By Matthew Southwell
Growing demand from government users and the need to underpin a growing number of e-services led the Central Informatics Organisation to deploy last mile lasers.
|~|fso_M.jpg|~|Free space optics was the right solution in this instance.|~|Like many of the region’s e-government initiatives, Bahrain’s has been an all encompassing one.
During the course of the project, which is continuing at pace, the government has unveiled and executed on plans to take its immigration & central population registration systems, national database and decision support systems online, upgrade its hardware and software stacks and implement a nationwide smart card/identification card project.
The overarching goal of all this activity is to increase transparency, enhance citizen convenience and boost governmental efficiencies through the effective use of technology.
“New technology offers unprecedented opportunities for modernisation throughout society,” says Shaikh Ahmed Ateyatalla Al Khalifa, undersecretary of the Central Informatics Organisation (CIO), which runs the government’s computer systems and infrastructure.
“We are witnessing the start of an information age which is radically changing the way governments do business and the way citizens derive the many goods and services they need,” he adds.
However, no matter how much money is pumped into service development or spent on the latest hardware and applications, e-government initiatives falter unless they are underpinned by an effective network infrastructure that avails its users of fast and reliable connectivity. With this in mind, the CIO began designing a Government Data Network (GDN) back in 1995 and implementing said infrastructure in late 1996.
Today, the GDN connects nearly 200 sites distributed all over Bahrain and provides network services for the ministries. It carries a wide variety of data traffic, such as mainframe terminal connections for users in the various organisations, e-mail between the organisations, internet browsing and connectivity for inter-organisation client-server systems. It allows users to access the information they need to perform their roles in the government and access appropriate data without the users having to worry about where or how the data is stored.
“We have many applications running over the network and all of the ministry services run over the [GDN], including the financial management information system (FMIS), which belongs to the Ministry of Finance, and a service offered by the Civil Service Bureau, which is called Horizon and addresses human resources,” says Khalid Salem Al Othman, GDN technical services manager at the CIO, Government of Bahrain.
Initially, the GDN comprised a combination of cables connecting computers, data routing/switching devices and selected inter-site data transport services. It was based on Frame Relay, which was provided by Batelco. However, as usage levels soared among Bahrain’s government users and the public body introduced more services, simple Frame Relay connectivity proved to be insufficient and the CIO began investigating other technologies capable of delivering the high speed network it required.
“We were facing some problems in terms of response times because there are lots of users that require access to the network,” says Al Othman. “We started with Frame Relay connectivity, but after some time we needed more bandwidth. Batelco could not give us this at the time, apart from over ATM, which is very expensive. As a result, we decided to look at other solutions,” he explains.||**||Light alternative|~||~||~|As ATM was unsuitable, the CIO’s attention turned to Free Space Optics (FSO) technology. Capable of providing a wireless connection of up to 1 Gigabit over distances of up to 4 kilometres, the solution appeared to fit Bahrain Government’s requirements exactly as its main buildings are located within a small geographical area.
“We have an area called the diplomatic area and almost all of the ministries are in this location and they are close to each other, which means it is a nice place to use FSO,” says Al Othman.
The initial FSO pilot project began in 2001 while a November 2002 implementation linked Cisco 3550 switches at the backbone sites to Cisco 6509 switches at two central locations to provide the CIO with a connection of 100 Mbits/s.
PAV Free Space Optics and its local partner, Al Moayed, carried out the project and integration was relatively simple due to the blind point-to-point connectivity of FSO, which means that the equipment does not need to recognise the origin of other components. Since the pilot project, Bahrain’s use of FSO has sky rocketed to the extent that, as of late last year, it had implemented 19 FSO link ups.
“The project started in 2001 when we implemented a pilot project. In 2002 we finalised the first phase and in 2003 we did the final stage, which went live in September. The intention was to link all the government ministries together, back to two main buildings,” says Ayman Al Saffan, territory manager for the Middle East & North Africa region at PAV Free Space Optics.
“The CIO tested the FSO pilot for two years and because it was happy with it they tendered it out and we won. That project consisted of 11 links, which were implemented in four months, and later the second phase, which took the total to 19, was implemented in two months in 2003,” he continues.
According to Al Othman, the FSO links have delivered on the CIO’s high speed connectivity requirements. Furthermore, the platform has been stable and easy to manage due to the integration of an SNP management tool with its Cisco Works software and the training the CIO team received as the technology was deployed.
“For the time being the management is easy and the platform is stable, as we have an SNP box to manage the link,” says Al Othman.
In fact, Bahrain Government’s FSO project has been so successful that it has spurred Batelco into action. As a result, the PTT has since made a multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) network, which works with Internet Protocol (IP), Asynchronous Transport Mode (ATM) and Frame Relay protocols rather than lasers to accelerate data flow, available to the CIO on an exclusive basis.
“After we implemented FSO, they [Batelco] saw the project and offered MPLS to us, which gives us a high speed line for all of the government departments over fibre. What we are doing now is using the FSO and MPLS at the same time, so we have back up,” explains Al Othman.
As the CIO now has two high speed networks, it is running them in tandem. Although the MPLS is destined to become the primary infrastructure, FSO will continue to play a key role in Bahrain Government’s IT infrastructure as it provides a low cost, high speed alternative to MPLS and ensures both government officials and the services it introduces have the connectivity they require.
“MPLS offers 10 Mbits/s to 100 Mbits/s and we cannot have a Frame Relay back up line because this can only provide us with 20 Mbits/s and there is no comparison. So we use FSO as a back up,” says Al Othman. “Having both the FSO and MPLS is essential. Without a high speed network we would not be able to develop our services and add new ones,” he adds.||**||