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Computer Weekly European User Awards 2015: Best Networking Project winner

Construction company Osborne needs reliable connectivity on its building sites, which are often remote. This year's Networking Project of the Year goes to Osborne for the way it overcame the challenges of achieving this

Getting reliable and fast internet connectivity can be a challenging task. It may not seem difficult, but think about how often a connection will drop in a city because of interference or network saturation, or how in remote areas it can be impossible to get a connection at all.

Now imagine you’re relying on that internet connection to ensure that a multi-million-pound construction project does not run into difficulties. And imagine that, whether the construction site is in a city or the countryside, reliable internet access is difficult to achieve. That was the challenge facing construction firm Osborne.

Osborne was founded in 1966 and takes on public and private sector construction projects ranging from railways to roads to housing. It has more than 1,000 staff and thousands more are subcontracted at sites across the UK.

With a wide variety of locations and different needs at each site, Osborne was struggling to get reliable internet access at all its construction sites. Phil Gilbey, head of IT operations, says: “Part of ensuring that projects are completed on time and on budget is delivering complete and accurate construction information to our teams on site, as plans are regularly updated and things are always being refined and finalised. So it’s absolutely essential that those plans are delivered to the site as soon as they become available.”

Failure to deliver that information to the site when it is needed can result in building work that has already been completed being torn down. That can delay the completion date and result in the project going over budget, says Gilbey.

The increase in usage of smartphones and tablets on construction sites is another reason reliable internet access is such an important requirement for Osborne. “We also have a growing need to provide Wi-Fi connectivity for smartphones and tablets to collect and review data and to enable collaboration with our supply chain colleagues,” says Gilbey. “All our subcontractors and design contractors need to come to the site and connect back to their base to help them work more efficiently.”

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Previously, Osborne had been relying on Openreach for its on-site connectivity, but struggled with the reliability and the complexity involved in setting up. Gilbey says the distance to the nearest exchange and difficulty in connecting to an already-saturated network meant installation could sometimes take months rather than weeks.

Other connectivity, such as via satellite, had its own problems, including latency and line-of-sight issues. On one project – adjacent to a mainline railway station – Osborne had to deal with 3G connectivity dropping out every time a train went by as passengers would swamp the local 3G network.

While attending an industry event, one of Osborne’s directors met someone from a company called Onwave and was impressed by what it had to offer. In particular, it was Onwave’s ability to use Peplink routers to federate different connections – Ethernet, Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, ADSL and satellite – that most impressed Gilbey’s team at Osborne. If one connection fails, Onwave switches over to another connection, ensuring a reliable internet connection at all times.

Osborne and Onwave ran a pilot rollout at Osborne’s headquarters in Reigate, Surrey. Gilbey says that went “perfectly”, and the decision was taken to roll it out across the business.

“What we needed to do first was to be able to connect our datacentre to Onwave’s network,” says Gilbey. “What they did was install a couple of head-end units in our datacentre, which speaks directly to head-end units at their end of the network. So what we ended up with was a virtual private network between the two, resulting in very fast comms.”

Teething problems

Rollout of the Onwave system was not without its teething problems, however. “One of the issues we faced was with rather stringent firewall requirements in our datacentre,” says Gilbey. The firewall was letting certain traffic through, but in some cases traffic was grinding to a complete stop, and we couldn’t really work out why. There didn’t seem to be a consistent problem. Sometimes it worked and other times it didn’t. It came down to the firewall settings and once those were correct, everything flowed nicely.”

Osborne is now using Onwave at 21 of its sites, and that list is growing “slowly but steadily”, says Gilbey. Existing construction sites with ADSL lines are being left alone, but any new projects undertaken by Osborne are assessed to see whether they would benefit from Onwave’s service.

“They work out what’s in the area in terms of 3G, 4G and so on and recommend a proposal for the best solution and then go and do the on-site installs,” says Gilbey. They monitor all the bandwidth and traffic remotely and do the traffic control for us as well. They do all the management – we just ring them up and tell them when and where we need it setting up, and they do the rest.”

That includes decommissioning sites where construction has finished. As Onwave owns all the equipment, it removes it and stores in until the next project, or moves it straight to another location where it’s needed. This helps Osborne reduce its costs as no equipment is left unused.

The flexibility of Onwave’s service has been a huge benefit to Osborne and its construction projects – it is flexibility Osborne didn’t have before.

“One of the issues in construction is that there are a huge number of variables that can delay the start,” says Gilbey. So we have a start date on site, but that can be put back by things beyond our control or our client’s control – planning permissions is one, for example. That means we can have very short lead-on times, sometimes only a week or so. Fortunately, Onwave can turn things around that quickly, because we’re not relying on Openreach or anyone else to lay cables at the site.”

Gilbey sums up the benefits of using Onwave: “It’s the reliability of the service and the speed of deployment – two things that were lacking with the old system.”

See Computer Weekly European User Awards 2015 shortlist.


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