Flexible approach will pay long-term dividends

IP and IP networks, and the applications they support, can transform your company. The end result is that your business will...

IP and IP networks, and the applications they support, can transform your company. The end result is that your business will become more adaptable and flexible and, ultimately, more competitive in your marketplace. Lindsay Nicolle reports on how to harness the power of IP

Realising the power of IP is the key to competitive success for businesses like yours. The protocol has opened up to you a Pandora's Box of cost-effective applications and technologies whose benefits were previously only enjoyed by larger companies.

IP technologies enable you to run applications ranging from combined voice and data services and web-enabled e-procurement systems, to storage area networking (SAN) for business continuity, and advanced networks and systems provision. Such applications can integrate and transform business communications and processes cost-effectively. They improve the speed and responsiveness of day-to-day business operations - factors that are increasingly important measures of business performance since they have a direct impact on shareholder value and competitive edge.

Business agility is now a top priority in the boardroom, with eight out of 10 UK organisations saying it is vital to their future success, according to research by analyst firm the Gartner Group.

An agile, adaptable and flexible business strategy enables you to overcome cultural and organisational challenges, manage external business relationships and processes more effectively, and enable employee empowerment.

All of these areas can lead to higher productivity, greater cost efficiencies and customer-effectiveness.

Indeed, Gartner estimates that you can increase productivity by up to £1,600 per worker just by rethinking current business processes using technologies such as IP. It also predicts that the application of agile business processes will contribute £68 billion to the UK economy by next year.

The finance sector is leading the way in this regard, but other industries are catching up by updating their communications infrastructure and looking to harness the power of IP.

Stamco Timber, a builders' merchant employing 100 staff in East Sussex, is typical of how companies like yours are rethinking their business processes. The company chose IP-enabled technologies to maintain links between its recently separated trade and consumer business groups. Stamco split its trading into two in pursuit of system cost savings and greater business agility in managing its customer service and sales systems.

The company developed a £2.5m purpose-built production mill and distribution centre as part of this process, requiring a link with head office.

There was an existing data link, but in order to maximise the efficiency of its staff, Stamco required IP handsets and voicemail at the distribution site, as well as a cordless telephony system to ensure key workers were contactable. "We needed to ensure the orders being placed at head office were being communicated properly to our distribution site," says Nicholas Wilde, Stamco's IT Director.

Stamco already had an automated production line, broadband data links, a wide area network (Wan) between the sites and a fibre optic system over the five-and-a- half acre factory site. It was therefore decided to employ voice over IP (VoIP) - technology enabling a company to use data links to carry voice as well as information. The aim was to save telephony costs while improving the management of Stamco's customer service and sales systems.

Adopting the Axxess communications platform meant that Stamco was able to implement a system that catered for current requirements, such as DECT (digitally enhanced cordless telephony) and voicemail and IP telephony, while also offering flexibility for future growth. Wilde insists that, overall, the main benefit of Stamco's VoIP system is its cost-effectiveness.

Data storage burden

As well as saving money and improving business effectiveness for your firm, IP networks could also make an impact on your data storage burden, enabling high availability of information, easier data extraction and improved network reliability. These requirements all correspond to massive increases in data traffic from the greater use of e-mail, general office applications, enterprise applications and downloaded files.

Fareham Borough Council has deployed a new SAN, which is a combination of Ethernet and IP networking protocols using Gigabit Ethernet networking; a new standard called iSCSI. Research by the suppliers' organisation, the Storage Networking Industry Association, shows that one quarter of UK IT departments expect to deploy iSCSI over the next year.

If your firm is looking for an affordable way of achieving the benefits of the increased performance, reduced management costs and consolidated storage that SANs have traditionally offered larger organisations, iSCSI undoubtedly offers you an attractive way forward. The standard can deliver key advantages over Fibre Channel for your company.

Fibre Channel only has a 10km reach and a current maximum commercial throughput of 2 Gbps, whereas the reach of iSCSI is unlimited and can be scaled to 10 Gbps. iSCSI also builds on stable and familiar standards (many IT staff are already familiar with the component technologies) and it creates a SAN with a reduced total cost of ownership (TCO) because the installation and maintenance costs are low.

Last, iSCSI provides a high degree of interoperability by reducing disparate networks and cabling, and by using regular Ethernet switches instead of special Fibre Channel switches, which are much more expensive.

Fareham's iSCSI SAN consolidates its storage systems, replacing direct attached storage across 40-plus servers. The council's overall aim is to allow data to be more easily shared across any part of the organisation. The iSCSI implementation, based mainly on products from FalconStor, cost £250,000, including the first year's running costs, according to Peter Harper, Fareham's IT Manager, but it was worth it. The cost is half that of an equivalent Fibre Channel storage solution.

With storage, you should regard data back up and recovery of equal importance to your business requirements. Traditionally, implementing such technologies on a stand-alone basis (or as a managed service) has been expensive to do, However, there are IP-based systems and services that enable SMEs to build in 'future-proofing', resilience and guaranteed cost savings into their disaster recovery plans, often without the need for an initial capital outlay.

Fully scalable solution

English National Opera (ENO) has chosen a data back up and recovery managed service, called Vault, coupled with a fully managed Voice+ VoIP service from integrated communications provider hSo. The ENO has a huge demand for ongoing data support and daily back up because it has in excess of 250 end-users spread across three main central London sites, with many also working from home. Replacing a legacy, on-site tape system, the hSo Vault solution will provide ENO with a faster, more sophisticated and resilient way of managing its own data resources.

Robert Childs, ENO's Head of IT, says: "We expect hSo's voice and data solutions to enable us to reduce our monthly costs and present us with a fully scaleable and manageable solution that integrates perfectly with our own business growth objectives."

Stamco, Fareham and ENO are examples of organisations similar to yours that have taken advantage of the abilities of IP technologies to provide them with the same level of service and cost benefits that larger organisations enjoy. They are in the vanguard of those willing to transform their internal operations using IP so they can operate on a level playing field with their larger rivals.

The advent of broadband has been a catalyst for this transformation, opening up the possibility for you to combine voice and data products and remote back up offerings, but messaging is also emerging as a big driver of migration to any-to-any IP architectures.

"Demand for data services continues to be driven by the need to have company-wide connectivity for IP-based applications, bigger volumes of email and the integration of voice and data applications," says Margaret Hopkins, a principal consultant with market research firm Analysys. "What we will see in the next five years is an increase in the speed of migration from leased lines, asynchronous transfer mode and Frame Relay, to connectivity optimised to carry IP traffic, for example IP-VPNs, Ethernet and digital subscriber line."

With IP-based VPNs being the fastest growing technology/service in 2004, the end result will be that companies like yours should become more adaptable and flexible in their business processes. For you, this means it can affect your competitive standing. It would appear, therefore, that today's message for you and your company is: who dares with IP, wins.

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