Swiss Life opens new vistas with Nexans LANmark Category 6 cabling

Since entering the UK market in 1967, Swiss Life (UK) plc has become a market leader in the provision of products that offer financial protection against life's uncertainties. The company is currently in the process of being sold by its Swiss parent company, but with New Income Premiums up 24% on last year, it's still very much business as usual.

An award-winning company, Swiss Life (UK)'s continued success was underlined this year when it was named Group Risk Provider of the Year by Professional Pensions Magazine for the third year running. In addition it has won Health Insurance Magazine's Best Individual Income Protection Provider for two consecutive years; 2001 and 2002. It was also named Health Insurance Magazine's Best Group Critical Illness Provider in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Swiss Life (UK)'s Client Service Centre was once located on the outskirts of Liverpool. As the organisation went from strength to strength, its 500-plus workforce outgrew its premises. It was time to relocate. The location of choice was an elegant old red-brick warehouse built in 1850, containing some 7,500m2 of floor space. Since it was registered as a Grade 1 historical site, great care had to be taken when altering the building’s existing structure, which included lofty barrel-arched ceilings and 1.5-meter-thick walls.

Tim Wheeler, Swiss Life UK’s Computer Services Manager, was responsible for the entire IT infrastructure in the building, and explains the special challenges that this site presented for both Nexans and its certified installer, Groestar Communications Limited (GCL):

“The Edward Pavilion was the last building to be refurbished in the Albert Dock, and you have to imagine an enormous empty shell which was the world’s first non-combustible warehouse, meaning that there is not a sliver of timber in it, just a lot of concrete, brick and mortar. Despite its prosaic purpose, it is a rather pretty building, surrounded by water. This charm fitted perfectly with Swiss Life’s special working atmosphere; and so we bought it and spent a year in renovations, which had to safeguard the integrity of the building, especially in when installing plumbing, electricity, data networking, staircases, and partitions, etc.”

Originally, wireless was considered as an alternative to traditional cabling. However, time and uncertainty were against this choice since there was no way of predicting how wireless would react in this bunker-like environment. The building was shaped like a dumbbell, with two wings and a central core. It was five stories high, and had a large cellar, which even though it was below sea level was completely dry, and is now being used to house generators, paper files, and general goods.

Since false floors had to be put down throughout the building anyway, the decision was made to stick with conventional copper for horizontals (with some dark fibre redundancy in the event of a migration in that direction), and fibre for vertical backbones between floors. Also, rather than stick with Category 5e, Swiss Life decided to upgrade to Category 6, an extra investment which made sense in terms of IT headroom.

“We felt that we couldn’t settle for less,” Wheeler explains: “If we wanted a minimum of five years in front of us, and possibly more. Given the inability to survey the building for wireless and the high cost of doubling base stations, we felt that the latest version of copper provided a financial edge over both wireless and fibre. What we were looking for was value-for-money plus longevity and flexibility. If we suddenly had to provide video to the desktop, we knew that Cat 6 could handle that. Also, we were interested in supplier integration. That’s why we chose an Alcatel voice system, an Alcatel data system, and Nexans (formerly Alcatel Cables and Components) cabling.”

As the project progressed, Tim Wheeler was impressed by the close teamwork and proactivity of the GCL/Nexans team, which freed him to take care of other heavy responsibilities. Since every 10 cm hole to be drilled through thick walls had to be approved, much of the cabling had to be designed in detail beforehand. Thus, there was a phased installation that kept pace with the renovations being done by Carillion, the main building contractor.

Cable testing and design issues were handled jointly by Nexans, GCL and Carillion. For example, when a problem arose over the floor box design, all three parties worked together to find the right solution, without having to drag the end-user into the process. Also, since the contractor had to spray chemicals onto the floor, Nexans called for testing to see whether there would be any resultant cable degradation. And when someone remarked on the high number of aerials on a neighbouring police station (which might generate interference), a survey was performed and interpreted by a Nexans engineer. Taking care of these many minute details as they arose transformed the supplier-customer relationship into a real partnership.

There were also important fire regulation concerns in the Swiss Life installation. The new raised floor would technically create a “plenum,” i.e. a duct which would facilitate the ventilation of the premises, but could also spread fumes and flames in the event of a fire. The Nexans answer was Low Smoke and Zero Halogen (LSZH) cables which it had pioneered to protect both people and building infrastructure. Nexans further assisted by providing documentation for the Fire Authority to approve.

As for tangible benefits since installation, Wheeler is careful to avoid hyperbole, but is optimistic in his ability to meet future needs:

“It’s frankly hard to get excited about a pile of copper lying under the floor,” he confides. “However, it was reassuring to see the network work perfectly the very first time. Also, the moving of 500-600 people into a new location went without a hitch. We simply plugged in as though it had always existed. In financial terms, I feel that our data network is a plus factor for our company. The Edward Pavilion is a building with definite value added. We feel that our network infrastructure can cater to whatever demands lie around the corner."

Tim Wheeler is living proof that an IT manager has to be thinking three, four or even five years ahead in today’s fast-paced, broadband world if data resources are to be aligned with the real needs of business. That is one reason he chose Nexans Category 6 cable. He concludes:

“In the beginning, Category 6 was simply too new to be fully appreciated. In fact, when we started talking about it, standards were still awaiting ratification. However, a strong feeling of confidence was already there. We were certain that Nexans from the very first day would take full responsibility for the cable design, and then work with GCL to see that it was properly installed. Naturally, if it had been too expensive, we wouldn’t have bought it; but the price was right, compared to fibre and wireless. Nexans commitment to do a professional technical job was much appreciated from our side. Although I will probably never again have a chance to oversee cabling for a historically-protected site, I would certainly not hesitate to use Nexans to re-cable a conventional building. Nearly anyone can manufacture copper cables; but, in the long run, it’s the system design, installation and support that really counts.”

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