Innovative networks

The networks of Saudi Arabia have received a lot of bad press, as users complain about poor performance and slow connection speeds. However, it looks at though times are changing and an increased number of businesses are making more effective use of more impressive infrastructures.

  • E-Mail
By  the Gitex Times Staff Published  May 1, 2005

|~||~|The drivers of our move toward wireless technology have been fast deployment, easy installation, meeting community requirements, network access wherever needed, and linking buildings that are not connected to the network, says Nabil Khalid Al-Dabal, manager for communications engineering & technical support in Saudi Aramco’s IT department.|~|Only 14% of people surveyed by the Gitex Preview believe Saudi Arabia’s IT infrastructure is excellent. Slightly more, 15.6% describe it as good. Unfortunately, a massive 31.3% believe it is just about average with 18.8% stating it is below average. Of even more concern is the 20.3% of users that categorise the Kingdom’s IT infrastructure as poor. Such divisions are not unusual when discussing Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. Some vendors argue that it boasts always-on connectivity, high bandwidth availability and low prices. For example, Saudi Telecommunications Company (STC), which provides the bulk of the Kingdom’s infrastructure, certainly believes it is doing a good job and Abdulrahman Al Mahmoud, senior section manager at STC, points to the wide range of services the telco now offers as evidence of the country’s maturing infrastructure market. “Our infrastructure is capable of providing almost any service, whether it be video conferencing on demand, video over IP, voice over internet protocol (VoIP) or other services,” he says. In particular, the PTT is attempting to convert users from basic dial up connectivity to broadband by lowering the price and ramping up marketing activities around DSL. For businesses, STC is also hoping to tempt more high-speed users with technologies such as ATM and its IP virtual private networks (IP VPNs). “In the Kingdom, users are hungry for bandwidth. The users will never get what they want from dial-up because dial-up bandwidth is limited. However, we now offer a range of high speed services that can deliver on user needs, something that is becoming increasingly important as more companies offer online services,” Mahmoud says. Others are less convinced about the Kingdom’s infrastructure, arguing that it lacks maturity, reliability and reasonable pricing. In addition, they say local firms are unwilling to commit the capital outlay needed to build impressive networks. “60% of Saudi businesses care about their infrastructure and want to not only have a good reliable infrastructure but also to make the most of it. The other 40%, if they are building a network at all, do not really care about the quality and just want the cheapest products,” says Michel Habib, senior network engineer, Saudi Software & Networking Company. “Many companies in Saudi need to plan more effectively and have a vision for their networks. Unfortunately it will take another six years [worth of] investment in network infrastructure for us to be at the same stage as somewhere like Dubai,” he adds. While the debate rages about just how effective Saudi Arabia’s network is, some end user organisations are quietly going about designing, building and then utilising infrastructures that would be impressive anywhere in the world, let alone in a country where many claim basic internet access is a luxury. The first of these network superstars is Saudi Aramco. The oil & gas company has more than 53,000 employees spread across thousands of drilling sites and offices in the Middle East and Europe. Regular communication with its staff was turning out to be a challenge for Aramco; hence providing workers access to corporate data was high on the agenda. Nabil Khalid Al-Dabal, manager for communications engineering & technical support in Saudi Aramco’s IT department explains: “We have huge facilities spread across KSA and Europe, both onshore and offshore. The drivers of our move toward wireless technology have been fast deployment, easy installation, meeting community requirements, network access wherever needed, linking buildings that are not connected to the network with simple and rapid installation and at the same time providing scalability and mobility.” Following a thorough risk and compliance assessment of frequency and compatibility with its existing infrastructure, Aramco started by rolling out WiFi technology to link facilities in Dhahran and Qatif that are 35km apart. The tests produced throughput results of 13Mbps and spikes of 22Mbps. The technology had a theoretical speed limit of 36Mbps. To link the areas on the wide area network (WAN) that could not be effectively connected by WiFi, Saudi Aramco invested in free space optics (FSO). The line of sight links offer 100Mbps Fast Ethernet bandwidth and replaced leased lines. The oil giant deployed more than 700 access points and 24 outdoor hotspots spread over its educational facilities, warehouses and three airports. Saudi Aramco also went one step further by mobilising its SAP R/3 enterprise resource planning (ERP) system so its thousands of staff can access corporate data from anywhere within its operational area. “The wireless environment provides us with communication and [access to] data with a minimal footprint. It is scalable, mobile and gives network