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Business Team Collaboration Drives Bandwidth Requirements
Virtually colocated business teams can function as an entity provided they have the right tools and connectivity.

By: John Shepler

Online collaboration is becoming more and more important as teams diversify and spread-out worldwide. The notion of a workgroup consisting of a colocated team all sitting in one room has morphed into the virtual workgroup with ad-hoc members linked electronically instead of face to face. This new paradigm has orders of magnitude more flexibility, but to maintain the efficiency of a tightly knit interactive team requires collaboration tools that are fueled by bandwidth. The bigger the team, the greater the challenge and the more demanding the links.

Colocation: The Ideal and the Reality
Consider what you achieve with two people or a small team in close proximity. You have instant voice communications, including facial expressions and body language. Everyone can gather around a screen or a prototype to critique or bat around ideas. Documents can be handed off, literally, by arms reach. You also develop a certain esprit de corps by close association toward common goals.

Well, that's at least in the best of situations. In larger organizations it's just not possible to have everyone within earshot, especially when they need to be in different facilities. The lab, the factory, the warehouse, the client's office and so on are geographically spread out. Now add-in the customers, the suppliers and outsourced efforts. Soon nobody is within earshot of anyone else.

Web Collaboration Advantages
Fortunately, most important information is now generated electronically and is handled in its native format. Physical proximity doesn't mean so much to a network. The person sitting at a PC down the hall seems no further away than the person on a laptop in the airport a thousand miles distant. We can leverage that speed of light communications to include voice, images, video, instant messages, email, instrumentation, and even manufacturing equipment control. Web collaboration software allows far flung team members to see and mark-up documents just as they would with marker pens in a conference room. Plus, nobody has to run copies and mail them for overnight delivery. Remote printers give everyone their own copies almost instantly.

Most collaboration tools are standardized for IP transmission, the corporate LAN standard. What you need to do is extend that LAN to cover multiple sites, remote workers, suppliers and customers. As the LAN leaves the facility it becomes the WAN or Wide Area Network. WANs can be the big bottleneck because costs go up quickly with distance and bandwidth.

WAN Bandwidth Options
If only a few locations are involved and they must communicate reliably with heavy use, private lines can make the most sense. A private line is just that. It's a dedicated connection between two points with exclusive use of the bandwidth. The most common private lines are T1 lines running at 1.5 Mbps bidirectionally. Being used exclusively for private transmission, that bandwidth may well be enough to support web sites, email, IM, Web-based video conferencing, VoIP telephony, and document file transfers.

If T1 bandwidth isn't enough due to huge filesizes like you find with engineering design and simulation of large systems, or a need for real-time high definition video, you can move up incrementally or in discrete steps. T1 lines can be bonded to get multiples of 1.5 Mbps. Above 10 Mbps, fractional DS3 or full DS3 at 45 Mbps is another commonly available increment. You may also be able to get native IP transmission with carrier Ethernet, depending on location. Ethernet WANs are 10 Mbps, Fast Ethernet is 100 Mbps, and GigE is 1,000 Mbps. With GigE between sites, it's hard to imagine running out of bandwidth on the network.

When usage is sporadic, it may be more cost effective to employ virtual private networking over the Internet. Each locationconnects via a T1 or DS3 dedicated Internet service and all data is encrypted for security. This is probably the lowest cost mesh network you can achieve, because most the network is a public utility. If you need committed information rates rather than the Internet's "best effort" service, an MPLS private network can give you highly reliable and predictable mesh connections, where every location can communicate with every other location.

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