised.  Previously, vital information was backed up and stored locally for each office around the country. The new system enables all this to be held at headquarters in London and backed up to a data centre.  One of the key factors in the choice of internet supplier was the high speed and capacity of this backup facility, says Stephen.  The overall cost of the WAN rental and back-up support is calculated on a sliding scale, from £120,000 pa for the first two years to £80,000 in the fifth year. (The contract is for five years.)

Businesses are often reluctant to change because they fear disruption. Everyone has memories of the way computers froze in the middle of big deals when they were first introduced. But most Gerald Eve staff did not even notice the latest upgrade until data began to flow faster. ‘Switching to VoIP was the big step up because of all the new services,’ says Stephen. ‘But the network upgrade was practically invisible. We certainly had no phone calls complaining about problems.’

 Each of the 12 Gerald Eve offices was switched in turn over three months and none hit any barriers He puts that down to three key factors for a successful transition: planning, planning and planning. ‘You can’t do enough of this – and it has to be done well in advance,’ he says. And always remember that this is not about technology but about people, he adds. ‘You also can’t do enough explaining to staff.’