Network Sharing in the Public Sector – Avoiding the Obvious Pitfalls

Staffordshire County Council is one example of an authority which is at the forefront of the trend towards sharing as much as possible within reason and without compromising security. It is in the process of implementing one of the country’s first Public Sector Networks to link all borough and district councils in the county as well as the South Staffs health authority. The network will connect around 50,000 devices and be accessed by some 200 council sites and 400 schools.It will include all fixed and mobile phones as well as broadband and the council calculate it will result in total savings approaching £1 million per annum. The project combines wide- and local-area networks, rationalisation of multiple telephony services onto a single IP platform, a new contact centre system, streamlining of mobile phone connectivity and the centralisation of security functions.As part of the streamlining, Staffordshire council is also consolidating 18 offices into a new county HQ in the centre of Stafford. The network will provide a platform for introducing new, flexible ways of working into the council and its partners, it said. As everything is bedded down, the council hopes to absorb more public sector bodies within the county onto the network. Already it is believed that this is the first instance of a council sharing the same communications system as a local health authority.Of course, the wider this and other similar networks spread, the more the issue of security is going to arise. Multi Protocol Label Switching ( MPLS ) is now the technology of choice for tackling security issues in today’s public sector network projects.Obviously, the whole idea of shared networks within the public sector is that all traffic runs over the same infrastructure. Therefore it is imperative that each separate user group is segmented and provided with its own Virtual Private Network (VPN) and MPLS is now generally used by the other major operators to deliver each one. The technology is extremely scaleable and capable of supporting a massive number of separate closed networks.Although the design and operational experience required for MPLS is by no means trivial, the good news is that it can now be designed into shared networks whereas it is not long since it was only available on very high-end routing systems used by the big operators themselves. MPLS can also be very effective in helping to efficiently allocate bandwidth at times of heavy congestion or in the event of partial network failure.Given the new age of austerity, there is no doubt that network sharing is the future as far as the public sector is concerned but councils and agencies considering it as a cost-saving measure need to be aware of all the issues involved and how private sector operators have dealt with them on projects which they have already successfully completed for other local authorities.

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