Warwickshire County Council insources PSN-ready carrier grade network

Few organizations have the in-house expertise to build their own carrier-grade backbone network, but that is pretty much what Warwickshire County Council has done in implementing a wide area network (WAN) backbone connecting 12 sites in the West Midlands that meets the requirements of the government Public Services Network (PSN) initiative.

"We were very fortunate to have two very experienced people on the network side, which has now grown into a team of six," said John Parmiter, the head of ICT development at Warwickshire County Council responsible for the project.

"The original design was down to two or three senior engineers who have been in the industry for a long time and we contracted an external partner to do the quality assurance.

"As a manager I needed the reassurance that what my senior techies and the industry were telling me made sense and it did." The primary driver for its existing WAN overhaul was reliability.

The council suffered a serious connectivity failure in 2007 that prompted the original project scoping, though increased data traffic from schools, colleges and universities meant more bandwidth was needed to take the strain, with 24-hour availability required to support round-the-clock access for other public-sector employees.

"I believe we were using an NTL virtual private network to connect our servers at the time when some spanning tree problems came to the fore, and we were struggling to get reliability and availability when we most needed it," said Parmiter.

"Neighbouring authorities that have outsourced have found they do not know additional costs until it is too late, and that can make things very expensive. The other advantage is that we control network design and procurement, and that gives us greater flexibility to build something that suits us for today and the foreseeable future."

The multi-protocol label switched (MPLS) backbone is built on Alcatel-Lucent switches and routers which provide two 10Gbit/s links to each of the main 12 sites, one to carry the data traffic and the other for redundancy, with the council having purchased its own dark fibre rather than relying on local telco infrastructure.

The backbone will interconnect a further 440 sites, including the region's forty schools, using a mixture of Virgin Media and Fiberlink network connections.

Though not all potential stakeholders are yet onboard due to variety of budgetary, administrative and political reasons, the council network at least provides the scope for a mix of public sector organisations, including other local councils, fire and rescue services, and even the NHS to share its resources at a later date. It also supports the remote working initiatives and related IP telephone and video conferencing applications Warwickshire is looking to implement to help it reduce its operational costs.

Schools and colleges connected to the MPLS network have slightly different requirements with more emphasis on security, for which firewalls and identity access management (IAM) at a local branch network level are supplemented by core web monitoring and filtering provided by WebSense.

Parmiter refused to divulge how much the council spent on the backbone upgrade, but he confidently estimated that the initial capital costs will be recouped within five years.

"We are talking huge capital investment, both on the switches and the fibre in the ground, but we have that forever," he said.

Nor is it clear how much of the money was stumped up by Warwickshire County Council itself, and how much from its regional public sector partners, or the extent to which the council can get contributions from those partners in the future as part of wider community network.

Services funding was already available from schools, for example, and savings already come from aggregating traffic from the joint academic network (JANET), the fire service and the West Midlands Regional Broadband Consortium.

"It started off that everybody funded it and purchased supply but if we look ahead we see Warwickshire working in partnership with Coventry and Solihull to expand out to hard-to-reach areas, so there is a process whereby we could make it happen that we get other organisations to run over the same network," said Parmiter.

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13 April 2024

12 04 2024