Stretch the network

The Middle East is one of the most challenging regions for WAN deployments; NME looks at some of the most interesting projects, and considers the latest technology trends.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  October 2, 2006

|~|network200.jpg|~||~|Last month NME looked at wide area network (WAN) optimisation issues, and squeezing as much out of an existing WAN as possible. But with demands from applications growing constantly, and concerns around redundancy and availability increasing, many Middle Eastern organisations are finding the need to implement new WAN technology. One of the major factors in this is the cost and availability of leased lines and other data circuits; regional telcos still lag behind their European and American counterparts in providing universal, low-cost data infrastructure to businesses. However this is now changing, with operators such as STC in Saudi Arabia and Etisalat in the UAE working to increase the reach of their infrastructures – Etisalat says its leased line costs have fallen several times in the last few years, although the company was not able to make figures immediately available. STC in particular is making an effort to extend its reach. Earlier this year it committed to installing 600,000 new lines over the next two years, and also increase the number of DSL lines available – something of critical importance to smaller businesses and organisations. But despite this, there will always be situations where enterprises need to consider alternative WAN systems to telco-supplied lines. The two most obvious types of technology are free-space optics (FSO) and radio/microwave-based solutions. Both of these technology types have serious issues when considering deployment in the Middle East. FSO, while being quicker, easier and cheaper to deploy than radio-based systems, can suffer dramatically from atmospheric conditions, especially over long distances. The optical technology also exists in something of a grey area in terms of regulation – Ayman Al Saffan, director for the Middle East and Africa at PAV FSO, a free-space optics vendor, says many of his customers are unwilling to divulge their names, because of the regulatory uncertainty in the region. Despite this, there are some very successful FSO deployments in the region. If FSO exists in a regulatory no-man’s-land, radio WAN systems are in the middle of the battlefield. Most Middle Eastern countries have now firmed up regulation on radio frequency products, but there is still some degree of confusion in the region as a whole. “Some countries in the region follow European standards, others use the US versions,” says Paul Budgen, director of sales EMEA for Motorola’s range of Canopy wireless broadband products. Working through specialist regional distributors, such as Minerva, based in Dubai, vendors such as Motorola can make sure their regional implementations do not fall foul of government regulations. “The other issue for range is the environment and geography; the important factor is to plan the WAN link in advance, using link planning tools,” says Budgen. “A planning system can use data from globe mapping operations to predict what sort of performance the system will achieve.” Motorola, which has recently acquired Orthogon and last month announced the purchase of Symbol, now has a strong WAN infrastructure lineup – Budgen makes the point that the Orthogon range of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) products now functions as a very effective backhaul to complement Canopy cells. Budgen says, because of the regulatory confusion, many of the more high-profile customers tend to be government organisations. As ever, Saudi Arabia is home to some of the more interesting projects in the WAN field – its large population and geographical area, along with its diverse range of topographies, mean innovative solutions to long-distance networking are always in demand. Anwar Shwaikh, project manager at E-Saudi, a KSA-based integrator, has been involved in several interesting projects with microwave-frequency systems. One of the toughest had to tackle the delivery of voice communication within a 25km-long tunnel near Medina, run by the Medina Development Committee (MDC). According to Shwaikh, MDC had tried a number of communication methods without success.||**|||~|budgen200.jpg|~|“The important factor is to plan the WAN link in advance, using link planning tools.” Paul Budgen, director of sales EMEA, Motorola.|~|“MDC had a lot of problems, because of interference from the high-voltage power cables in the tunnel. Because the tunnel is not straight, with a lot of corners, it breaks the signal,” says Shwaikh. “So what we have done is convert MDC’s PBX to digital, create a point-to-point link to the closest location to the tunnel. “Then with a wire down to the tunnel, we use a system of Wi-Fi repeater devices. In each corner we put a transceiver to repeat and amplify the signal. We then used wireless VoIP telephone sets – the maintenance staff can use a push-to-talk walkie-talkie style service, as well as the normal telephone PBX.” According to Shwaikh, the design of the infrastructure was critical in this implementation; because MDC planned to use the system for voice communication, latency needed to be as low as possible. The implementation team achieved this by using 2.4GHz Wi-Fi systems for coverage within the tunnel to connect to the handsets; they then deployed a 5GHz-range backhaul to the main data centre. This delivered latency below 6ms throughout the tunnel, enabling lag-free voice communication. A key factor in ensuring effective WAN communication is making sure the most appropriate protocols and transmission methods are used, depending on the data being transferred. Wireless systems like that in Medina can be used for voice, but configuration is all important to ensure quality of service is maintained. HP’s networking division, ProCurve, has recently introduced products which aim to do away with protocol issues in certain situations. Rather than using dedicated WAN systems, with specific WAN protocols, the vendor has introduced long-distance Ethernet systems. This allows organisations to eliminate translation from Ethernet protocols to WAN, and also to eliminate all of the – often expensive – equipment required to do this, in the form of WAN routers, says Ivan Kraemer, regional sales and marketing director for HP ProCurve. He explains how an implementation in the UAE’s Ajman was able to bring significant benefits: “Ajman, being a small Emirate, doesn’t have locations which are very far apart, and they already have infrastructure there – they were able to use this. By removing the routers, we were able to bring costs down and performance up; not only do you have less equipment, but you’re going from maybe 2Mbit/s, up to 100Mbit/s minimum, up to 1Gbit/s links.” Back on the radio side of technology, new innovations are starting to offer more reliable WAN systems. The key solution at the moment is mesh – wireless nodes distributed over an area to provide redundant coverage, in case one or more nodes fail. E-Saudi’s Shwaikh worked on a major project to connect nine military hospitals in the Ta’if region of Saudi Arabia using a mesh network. “The region is very difficult, with lots of mountains – the distance between each node goes up to 30km, with mountains in between,” says Shwaikh. “It was a very tough experience; it was the first time we dealt with the situation where we had two nodes, and in between a mountain that is only four to five metres lower than the nodes. “Being honest, technically speaking I have no idea how it happened – but it did, and people were impressed and happy with the system,” Shwaikh explains, slightly self-deprecatorily. “It was a zero-downtime contract, so we had to do a rigorous site survey, over two weeks, in order to make a full mesh network. So it’s not just connectivity from one hospital to the others, or from the central data centre to the hospitals – it was a complete mesh network. We had to guarantee that they would always have links up, and we needed to make sure we could deliver the support.” The main purpose of the network was to transfer large image files, such as X-ray and CTC scans. But Shwaikh says the hospitals have plans to bring in voice and additional data services over time; this being the case, E-Saudi designed and implemented the network such that only 40-50% of the capacity would be utilised by the initial applications. On the fringes of WAN systems, a number of innovative technologies and solutions are starting to emerge. Satellite providers such as Inmarsat are pushing ahead with their data offerings – Inmarsat’s BGAN (broadband global area network) is in use in Iraq for the country’s ATM system. Providers like Digitalskys are now pioneering the use of technologies such as GSM over IP in the region – it is now possible for one van with a GSM over IP node and a satellite uplink to act as a complete GSM operator, using VoIP technology to ensure call costs are very low, according to Digitalskys’ chief executive officer, Charles D’Alberto.||**||

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