Why a small insurance firm moved to fibre optic

Moving to your own fibre optic connection may seem excessive, but it’s starting to make more sense for some organizations.

For Noble Insurance, an insurance broker with 40 employees in four locations in Ontario, the switch from DSL to fibre started to make sense as prices came down and the firm looked toward building a platform for future applications.

While it’s not a large enterprise, Noble Insurance runs its business operations out of its Collingwood office, with branch offices in Alliston, Barrie and Elmvale — which means its wide-area network (WAN) connections are critical to keeping the business up and running.

But there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with its DSL infrastructure. “It wasn’t awful,” said systems administrator Darrin Armbrust. “We did have hiccups with DSL, we did notice slowdowns.” The concern was the potential for problems in the future, as more demands were placed on the network, such as voice over IP.

There were also issues with speed. “I can remember going to a branch and doing a Citrix client update that was 8 Mb, and it would take forever,” he said. “I’d be waiting 10 minutes. It was unbelievably frustrating.”

The firm’s Broker Management System in Collingwood contains about 120 Gb of data shared among employees, which requires scanning, uploading and retrieving documents. At the time, all documents were scanned in Collingwood, which meant employees had to courier documents back and forth between branch offices. The firm wanted to allow employees to scan their own documents, but with DSL, that had the potential to bog down the system.

Armbrust hadn’t considered fibre until a representative from Atria Networks approached him with the idea.  Atria, which was bought in October by Rogers Communications Inc., operates a fibre optic network, which includes 5,600 fibre route kilometers and more than 3,800 on-net buildings across Ontario, and offers access speeds of up to 10 Gbps.

While Armbrust was initially interested in the benefits of fibre, the cost was prohibitive for a smaller firm such as his. As time passed, however, the costs came down, making it possible to move forward. “We had four DSL lines in our Collingwood office just to try to keep up,” said Armbrust. “The cost of having fibre wasn’t that much different.”

Atria installed a fibre connection to help eliminate the bottlenecks of the previous system. Since Noble Insurance leases its servers, the firm had Atria duplicate the WAN onto fibre and mimic the routers already in place. The entire process took about a month and a half, and by planning ahead there were no hiccups on the day of the switchover, which took place over a weekend.

In the electronic data interchange (EDI) world, it made sense for certain organizations to invest in their own dedicated line, such as banks and financial services firms. EDI is dedicated and secure, and latency and packet loss is predictable, said David Senf, IDC Canada’s research director of infrastructure solutions.

The same can be said of fibre — it offers predictability, rock-solid security and the ability to monitor latency and packet loss, said Senf. “If you’re answering yes to all those things then it makes sense to be paying for a direct line,” said Senf. But with the performance of today’s leased lines and IP VPNs, organizations do need to justify the return on investment of fibre.

For Armbrust, that ROI has come in different forms, including efficiencies and increased productivity. To test the new network, Armbrust downloaded a massive file from Collingwood to a local machine in Elmvale, which had an estimated download time of 40 minutes. Using fibre, it took three minutes to download and transfer the file. Overall, the firm has been able to reduce ping times from 30 to 40 milliseconds to three milliseconds.

“On DSL I would start downloading a 5MB file and people would start complaining because the system just died,” said Armbrust. “I’d have to notify people before I starting downloading or pulling something across the server. Since we put fibre in, I haven’t heard a complaint.” He now downloads files whenever he needs to, without having to notify anyone.

While Noble Insurance is now using VoIP through fibre to connect its four branches, the quality of service is not guaranteed at this point. The next step will be to implement QoS for VoIP over the next year or so. But since the fibre connection is clear and fast, it’s not an urgent priority for IT. “We’re not having problems,” said Armbrust.

Employees like the four-digit dialing between branches, he said, and they no longer have to courier all their documents to Collingwood to be scanned, which is saving the firm money on communications and courier fees.

And receptionists in branch offices are no longer tied to their desks, which frees them up to perform other tasks, such as scanning documents.

“All of our calls regardless of where they come in are answered in Collingwood, so we’re able to save some resources,” said Armbrust. But the biggest difference, he says, is that nobody even notices that he’s downloading or transferring a file. “It’s helped to tremendously free up my time to move forward with other technologies.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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