A fledgling WAN

The network is the unsung hero of a great many efficiency-boosting, cost-busting IT projects. And that was no exception at global law firm Bird & Bird when it came to give a performance boost to the network underpinning its vast document management system.

With 1,300 staff spread across 21 offices in 15 countries, each with its own document store, it was obvious that the firm was going to have to centralise to give its staff fast access to all the information they needed to do their job.

Unfortunately, the firm’s existing MPLS-based wide area network (WAN) was not up to the task of running such a system, which Bird & Bird’s network manager Tim Collinson describes as “core to our line of business.

“With the old network, we had markedly high latency and consistently unhappy users,” he says. “The lawyers needed what they considered instant access [so a new network] was an investment we had to make.”

With the document management system already hosted in a COLT data centre, Bird & Bird approached the company about bundling a network upgrade into the deal.

“We had to resolve the latency issue, and COLT suggested their new Ethernet [WAN] service. I hadn’t heard of it before it was explained to us. It operates like a LAN service without going through a central hub. It is very simple for the end user and there is little to do [to set up and maintain].”

Ethernet-based WAN solutions – sometimes termed virtual private
LAN services (VPLS) – are becoming increasingly popular among large globally distributed businesses who have traditionally had to rely on expensive leased lines, dated frame relay technology, or technically complex IP-based virtual private networks (VPNs). Historically, carriers have also been shy to offer Ethernet-based services because of the need to profit from their existing technology already in the ground.

However, despite the benefits, setting up the new network was not without hurdles. “I don’t think anyone could set up a network of this size without a few issues,” Collinson says, adding that there were additional costs involved in “digging through our buildings and laying the network cable out to COLT.”

Adopting the new service from the same provider as their data centre meant cost benefits, but Collinson also acknowledges that there is a certain amount of risk involved in using a single partner: “That is why we have a separate backup and continuity plan and an offsite centre ready to go.”

The ability to add additional bandwidth capacity to the WAN as required has also opened the door for further efficiency-boosting IT projects – Bird & Bird’s new network has the capacity to go up to 1,000Mb.

“We were rolling out VoIP, but now that the new network can support full unified communications, we intend to go for that,” says Collinson.

He recommends that IT managers considering a similar boost to their network should pay careful attention to the latency claims made by providers. “If latency is your issue, I would ask for evidence of improved latency. If they say it is going to be 25 milliseconds between London and Dusseldorf, ask to get the view of a third party.”

He also suggests companies try to get as much coverage from one provider as they can.
“One thing you definitely have to look at is the partner’s footprint and the way they deal with other providers,” he advises.

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