The Ouagadougou Factor

By Brian P. Watson Print this article Print

To provide technical assistance and developmental knowledge to fight poverty and disease, the World Bank first had to overhaul its antiquated I.T. system and build a global network.

The Ouagadougou Factor

Of course, the essential component necessary to align I.T. with Wolfensohn's decentralized business strategy was a global network. In 1997, the bank began evaluating vendors with an eye to possibly outsourcing its global network needs. One of the questions bank officials asked competing vendors was: Could they supply network connectivity to Ouagadougou? This usually drew a blank stare as the vendors typically had never heard of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a small, landlocked country in West Africa. The population ranks among the poorest and most illiterate in the world. The bank has had a presence there for years.

With its need to provide service to Bukina Faso and other remote regions of the globe, the bank decided in 1997 to build its own global network infrastructure, a high-speed, reliable network of regional satellites and fiber optics. According to a presentation made by Vidoje P. Brajovic, manager of the Information Solutions Group's Global Connectivity Solutions division, the network consists of three satellites that serve the bank's offices in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. The bank's headquarters connects by a fiber-optic line to a German teleport, which in turn relays information to two Intelsat satellites. One of the satellites serves Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Middle East; the other serves Asia. Bank headquarters also has connectivity with a third Orion 3 satellite that serves Europe.

With the satellite network going up, the bank in June 2000 began the Global Development Learning Network (GDLN), a partnership of what is now more than 120 learning centers. The GDLN offers the use of advanced information and communications technologies, such as interactive videoconferencing, to enable individual bank employees, teams, clients and affiliated organizations working in development around the world to communicate, share knowledge and learn from each others' experiences in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Despite having built a robust satellite network, the bank was constrained by infrastructure limits, especially in developing countries without high-speed networking infrastructures on the ground. As a result, there was a need to provide automated bandwidth among the multiple services (voice, video and data) being offered. Initially, the bank relied on frame relay—a high-speed packet-switching protocol—for this, but that quickly proved unsatisfactory.

"Frame relay is a very expensive solution to implement, which also brings a significant overhead," Brajovic said in a 2003 Cisco case study about the network. Indeed, in running upward of 20,000 videoconferences a year in five to 10 locations concurrently, the overhead was prohibitive, he said. The bank required more than 50 simultaneous connections in place for data, telephony and video applications.

Meanwhile, any attempt to run integrated services over the satellite wide-area networks (WANs) using quality of service (QoS) features would have to overcome satellite connectivity limitations such as an efficient solution for multimedia service. These were not common in local-area networks (the bank had its own LAN in Washington). As a result, existing QoS solutions had to be modified to support the different classes of traffic.

After attending a Cisco executive briefing, bank officials began weighing the potential benefits of moving to converged network services over Internet Protocol (IP). Among them: far lower cost of ownership and administration, improved and more consistent service, and decreased management complexity. After running various pilot tests, the multi-service IP network infrastructure for field offices and distance-learning centers went live in 2003. According to Brajovic, the results have been largely positive. The bank began training its entire staff in IP.

"It's a much simpler approach," Brajovic says. Network management costs have been reduced, while network administrators are utilizing Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), which enables the bank to monitor and control network devices and to manage everything from configurations to security. "In the past, we did not have the capacity to monitor many voice and satellite devices. Now using SNMP-enabled devices, we can control the whole network automatically," he adds.

As of 2003, the annual operating costs for the bank's global communications network came to $12.3 million, according to the Harvard Business School case history. Unit costs per gigabyte of data transmission were lower than those of comparable organizations, one assessment of similar networks by industry analysts found, while cost efficiency normalized per workload was about twice as high as the peer average. "I continue to consider the work done on the World Bank's global network to be of very high quality," I.T. expert McFarlan, who's a professor at the Harvard Business School, told Baseline.

More recently, in May 2005 during the spring meetings of the Internet2 community, GDLN connected with the second-generation Internet, which was developed by a consortium of universities, private companies and the U.S. government to be primarily a research network. Soon after, CIO Muhsin announced that the bank had joined Internet2 as an affiliate member. "The World Bank remains focused on providing countries with the training and resources they need to facilitate economic growth," Muhsin told newsletter Grid Today. "Through our partnership with Internet2, the World Bank can now effectively work with remote countries and provide a richer, more comprehensive learning experience for its global community."

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This article was originally published on 2007-08-05
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Brian joined Baseline in March 2006. In addition to previous stints at Inter@ctive Week and The Net Economy, he's written for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., as well as The Sunday Tribune in Dublin, Ireland. Brian has a B.A. from Bucknell University and a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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