For IT directors, the new data centre road map is clear: Head toward an all-IP network, complete with advanced IP applications such as real-time collaboration.

Already, companies are moving along the stepping-stones to this all-IP place. Many have implemented voice and video over IP, and are throwing out Frame Relay networks and other private links in favour of pure IP connections, such as those provided via MPLS-based networks.

For network leaders plotting their courses to the advanced IP paradise, the goal is to achieve real-time collaboration with advanced IP applications and an all-IP network.

In the first of our case studies we hear from Erik Durand, the IT director for Californian civil engineering firm Psomas.

Engineered for advanced IP
In a perfect world, says Durand, the CAD/CAM drawings his users rely upon would be available from anywhere at anytime. "Our engineers would be able to collaborate on construction projects using whiteboard applications and videoconferencing over wireless LAN, cellular or satellite connections from a remote office, an on-site trailer or even a dirt mound," he says.

Today, he is laying the groundwork that will help him attain this network nirvana.

"As an engineering company, we work with large CAD files - 300MB to 500MB on average for each one," he says. "This wasn't a problem when we were a smaller company and everyone worked in the same office, but as we've grown - 20 percent per year over the last two years - we find we really need to share work across offices."

Durand already has swapped out his Frame Relay network in favour of an MPLS-based, fully meshed, pure-IP topography.

"The advantage is that we can have every-office-to-every-office connections, where before we had to pass through a main hub. We've lessened the number of hops, which will speed access to data," he says.

He also has consolidated file servers at the company's locations in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah to a handful of data centres equipped with Riverbed Technology's Steelhead file services appliances. These appliances allow real-time access and sharing of centralised data over the wide area.

"We used to do off-line file synchronisations overnight, but they were a day behind and were a nightmare to manage. Users would ask if they could share work across offices and we'd have to say 'no.' Now we can do it," he says. Another benefit has been the ease of file restores, which are frequently required because of human error, he explains.

The move to a consolidated all-IP network also has enabled Psomas to open new offices quickly, without a lot of gear and staff. In fact, Durand's 14-person staff has not increased even though the company has grown rapidly over the past two years to support 620 users.

"We can open new offices with minimal servers, a router, a switch, an appliance and a large pipe. We refer to it as an 'office in a box.' This means less real estate for a LAN room, less costs, and the ability to do remote management. This approach is enabling us to save money as a growing company," he says.

As a next step, Durand is evaluating IP storage-area networks (SANs) to complement the file services appliances. "The chief benefit will be cost savings," he says. IP SANs will allow Psomas to have less off-site storage. "Once we get the core system in place, then additional storage is cheap. We can do near-line backups and minimise the need for tapes. We'll also only have to send tapes off-site once a month rather than once a week."

While this vision of an all-IP paradise seems easy, Durand says obstacles stand in the way. He points to the high cost of Riverbed appliances - around £5,000 for a basic unit. "That's cost-prohibitive to put in every project trailer," he says.

The slow speeds of wireless datacards - a critical element of Durand's any-time, anywhere access vision - also frustrate him. "We've demoed cellular IP cards with an overlay VPN and the overhead was painful," he says. At 100Kbit/s to 300Kbit/s, the cards were too slow for the company's large files. He's excited about the emerging services that carriers are touting to have speeds up to 2Mbit/s, but is waiting for them to have a larger coverage area.