Multinational firm specifies standardized voice and data system

Marconi Communications' new infrastructure allows for voice over an ATM system

May 1st, 2001
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Marconi Communications' new infrastructure allows for voice over an ATM system.

Marconi PLC, an $8 billion enterprise that seemingly sprung up overnight to become a leader in electronic communications, has 49,000 employees, manufacturing facilities in 10 countries, and a name that is becoming increasingly known globally. But in fact, the company did not spring up overnight. Rather, the company now known as Marconi is the result of a crafted strategic plan.

It involved changing the name of General Electric Company PLC to Marconi (after Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first transatlantic wireless transmission in 1901), and using the resources available from a global conglomerate with interests in areas that range from defense to industrial services. Marconi has used these resources to conduct commerce, and to position itself as a known provider of network and communications solution architectures.

One of the first, and largest, divisions divested from the new Marconi was defense, which was sold to British Aerospace in 1999. This sale let Marconi acquire two well-known U.S. companies: Fore Systems and Reltec, along with some operations from other companies, including Siemens, Nokia, and Bosch. Gradually, the acquisitions let Marconi gain core technology in Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), switching, broadband solutions, wireless technology, and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) equipment.

Challenges of rapid growth

The company's long-term vision is to be a global leader in electronic telecommunications-with companies like Cisco, Lucent, and Nortel. With no dependency on narrowband or circuit-switched revenue streams, and with a $1 billion services division to support and retain customers, Marconi's sole focus is on customer-based networking solutions.

Ed Gallagher, Marconi's director of global telecommunications, stands in one of dozens of telecommunications rooms that were designed as part of a global infrastructure plan.
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As with any large company experiencing significant growth, including multiple acquisitions, Marconi has faced challenges on several fronts. One was making the varied operating systems work together. Another was to ensure that all information-technology infrastructures were soundly in place and would support the company's current and projected needs.

A tangible objective within Marconi's vision was to be among the first companies to offer a viable voice-over-ATM system. Marconi intends to show potential customers the viability of the application by having those prospects walk through Marconi's facilities and see employees talking through their computers, interacting in real time. Customers and prospects will also visit telecommunications rooms, where the Marconi ATM switching devices reside, and which will afford the company the bandwidth it needs.

It hasn't taken long, however, for Marconi to recognize that the IT infrastructure in place at many of its facilities would not support the objective's specifics. Robert Gilkes, a member of the global networks staff at Marconi's Coventry, U.K. facilities, presented his concerns to the company's board of directors in early 2000. The board listened, agreed, and gave the go-ahead to upgrade the entire infrastructure within Marconi's facilities, so that each facility could support a minimum 100Base-T connection to each desktop, with an ATM backbone. In his presentation to the board, Gilkes emphasized the importance of consistency and some level of global standardization for the systems-including the physical layer.

Establishing a global team, plan

In April 2000, Mary Carlson was appointed Marconi's vice president of information technology, and David Flanigan was appointed director of global networks. They headed the company's efforts to establish central management and maximize the cost-effectiveness of the impending IT infrastructure upgrades.

When Flanigan surveyed the networks that were already in place throughout the company's worldwide sites, he found cabling systems ranging from simple bus-protocol infrastructures to those that fully complied with Category 5E specifications.

At the same time he was conducting this analysis, Flanigan was also managing the company's day-to-day growth. Marconi's Communications Division was adding employees at a rate of approximately 20% annually, meaning that the company was occupying new space, and employees frequently were being moved-sometimes into space that previously served as corridors and conference rooms.

For Flanigan, maximizing cost-effectiveness required coordinating efforts among the company's IT personnel as well as managing external vendor relationships, which varied from region to region. One facility that was particularly advanced in laying out a formal template for its network infrastructure was Coventry, U.K. Staff had established relationships with providers, including Molex Premise Networks, and had established an optimum configuration of the network's physical layer, including the backbone, telecommunications rooms, and workstations.

Providing a template

Marconi's global infrastructure model specified unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) cabling for connectivity to each desktop. The company adopted Category 5E as the standard for office networks, because the infrastructure supports 10- and 100-Mbit/sec Ethernet traffic, and 155-Mbit/sec ATM circuits as well. The company was confident that this infrastructure would support its existing and emerging technologies, and provide sufficient flexibility and capacity for the growth that would be essential in such a technical engineering environment.

In the European facilities, the tack in general for network design was to provide prearranged capacity for a given amount of square footage. The company implemented a flood-wiring approach, believing it would be more cost-effective to connect users to the prewired workstations than it would be to cable each workstation individually when that space was needed. The fact that raised-tile flooring was common in the European facilities was a significant consideration in the decision to flood-wire.

Documentation and labeling efforts, like those being carried out here, are crucial to major multimedia installation projects.
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Multiducts house the blown fiber that makes up external and internal links between the main and intermediate crossconnects. Seven-channel multiduct runs between buildings, and two-channel multiduct runs between floors in each building. Each multiduct was filled to capacity during the installation. Singlemode fiber connects core communications centers, as well as secondary centers that are separated by more than 300 meters. Multimode optical fibers with 50/125-micron cores connect all other secondary communications centers.

The strategy for cabling from communications rooms to workstations was to provide three UTP outlets to each staff member. The flood-wiring approach dictated the installation of three UTP outlets for each 10 square meters of office space-including corridors, walkways, and stairwells. This calculation was based on the idea that one in three outlets would be used for data, plus 20% that would cater to requirements such as printers and dual workstations. Says Gilkes, "It makes planning immeasurably easier when one just has to make the simple calculation that there will be X number of ports, based on the total square meters of building space."

A first step was to lay all cable in the subfloor structure, ready to be used whenever needed. The staff also designed a template for each telecommunications room, indicating exactly how the racks should be configured, what color patch panels would be used, and which vendors' equipment would be used.

In the United States facilities, subfloor structures are much less common, so Marconi implemented a more conventional approach. Flanigan decided to allow infrastructure variations from region to region, as long as the overall infrastructure met minimum standards for application and protocol support.

Flood-wiring solution

Ed Gallagher, Marconi's director of global telecommunications, recommended flood-wiring in overhead cable tray for most manufacturing areas to support all potential high-intensity applications. For example, in some U.S. facilities, one ATM connection was placed every 1,000 square feet. Wall outlets with six data ports were placed every 17 ft.

As a result of this approach, no workstation was more than 81/2 ft from the connection. Any workstation could be brought online with a plug-in at the telecommunications room.

The time savings achieved through this creative wiring scheme was crucial, considering the constant expansion of the company's U.S. facilities. Project deadlines necessitated installing cable overhead at the same time that new concrete floors were being poured. In such an environment, the cost associated with prewiring additional workstations was considered relatively insignificant.

In any environment, growth always represents a management challenge. In Marconi's case, a telecommunications company was established through strategic acquisitions and alignment of several technology companies over a short period of time. Those strategic moves took place during a period when the company's product lines, including ATM switching gear, were growing significantly. The risks were also considerable; the company estimates that a one-hour network outage at any production line would cost approximately $1.5 million.

Despite the risks, the integration of several companies into one was carried out according to a strategic plan, which was well-orchestrated with vendors and internal IT staff, located throughout the world.

In the very near future, Marconi's customers and prospects will be able to see what voice-over-ATM really should look and, more importantly, sound like at many of the company's worldwide facilities.

Susan Riley has served as global marketing manager at Molex Premise Networks (Hudson, NH).

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