18 August 2017
Despite warnings that the NHS and its suppliers were not ready for the new Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), progress is now said to have exceeded expectations.
In March 2017, BT’s contract to supply the NHS’ N3 network came to an end. Work on developing its replacement began in 2014. But last year, some industry experts expressed concerns about whether all parties were ready for the transition to HSCN (see front page News, Oct 2016 issue).
Five months after the end of N3, NHS Digital’s website says there are now 21 suppliers that have achieved, or are in the process of achieving, HSCN stage one compliance – that’s better than expected as the original target was to have around eight suppliers by this time. Interoute, KCOM, TNP and Updata are among some of the companies currently on the list. Other suppliers, including Gamma Telecom, Maintel, Vodafone and Telefónica/O2, are in the process of starting compliance.
Innopsis – the industry association for suppliers that provide network services to public sector bodies – worked with NHS Digital to create the obligations framework for HSCN. Its director Michael Bowyer says there’s been a great deal of background activity to ensure that all the infrastructure is working.
He says: “The first layer ensures that there are common peering points established for HSCN. These are where all the consumer network services providers (CNSPs) actually interface and interconnect.
“Redcentric was awarded the contract. They have built the two peering points and the platform is now up and running. And we even have the first pilots of CNSPs actually connecting to those peering points to prove that their service model actually works (this is part of the accreditation process),” Bowyer says.
He goes on to explain that as CNSPs connect to the peering point they pay a small levy which basically helps to return the cost of standing up the infrastructure. “So as we get more CNSPs using that peering point and get traffic whizzing over them, it becomes a self-funding activity which is an ultimate goal for NHS Digital.”
Other core HSCN suppliers include Computacenter which will take care of network analytics. And Capita Business has been awarded the Advanced Network Monitoring (ANM) services contract. It will be responsible for inspecting all internet traffic from connectivity suppliers, instantly blocking any known malicious content. The ANM is currently in development and will be tested during September 2017.
Bowyer says HSCN is probably the largest network infrastructure programme the UK will see over the next few years, particularly because it is part of the government’s integration programme to link all social and health care services. “The N3 replacement involves around 35,000-40,000 connections. If you include social care as well, that potentially means 75,000 to 100,000 connections consuming HSCN services over the next few years. That’s an incredible opportunity for all network vendors.”
He adds that HSCN is a totally cloud-based model which will make it easy for end users to consume more services as required as well as encourage innovation. “We are already starting to see suppliers looking at SDN for a lot of HSCN connectivity which offers a lot of options such as Wi-Fi, internet, private WAN, or even a hybrid of all of that plus satellite. I believe it will be the smaller vendors that will be the most innovative in their approaches because they are quite quick with new technology, and can hit the requirements easier than by offering a traditional MPLS WAN solution, for example.”
Bowyer says most of the pressures are now on suppliers to ensure that they are ready to meet the demand and can provide consistent deployment capability.
On the network side, he says while there are now no issues, there are still some NHS organisations on N3 who are being moved to a ‘transition network’. This is a three-year struck agreement between NHS Digital and BT which enables continuity of service for such users. However, Bowyer points out that the overall aim of the contract is to aid migration to HSCN. “That means we have to get absolutely everybody off the transition network within 34 months. I am totally confident that that will happen.”