Engineering firm Smiths Group to embark on landmark SDN project

Engineering and technology firm Smiths Group renews AT&T contract ahead of major network refresh, and plans to put SDN at the heart of its project

Engineering conglomerate Smiths Group has renewed its networking and communications contract with AT&T in a £65m deal, and has embarked on a major network refresh that will see the 160 year-old firm become an early stage use case for software-defined networking (SDN) technology.

Smiths has grown piecemeal since its beginnings as a diamond trader and watchmaker in the 1850s. With 23,000 employees at 450 offices in more than 50 countries, its annual revenues now top £2.5bn and it operates in sectors such as high-tech electrical components, threat detection and airport security, fuel distribution, and medical supplies and devices.

Group CIO Stuart Beesley said the firm was constantly acquiring and divesting.

“We have survived over 150 years by evolving and M&A [mergers and acquisitions] has always been a big part of our strategy," he said

With new business units constantly being plugged in and spun up, or wound down and unplugged, agility has sat at the core of Smiths’ IT operation for some years now. A few years ago it successfully globalised all its IT activity into a standalone group to better serve its various businesses. 

The need to maintain this approach was key to AT&T’s re-selection, and to its decision to explore a move to SDN.

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Beesley said that being able to deploy new networks and manage upgrades across multiple sites through firmware updates, as opposed to sending people into every location to swap out the hardware, will make life easier for everyone involved.

“You can put in a 10Meg circuit and if you want to upgrade to 20Megs later on you can just pick up the phone and ask for it, rather than put in new hardware,” said Beesley.

SDN should also go some way to helping Smiths save substantial amounts of money during the lifetime of the network – its stated aim is to achieve 25% cost savings during the six-year life of the new contract.

AT&T’s flagship SDN product provides customers with a corporate virtual private network using the facilities of AT&T’s Switched Network. It resides in the AT&T 4ESS-based switched Worldwide Intelligence Network.

AT&T claims its system can provide network features and management capabilities that private networks cannot usually offer, including customised routing, advance numbering plans, call screening, authorisation codes, remote access and security codes. It is compatible with most existing private networks and private branch excanges.

Beyond SDN

The upgrade does not begin and end with SDN. AT&T will also be providing upgrades to network speed and capacity, and across its internet datacentres it will take charge of managing Smiths’ corporate content and applications as a managed service – including enterprise resource planning and email – to allow employees to access vital information easily and securely wherever they may be.

Because our scope is global I had to make sure we worked with a partner that could deal with our complexity on a global level

Stuart Beesley, Smiths Group

AT&T vice-president of Europe Andrew Edison said organisations were no longer limited by the four walls of an office building.

“Global companies like Smiths Group need to communicate quickly and securely around the world to remain competitive,” he said.

“Our agreement with Smiths Group highlights our strategy to help multi-national companies manage three rising trends: going mobile, using the cloud and expanding operations around the world.”

It will also add security services – such as security information and event management, as well as threat analysis – to the mix, and a cloud-based voice platform to integrate with Smiths’ existing unified communications system, coupled with a global mobile device management system to secure the business’ smartphone estate.

Beesley told Computer Weekly the decision to stick with its network supplier had been an easy one to make.

“Because our scope is global I had to make sure we worked with a partner that could deal with our complexity on a global level,” he said.

“AT&T demonstrated faster networking, more security, lower costs and enhanced SLAs [service-level agreements], backed by scale and worldwide reach.”

Read more on Software-defined networking (SDN)