Manged IP networks speed information transfer

Copyright: David Lawson

First published: Property Week Feb 2008

Losing a file of sensitive information could be considered unfortunate: mislaying several million seems like sheer carelessness. Oscar Wilde’s laconic wit is more apt than the headless chicken behaviour after two tax office computer disks disappeared in the post late last year. ‘Stuff happens,’ was the heavily censored reaction of one laid back property IT director, who naturally preferred to remain anonymous.

  He pointed out that the private sector also leaks like a sieve. Passwords, encryption and security checks can’t snuff out one glaring weakness called ‘wetware’ – people to you and me. Messages are sent to mailing lists rather than to a specific client.  Thousands of laptops and mobiles crammed with sensitive files are lost. Client lists and financial appraisals can be copied to memory sticks in a matter of minutes and carried out in a pocket or handbag. 

   Landlords, banks, fund managers and Uncle Tom Cobbely routinely give private information to complete strangers and expect it to emerge unopened on the other side of the world. It’s called ‘snailmail’ – again, the post to you and me.  Little has been said that the lost tax information was actually requested on computer disk.  Why, when supersonic internet communications are pervasive? Why not lock data in an electronic store accessed online only by the right people with the right key?

   Firstly, the internet is neither supersonic nor secure. Transmitting large files can – and does – slow other connections to a crawl.  Anyone attracted by cheap internet telephone or VoIP [voice over internet protocol] will have discovered the joys of conversations with vital clients interrupted as someone two floors away starts sending the office payroll to a processing centre in Mumbai. Secondly, there is widespread paranoia about interception of sensitive data as it hums through the ether. Posties are cuddly and reliable:  teenagers before flickering screens in Bulgaria or Peru are not.

  One solution involves another of those neuron-sapping bursts of capitals which infest any discussion of technology – IPVPN. In real people language that means a ‘virtual’ private network like the one within an office but running across the internet.  This has a downside, however. Data encryption slows data transfer as the information is scrambled at one end and unscrambled at the other. IT staff are needed in each office to handle glitches, and transfers can still rob wire space from other things like phone calls.

   John Laing has ironed out many of these problems by outsourcing its international network to internet service provider [ISP] Tiscali.  The firm has left behind its construction roots and now specialises in developing and managing assets such as schools, hospitals and transport projects. It requires enormous capacity to handle the constant stream of information passing between sites, ranging from email to technical drawings and financial spreadsheets.

  This is the third stage of development of remote working, starting with dial-up, then VPN and now managed networks, says IT director Dylan Jones. The key difference is that data flow is monitored for bottlenecks by IT service provider Wirebird, which has day-to-day control of the system.  In the past, transmissions might slow or crash altogether but Jones would not know the cause, making it difficult to fix. Now Wirebird can remotely monitor problems  right down to some employee downloading a massive file – or using a rogue application - on a computer hundreds of miles away.

 Another key change is that Tiscali has signed a quality of service [QoS] agreement which guarantees it will fix problems quickly and juggle capacity to prevent slowdowns. VoIP is now feasible, as management of dataflow ensures voice calls are given top priority.  Data moves faster because it does not need heavy encryption on a managed network. That also reduces the need for IT staff on each site. ‘Wirebird does the management, leaving us to concentrate on strategy,’ says Jones.

 After trialling across UK sites ranging from schools and hospitals to John Laing’s own offices, the managed virtual network is now being rolled out across the world, linking more than 40 sites from North America to Asia.   But is this just a plaything for rich internationals? Not at all, says Jones, who points out that managed VPNs cost little more than conventional internet arrangements. They also suite smaller operations. In fact, many John Laing offices start at modest levels. Another advantage of a managed system is that it can be easily scaled to different data demands.

John Laing – develops, owns and operates public infrastructure including schools, hospitals, bridges and offices across the world

Wirebird – IT service provider which builds and manages networks

Tiscali – international broadband provider with more than 2m users