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Updated: October 2, 2010 16:03 IST

Corporate connectivity hinging on the last mile

D. Murali
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Ragula Bhaskar. Photo: Special Arrangement
Ragula Bhaskar. Photo: Special Arrangement

For CTOs and CIOs, the choices are so different today than they were ten years ago, observes Ragula Bhaskar, Chairman and Managing Director, Fatpipe Networks, US (http://bit.ly/F4TRagula). Thinking back, getting a line to your office itself was a challenge, he reminisces, during a recent interaction with Business Line. “With very few providers, bandwidth was expensive and of poor quality. Also, the economy was not growing at the rapid rate it has over the last ten years. Companies in India could not afford to buy world class networking products.”

Now Indian companies can afford to buy the world’s best networking products, adds Bhaskar. He sees this attitude also reflected in the consumer sector, where Indians are now able to buy top designer brands whether it is watches or hand bags.

“The focus now is on business continuity and WAN (Wide Area Network) stability, security and efficiency. In the long term, if you have a highly reliably and stable network, your customers and your internal staff will be pleased with your network and will be loyal to you. You will also attract new customers as your good reputation grows…”

What worries Bhaskar, however, is the precarious hinging of corporate connectivity infrastructure on the last mile that is so susceptible to disruptions. Our conversation continues over the email.

Excerpts from the interview.

First, your views on the state of IT infrastructure in Indian enterprises and the gaps therein, from a global network communications perspective.

The Indian economy has integrated with the world. There is an expectation and a need for its infrastructure to meet international norms. In response, India’s communication network infrastructure is fast catching up to world standards. This is driven by businesses operating in a global environment.

I see that the biggest gap in the state of India’s IT infrastructure network reliability at the last mile level. Business verticals such as IT, customer service centres, and BPOs, along with Government and health services, require highly reliable and robust WAN communication to interact with their foreign counterparts.

Internet and other WAN infrastructures are playing an increasingly important role in the growth of Indian businesses. Customers and partners alike rely on the Internet and other WANs for mission-critical and daily business communications (email, CRM, ERP, VPN, etc.).

Currently, due to the strong competition amongst Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in India, along with the State Wide Area Network (SWAN) projects, there is a strong ISP presence in most of the cities and towns.

However, while there is redundancy in the core network for each of the ISPs, for most companies, there is no redundancy for the last mile. That is the weakest link in the Indian corporate IT infrastructure. Communications can fail when roads are dug up for laying utilities such as power, water or drains, or during floods and rain storms, causing havoc for companies.

Companies are now catching onto the theme of business continuity. Companies have to go to the next level to get a highly redundant WAN using multiple diverse carriers providing the last mile connection. The lines are aggregated through a router clustering device and used for load balancing data traffic as well as automatic failure between the lines when components or services fail. Using more than one ISP ensures that if one ISP fails, the data are carried over other ISP lines.

What technology advancements are becoming relevant to CIOs when it comes to ensuring reliable business continuity of communications?

An important advancement when it comes to ensuring reliable business continuity of communications is the availability of high WAN redundancy products, as well as WAN acceleration products that can combine multiple data lines without the need of ISP cooperation or without having to do BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) programming.

There has been a surge in India of companies employing Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and thin client systems to achieve greater efficiency, security and cost savings of their networks while providing better services to their customers.

Consolidating servers in one central location, accessed via the Internet or private connections (MPLS, Frame, etc.) from remote offices or individuals, brings us back to the imperative of Internet/ WAN redundancy, security and speed. Companies that do not have a proper business continuity plan for their WANs will experience inconsistent ISP connections, and will not be able to take full advantage of their otherwise innovative systems.

This was a problem in the US in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when most companies had single lines coming into their facilities. As WANs inherently have multiple potential points of failure, companies felt pain and monetary loss when their Internet/ WAN connections failed. Communications came to a halt. Companies using a thin client model had to send employees home as they could not access any of the servers they depended on to conduct business (database, word processing, web and email servers). Customers could not access services, either. These examples demonstrate the value and necessity of WAN business continuity.

Can you list the top five considerations that should be in the minds of CTOs and CIOs, when it comes to choosing the right communications infrastructure for their companies? How different are these from what weighed in their minds, say, ten years ago?

1) Make sure your company has diverse Internet/ WAN connectivity. India needs to maximise and optimise the use of current communication network infrastructures and can use WAN redundancy and load balancing products to overcome deficiencies such as slow and unstable and unsecured data lines.

2) Consider investing in technologies such as WAN optimisation, compression and acceleration to assist in overcoming the challenges of working with low-end or bottlenecked lines in addition to WAN redundancy.

3) Make sure you are working with a systems integrator who can work with you anywhere in the world not just in your city. Your company’s ability to be flexible and meet the needs of its customers locally and internationally is important. It is vital to have a flexible, yet stable infrastructure built by knowledgeable system integrators. Also, make sure you use equipment providers who can provide worldwide support whether you are in India, Africa, or the US.

4) Networking and communications products are highly sophisticated. The long term value of the equipment you use for business far outweighs the “savings” you get from buying cheap, copycat products. The total cost of ownership over the long term is more important than the initial capital cost.

Today’s communications industry has “me-too” competitors of well established companies. Just remember: Manufacturers of cheap products provide low quality products and poor service. Products bought from companies that do not have a history of providing enterprise class products and services would mean that if you have a problem, most likely it will not be fixed right away.

You cannot afford to lose customers because your company decided to buy cheap products and as a result, have an unstable network. A good example: A large Indian telecom company decided to use cheap products to build its network. Customers – including myself – stopped using their service due to the noticeably poor quality of the calls, low signal strength, and dropped calls. The moral of the story is: Buy from equipment providers that have a history of producing quality products and service to customers in the US and Europe.

5) Linux and other free and open source software have come a long way. You can use them to your company’s advantage, in combination with stable WAN connectivity and robust hardware.

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