Optimizing a Global Network

By Maria Behan  |  Posted 2011-01-28

John Lax, the vice president of information systems at International Justice Mission, measures the return on technology investments differently from most other IT leaders. “We measure ROI in terms of lives changed and people saved,” he says. Lax adds that network-optimizing technology has had a significant positive impact on IJM’s ROI, in both the life-saving and the balance-sheet sense.

IJM is a Christian human rights organization that fights abuses such as forced labor and police brutality. “We work on a case-by-case basis to free people from sex slavery and other kinds of oppression,” Lax explains. “We also work within the local legal system to see that laws are enforced and perpetrators are thrown into jail for their offenses.

“In many of the locations where we operate, that’s a novel thing to happen. But when it does, word gets around that it’s not worth committing those crimes, and that becomes a deterrent.”

Another major IJM goal is structural transformation. “We promote equal protection for the poor in the areas we work in, which will ultimately translate into there being no more victims,” Lax reports. “We’re hoping to work ourselves out of a job—to not be needed anymore because there aren’t any more victims.”

Until that happens, Lax’s job is providing the global technology infrastructure that lets IJM strive for its lofty goals. “My role is figuring out how to keep the organization functioning as efficiently as possible from a technology perspective,” he says. “A lot of that involves doing a cost-benefit analysis on the best ways to maintain essential systems for information sharing.”

Much of Lax’s focus has been on centralizing and beefing up IJM’s worldwide network. The success of that effort depends on the use of Riverbed Technology’s WAN optimization tools, including Steelhead appliances and the Riverbed Optimization System.

“Riverbed allows us to set up a viable communications infrastructure with decent bandwidth without spending a huge amount of money,” Lax says. “And rather than just looking at what we’re saving strictly in terms of dollars and cents—which is about $4,800 a month—we also look at what we can do with the money we save. If we use it to hire a staff member or an aftercare worker in a field office, that person might go on to save roughly 40 people a year, which is a pretty impressive ROI in my book.”

Lax says the network has helped save the lives of both IJM clients and field workers. “When rescuing people from violence, our staff members run the risk of violence themselves,” he explains. “They face threats almost every day, and having a stable communications network helps us keep them safe.”

Protecting the Protectors

Lax cites an incident that took place in rural India, several hours outside the city of Chennai (formerly Madras). “We heard about a particularly brutal rice mill where several families were being held to work against their will, so three of our field workers went out to investigate,” he says. “The mill owner detected our staff members and brought in a mob that started attacking them.”

Although IJM team members were trapped in their car, one was able to use a BlackBerry to contact IJM’s office in Chennai, which immediately e-mailed the case details to the organization’s headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area. “Our staff includes former FBI and DEA agents—people who have a lot of experience in these sorts of circumstances—and they used our network to communicate back and forth to come up with a strategy for getting local law enforcement involved,” Lax explains.

That particular incident ended happily: The headquarters team rallied support, and, as a result, the local police rescued IJM’s field team an hour or two after our team reported the trouble to the Chennai office. “Their car was totaled, but our workers were rescued,” Lax says. “When our team and the local authorities returned, the families being held at the mill were freed.”

That incident isn’t the only time that IJM’s network has saved clients and staff. “It’s something that happens regularly,” he adds. “Having fast and reliable e-mail communication makes a huge difference for the safety of our clients and our people in the field.”

Optimizing a Global Network

Before IJM centralized its network, its field offices and headquarters had separate e-mail servers and networks. “The communication from Chennai to our home office was more sporadic than it is now because we’ve centralized our e-mail system at headquarters,” Lax says. Under the new model, field offices such as Chennai are outfitted with a file server, a domain controller, a Riverbed Steelhead appliance and a Cisco ASA Adaptive Security Appliance firewall.

“When someone at a remote office sends a message in Microsoft Outlook, it’s routed through a Riverbed device, which concentrates it down in size,” he explains. “We’re getting about a fivefold reduction in size, which means five times more data can go through.”

The compressed e-mail is passed along to a local Cisco security device, which adds 256-bit encryption. When it arrives at IJM headquarters, the message is decrypted by an equivalent Cisco firewall device and then passed to a Steelhead appliance that restores it to its normal size. After that, it goes to IJM’s e-mail server for routing to the specified distribution list, which can include both on- and off-site recipients.

This technology also comes into play in IJM’s Microsoft SharePoint implementation. “We host SharePoint here at headquarters, and it’s available to all our field offices so they can access things like training materials,” he says. “As we implement workflows through SharePoint, Riverbed’s been working closely with us—and Microsoft—to optimize network connections.”

IJM’s enhanced network is also enabling a custom application that will pull together elements from Microsoft SQL Server and SharePoint for improved casework tracking and management. “The goal is a business intelligence system that will let us analyze all our casework,” Lax explains.

It’s the kind of project that fulfills the vision outlined for Lax when he interviewed for his position in 2007. “IJM’s founder, Gary Haugen, told me that the organization had an abundance of information but wasn’t mining that data or using it effectively to get its message across,” he recalls. Lax took the position to change that, and he finds the work immensely rewarding. “I’ve been in IT for close to 40 years, and I can honestly say that this is the best job I’ve ever had,” he says. “I go home at night with pictures in my mind of the people we’ve rescued. Despite all they’ve been through, they’re able to smile in those photographs. It is truly amazing.”