In order to maintain effective communications in today's complex business environment, companies should consider network access integration so that they have the best form of network access whatever the location, says Simon Watts from Hughes Europe

Today's businesses have become ever more complex and geographically diverse. As a result, in the drive to maintain effective communications between the centre, or hub, of the business and remote sites, they have built up increasingly complex infrastructures, often requiring differing solutions depending on the location involved.

This has a number of implications. Change is happening with ever-increasing frequency, often with mission-critical implications on how the organisation will continue to function effectively in the face of tough global competition.

The impact on the business and the issues involved will not simply centre on having the right communications technologies in place - terrestrial broadband, cellular or satellite - but critically will also involve having the appropriate connectivity services and management support.

And, of course, this must all take place within an affordable budget - especially important at times of economic stress, when every element of corporate expenditure is closely scrutinised even more than usual.

The issue is one of Network Access Integration. By taking this problem away from the business, it can then concentrate on its core offering: what it does best. There are many different definitions of "access layer" in the context of an organisation's communications infrastructure. Yet a common thread is that most definitions focus on the point at which the local end user within the organisation links to the central network and the multiplicity of components required to manage that relationship.

And this is vital for the effective two-way flow of voice and data. The geographic location of the outlying sites may, for example, in large part drives which technology is deployed. In areas of high population density, a broadband ADSL terrestrial solution may well be the preferred solution. In remote locations, VSAT may be the only viable option.

Similarly, the level of importance of the information transmitted will also dictate the level of resilience required and the presence of a back-up technology. Where the data transmitted is fundamental to the business ­­- for example, lottery data transmitted from multiple remote locations - solution design will need to ensure maximum business continuity. So a primary ADSL-response may have secondary VSAT or cellular technology to support this.

The reality is, of course, that things can go wrong and technology can fail. What the solution in place must achieve is to minimise the likelihood of the systems failing. And, when failures happen, the right people and right processes must be in place to have the system up and running again with the minimum of disruption.
This demands the right technology with the right connectivity and services support to provide the right end-to-end solution.

There are a number of technical, operational and commercial catalysts for change within the business - including the need to improve efficiency and take control of expenditure - that may demand a fundamental review of the existing infrastructure. A best-practice response is essential if the communications solution is to meet the reliability needs of the business today and scale and flex to the evolving needs of tomorrow. Yet historically, tactical and more strategic responses have fallen short of what is required.

So what are the key elements in a best-practice solution? What is clear is that this is not simply about the technology, but should encompass a complete product and service solution in enhancing delivery of those aspects of the network proposition necessary to meet the customer's individual needs. In working with a suitable third-party provider, the response therefore needs to be doing "as much as we need you to do" in enhancing and managing the corporate network.

There are a number of layers that are likely to comprise a best-practice network access integration strategy:

An individual scalable network configuration must be ideally suited to the business through a combination of core technologies. Bringing together VSAT, DSL, wireless, private lines and specialist hardware will deliver the flexible, resilient and high-availability network infrastructure required, regardless of size and geographical location. This may involve terrestrial broadband as the technology of choice, but also require some VSAT as the most cost-effective means of reaching remote sites. Cellular technology may also be specified as essential back-up: though not optimised for data, it is ideal for example if the need to install the network quickly runs ahead of the ability to achieve the necessary landlord consents.

With the core technologies in place, the connectivity requirements are added. The need may be for a variety of Internet access services or optimised/high availability VPN. It may be critical to provide a second or back-up path to ensure business continuity or support Digital Media Solutions - or a combination of any of these services. Optimum operational efficiency will require consideration of the following aspects of a network access infrastructure:

Optimised networks: using the core basket of available technologies to pick and choose the commercially and technologically optimal combination for the network; high-availability networks: adopting a combination of the core technologies to deliver guaranteed availability of better than 99.9% for the full network; access continuity: augmenting the existing network, making it more resilient against today's physical threat scenarios by offering a true second path; and digital media solutions: using core technologies to deliver video and audio over the network.

Individual network requirements can be optimised through a range of enhanced Internet and hosting services. These may include security management, from security policies down to intrusion preventions; Internet services including VoIP and local in-country breakouts; in-built WAN traffic optimisation for each individual data communications profile; content management services for the reliable distribution of data and perhaps for IP video or digital media delivery project.

With a resilient network in place, specialist end-to-end support will be required to manage a network efficiently and cost-effectively, freeing up valuable internal resources and overheads. Again, this may include some, or all, of support tools such as world-class account management, enabling timely and in-budget rollout of the telecommunications solution; a 24/7 helpdesk that speaks your language; project management, to deliver solutions on-time and in budget; and service performance management to provide up-to-the-minute statistics and reports on what is happening where in the network.

And finally, complex contracts, consolidated multi-currency billing, high-level SLAs and licensing requirements ensuring regulatory compliance across multiple geographies, languages and currencies are simplified and managed with the goal of maintaining good relationships with the right people and with the flexibility to evolve with the changing requirements of the business.

No network communications problem is simple. Each has a number of associated issues that must be addressed if the business is to remain competitive and maintain good customer relationships.

In short, therefore, it is important to implement a comprehensive solution, one that can offer adaptability and flexibility in addressing the unique problems of each individual business - up to and including a fully integrated network service.

Simon Watts is Chief Engineer of Hughes Europe

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