access where Aramco needs it. WiFi has given us fast deployment to meet our critical business and security requirements,” says Al-Dabal. For instance, doctors at its hospitals can now access patient data and medical records via their handhelds. The field service application is also helping Saudi Aramco improve inspection and maintenance functions by allowing immediate recording of field data. Furthermore, the wireless inventory system saves time and money by allowing the oil & gas giant to track existing inventory across its different sites. ||**|||~||~||~|While Saudi Aramco has been an early adopter of wireless in the Kingdom, other enterprises are utilising their infrastructures in other ways. For example, King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh turned to FVC to implement a network-based videoconferencing solution to improve medical training and consultation during operations. The initial scope of the project was to provide multiple live videoconferencing sessions from various operating rooms to postgraduate classrooms and auditoriums. Dubai-based video solutions provider First Video Communications (FVC) implemented the project, which was extended to provide connectivity with other hospitals in Saudi Arabia and throughout the world. The vendor created a multimedia network, which includes infrastructure, videoconferencing systems, video streaming and network based digital video recording. FVC also worked with systems integrator Saudi Business Machines (SBM) on the implementation. “Our technical experts in the field of networking and audio-visual evaluated many different products and selected the FVC solution as offering the highest possible quality services,” says Dr Abdel Rahman Salim, consultant general & laproscopic surgeon at King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre. “King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre is a leading medical institution providing the highest quality patient care. It is our policy to provide the best possible services using well proven and state of the art equipment and technologies,” he adds. King Faisal Specialist Hospital primarily uses the videoconferencing system to provide live sessions including surgeries, lectures and presentations to audiences in classrooms and auditoriums around the world, with surgeries and educational presentations carried out from countries such as Belgium, Canada, France, India and Italy as well as from the military hospital in Riyadh. “We also use the system to transmit live surgeries from multiple operating rooms simultaneously to various classrooms and auditoriums,” says Salim. “The videoconferencing sessions provide two way communication enabling surgeons to educate the audience as they perform the surgery and also allows the audience to ask questions,” he adds. The hospital has been impressed with the high quality of the video recording as well as the increased efficiency in communications brought by the system. “The high quality video and audio transmission is a most beneficial feature,” says Salim. “It shows impressive detail of surgical procedures and provides the ability to include remote consultations and directions by consultants. It also enables cost effective advanced training and education that was not possible in the past,” he explains. Previously it was difficult to conduct this type of education as operating rooms can accommodate only a very limited audience. Exacerbating factors are that the audience feel fatigue and discomfort during long operations, and it becomes more difficult to maintain sterilisation and operating room procedures. The hospital also uses the system to create a resource of digitally recorded rare surgeries for later on-demand viewing. “Digital recording, encoding and editing of surgical procedures is another major benefit,” says Salim. “We are gradually building a library of rare operations, which can be delivered to authorised physicians using video streaming and playback on-demand,” he adds.||**|||~||~|Many industries are either evaluating wireless or are in pilot phases, while some are working on company-wide deployment, says Hani Nofal, enterprise accounts manager at 3Com Middle East.|~|Video capture and recording, editing, encoding, storage, and playback are currently available, and the hospital is testing web-casting and a remote access service to the multimedia network. This is intended to extend the benefits of the solution to authorised people, hospitals, and other institutions over the internet or using public telephony. The system saw its most extensive use to date during the International Minimum Invasive Surgery Symposium, which took place from September 20-22, 2004. Dr Salem was the chairman of the symposium and headed the event. The main themes were minimum invasive surgery using endoscopes and robotics surgery using remote surgery. The videoconferencing solution ensured live broadcasts of surgeries were transmitted directly from operating rooms to conference halls. “The great success of the International Minimally Invasive and Robotics Surgery Symposium opens the door for many future applications and additions to be considered. Our technical experts are evaluating a number of new ways the multimedia network can be used to help us meet our objectives,” Salim says. When building the video conferencing solution for King Faisal Specialist Hospital, FVC focused heavily on Polycom products on the video side, with iPower 9000 systems taking on the most demanding chores. This platform links to the many cameras that are sited in the operating rooms and routes the video data on to the network, where it can be broadcast to other rooms within the hospital. “We set up multiple video sources in the operating rooms including top view, ceiling or surgical light mounted cameras, as well as side view cameras mounted on the walls,” says Waeil Elkadi, advisory integrated technology services representative, SBM. “For more detailed examination we also linked endoscope cameras, PCs and X-Ray equipment inside the operating room,” he adds. ||**|||~||~|Wireless access boosts productivity as employees typically spend only 30% of their time at the desk, says Samer Alkharrat, service provider regional manager, Cisco Middle East.