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Veteran IT firm becomes ADSL pioneer

Steve Rogerson talks to a veteran small IT business getting to grips with broadband Internet through BT's new ADSL service

There are not many IT companies that are 42 years old, but D Kipping, trading as Pyramid Valley Computers, is one. It has survived the ups and downs of a turbulent half century by keeping abreast of the latest technology. This is a tactic it continues with today, as one of the early adopters of ADSL.

Don Kipping founded the company in 1958. He was formerly a seller and maintainer of mechanical accounting machines manufactured by Burroughs. The accounting market still uses the Access accounts package, which can be used in its base form or modified by one of Pyramid's software engineers for particular customers. This is its best seller.

Half the business comes from large-contract hardware maintenance throughout the north-west. The services operation is based at Stockport headquarters and has a Bradford support office. Manufacturing PCs to sell with the software completes the portfolio.

All this is a long way from the Adler visible record compilers that sustained the firm during the early 1970s. The 500-plus firm left behind its mechanical origins and made electronic calculators later in the decade. Unix boxes took it through the 1980s, when the company expanded its maintenance side.

Eight years ago, a management buyout removed the company from Don Kipping's guiding hand. It now has Dave Sharples, software director, Richard Kipping, the founder's son and sales director and Tony Atkins, technical director at the helm. Today it has a turnover of £1.3m and employs 20 people.

As a company that regularly needs to find software patches and gather information from manufacturers, Pyramid found the Internet a valuable tool. So it set off on a route leading to this year's decision to test ADSL.

"We used to rely on an old modem," said Atkins. "It took hours to download patches for Access on a dial-up fixed link. We then got into the Internet and found the best way was through ISDN. It was incredibly quicker."

But not fast enough. Atkins has had his eye for some time on ADSL technology that was being used in France. When he heard BT was to bring it into this country, he was soon in contact with them. He managed to get the company accepted for one of the trials and in the spring of this year, the system was installed. But not without some initial headaches.

"Because the engineers were new to it they had problems installing it, said Atkins. "This was accepted as it was a trial. Early on, it also went down for a day but since then it's been absolutely stable."

The firm has a dedicated server for the ADSL. On that, there is a Vicom Soft software router. It lets employees throughout the building access the ADSL.

"The trial was for six months and the installations were free," said Atkins. "It was beneficial to both BT and ourselves."

However, Atkins is miffed at BT for not providing the full service. It is only operating at 500kbps rather than the promised 2mbps for ADSL.

"You better ask BT why we're not getting the full 2mbps," said Atkins. "The router it's using isn't the best. It's a matter of when it can get it up to speed. BT knows it's not as fast as it should be."

Nevertheless, Pyramid is still benefiting from the system. "We are doing the same things, but a lot quicker," said Atkins. "We were aware of the benefit of the Internet. It was desirable to make it considerably faster. It's a big difference when you download a lot of information. It made the Internet a more workable tool for us. There is a major financial advantage - we used to spend several hours downloading files. Now it takes minutes."

A second advantage is that the firm can demonstrate ADSL to its customers. Though not selling the technology, Atkins believes using the latest technology available and being able to talk knowledgeably about it to clients creates the right image.

"As a sales organisation, we need to be one step ahead," he said. "If customers need to see ADSL, we can act as a reference site. We have to be seen at the cutting edge. We have to embrace the new technologies and know them before our customers. It is part of the service. There is no real economic advantage, but it may help retain clients."

Atkins also sees another potential application. As common with computer companies, Pyramid has been subject to a number of thefts during its time. Atkins did consider using security cameras linked by ISDN to the homes of the directors so they could check on what was happening. But they found ISDN was too slow.

"By the time we were likely to see anything, thieves could have been in and out," he said. "But with ADSL, it may be possible. At the moment, we are not looking at it ourselves. But I am sure some security companies will see the advantage of it."

ADSL - the need for speed

Traditional analogue phones can only receive data at 56kbps. This is due to historical limitations on the bandwidth available to a telephone line. Since the introduction of digital core networks, these limitations no longer exist. It has been possible to develop a method that takes advantage of the full capacity of the copper wire loop that runs between the exchange and the user. It is called ADSL (asynchronous digital subscriber line). This technology typically allows data to be received at 2mbps and sent at 256kbps.

As well as being faster than analogue modems, ADSL has the advantage of always being on. This means with an ADSL line, there is always a connection to the service provider. Whether using the Internet or another service, there is no need to dial-up a connection. Also, when linked, the user can still make and receive calls on the conventional telephone. This is unlike present dial-up services.

Since 1994, ADSL has been tested in Ipswich, Colchester and west London. Following the successful trials, BT has started providing a service in London and Manchester. This is before extending out to the rest of the country.

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