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Windows on the world

Communications and standardisation are key issues when supporting an IT network as big as that at Bovis. Bovis Europe has 2,400 users, half of them in the UK and the firm is rapidly building up a worldwide network working with Bovis America.

'We are moving very quickly towards globalisation of our IT where we will have common applications and common servers,' says Bovis Europe IT director Ken France. The firm is in the middle of a global shift to Windows NT, which has the benefit of allowing all machines to be configured the same.

'We are managing to convert a lot of our old machines to run NT,' says France. 'But there will be a certain number which won't be capable.' Rather than throw out these 200 or so machines, the plan is to turn them into basic terminals with the processing power coming from servers for each network.

France is looking for a pilot site on which to use technology such as Microsoft's Windows Terminal Server or Citrix. 'What the systems provide is a return to the days where applications run centrally on the server - with advantages in support and control.' In essence, the old computer is just used to 'repaint' the screen.

This technology would be able to deal with all the Office applications, Bovis' Hummingbird project control system and access to central databases. 'Reading the reports, it does appear to offer good opportunities,' says France. 'Some of those machines will be four to five years old which in PC terms is very old. If we can give them another three years of life, that will be amazing.'

In the UK, virtually all Bovis' sites are connected into the central network and there are permanent leased lines between the Harrow base and the regional offices. Data communications are relatively expensive in the UK compared to the US, points out France, and it costs several thousand pounds to set up a private leased line of any reasonable speed. The smaller sites have dial up systems, while the larger sites have ISDN links. For many construction companies, IT strategies have become a little disjointed, he believes. The physical separation means that fairly sophisticated site- based computing often runs autonomously from the rest of the organisation.

In Europe - where the firm's work is expanding - Bovis has chosen a communications service managed by Equant, which provides the equipment and puts in place links with local companies such as Spain's Telefonica or France Telecom. It is based on the CITA international airport network - and a lot of Bovis work is not far from airports. 'It gives us a lot of flexibility because we can increase or decrease the amount of bandwidth we can purchase over the service.'

The company is increasingly using the Internet for information transfer. For data security, Bovis Europe is linked to Bovis America via a virtual private network (VPN). 'We are rapidly building a global network. All our e-mail traffic goes across that link,' says France. The firm's intranet is run from America through the system. 'It offers the same privacy as a leased line, using a 'firewall' box for security and encryption.' He likens it to being in a big shopping mall and wanting to get from A to B. 'The VPN is like having a minibus with the windows blanked out being driven right through to the end.'

All users have access to Internet mail. Browser access is restricted to a business case basis, and use is monitored.

For each country, a communications network is built to act as a hub through which users can come through to one of the main centres. And when a new global VPN service is introduced, people with laptops will be able to dial in through local dial up services. To provide this, the company is looking to service providers with global coverage.

Bovis is also involved in looking at the next generation of communication, with its alliance partner BP and through collaborative research projects.

The Bluewater shopping centre site in Kent has been used to trial aspects such as enhanced video conferencing.

With BP, there has also been work in 'virtual teamworking', linked to sharing knowledge. 'Knowledge management is going to be a key area for the future, providing access to that information,' says France.

Although video conferencing has been very good, people found that they didn't need face to face contact once they could share applications, says France. With voice contact, they can make changes to documents, carry out red lining, make comments. 'But you have to go through the stages of having to learn to use these processes first, and getting together a group of enthusiasts,' says France.

Virtual reality software will also play a part in construction communications and management. Bovis is a member of the virtual reality centre at the Bartlett School. Internet-type technologies can use conferencing based on looking at a 3D model.

'It's getting away from this old way of the project team only coming together at say two weekly intervals,' says France. 'We're trying to make the whole process far more continuous.' Some of the technology will just be basic tools, creating shared folders of information. 'But it does rely on having good infrastructure, and agreeing the standards up front,' says France. LR

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