|~|The system also uses France Telecom spin-off Envivo to provide video streaming solutions, which facilitate broadcasting footage over the internet. The video system sits on a Cisco-based infrastructure, with 6500 core switches and Cisco 3750 stackable switches deployed. “We integrated the video system with existing infrastructure and facilities. For example, the videoconferencing solution was integrated with operating room equipment so they could share the benefits of using the same control system,” explains Ahmed Youssef, territory manager for FVC. This integration is designed to optimise ease of use in the operating theatre. It allows, for example, cameras and other graphic sources to be selected from touch screens. Also, as the dedicated multimedia network integrates with the existing data network via multi-Gigabit links, the procedures can be recorded to video capture servers as well as on VCR and DVD based recorders. Furthermore, the solution integrates with the hospital’s existing audio-visual network. This is achieved at the Audio Visual Centre and enables selected procedures to be broadcast and displayed at any location covered by the AV network as a normal TV channel. The network uses fibre for most of its links, with both MultiMode and SingleMode deployed depending on the length of the link. For links within the same wiring cabinet, King Faisal Specialist Hospital opted to utilise copper. In terms of network management, King Faisal Specialist Hospital uses a number of dedicated software applications to run parts of its complex network. Polycom Global Management System takes care of the video side, while a combination of IBM NetView and CiscoWorks handles chores on the data network side. In addition to King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Saudi Aramco, other end users are also investing in new networks or ensuring that they get the most out of their existing infrastructures. Projects are ongoing at enterprises such as SABIC, the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Riyadh Bank. Such initiatives point to a rosy future for the Kingdom’s networking market, and will hopefully put an end to the debate about whether Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure is good enough. As Zouheir Diab, 3Com’s country manager for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, says: “The Saudi market is the fastest growing market in the Middle East and the infrastructure in the Kingdom is getting better. Many companies have a dedicated team for networking and they are taking networking seriously because they have realised that if they do not have a total solution then they cannot be productive.”||**||Hotspot growth shows no sign of slowing|~||~||~|In 2003 the number of hotspots or public wireless internet access areas in Europe, Middle East & Africa region stood at 9500. However, it increased to 30,000 a year later. Furthermore, it is estimated that by 2008 there will be 700 million WiFi users, 350,000 hotspots, hundreds and millions of smartphones and handhelds and 70 million notebooks. 89% of these laptops will be wireless enabled. Driving this phenomenal growth is the collective push of the ICT industry and organisations that want their employees to be more productive in an increasingly competitive and global business environment. “Typically, employees spend only 30% of their time at the desk and that is not really enough time for them to be productive. They spend the rest of their time travelling, in meetings, at home, outside the office, or generally away from their desks. If corporations want their employees to be productive, they need to provide continuous access to information, e-mails, database, the web, corporate network and the supply chain,” explains Samer Alkharrat, service provider regional manager, Cisco Middle East. In the first wave of computing in the 80s and 90s, enterprises and their employees were content with being chained to their desks for access to data and communication through fixed line phones. But in the mid 90s, thanks to mobile phones and the internet, a simple form of mobility was created giving employees access to voice and basic data services. In addition, the new generation of wireless enabled laptops and data-centric mobile devices materialised and the long talked about virtual office and mobile workers became a reality. “Many industries are either evaluating wireless or are in pilot phases, while some are working on company-wide deployment,” says Hani Nofal, enterprise accounts manager at 3Com Middle East. “In particular, the small-to-medium size businesses (SMBs) community and the education and hospitality sectors that are looking at wireless,” he adds.||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code