The Ontario Medical Mobile Eye Care Unit, or Eye Van, was established in 1972 with support from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and the Ontario Medical Association Ophthalmology Section. Each year, it travels more than 6,000 kilometres across Northern Ontario, bringing volunteer ophthalmologists to 33 remote communities where eye care is limited.“If we didn’t go, they would have to travel for treatment and a lot of people wouldn’t be able to,” says Orr, one of two CNIB employees who work on the van.
Essentially, the Eye Van is a tractor-trailer that has been completely gutted and refurbished as doctors’ offices, complete with a waiting room. While most of the technology required is installed on-site, one of the key challenges in running the remote medical facility is providing the necessary communications link back to the CNIB’s head office through applications like electronic mail, says Vicki Mains, CNIB’s national director of systems and communications.
Prior to 2004, that vital link was provided through a virtual private network (VPN) that serviced all of the CNIB’s remote locations and users, and was supported by an external communications carrier for a cost of about $6,000 each month. “We had to have it,” Mains says. “Our staff need to stay in touch while they’re on the road for security reasons.”
Last year, the CNIB was offered a chance to upgrade its network infrastructure, thanks to donations from Cisco Systems Canada Co. and integrator NexInnovations Inc. of Mississauga, Ont. An aging Foundry switch — no longer supported — was replaced with a Cisco Catalyst 6500 Series core switch to provide a Gigabit Ethernet backbone, while Cisco edge switches were installed to provide Ethernet to the desktop for most office users and Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop for a small group of power users.
Meanwhile, those in the Eye Van were given secure access to CNIB’s corporate e-mail through dual Cisco VPN concentrators, Internet routers, PIX firewalls and intrusion detection systems — all of which are part of Cisco’s “self-defending” network strategy.
“We really focused on increasing the security,” says Darryl Wilson, NexInnovations national practice manager, internetworking. “Everything was deployed in redundant pairs for high availability. They’re servicing a lot of external people so they’ve got to make sure this data centre is up and operational all of the time.”

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No matter what community the Eye Van rolls into, it always has Internet access capabilities through a Sierra wireless air card or a dial-up connection provided through Bell Canada, says Orr. “You try the wireless and if it doesn’t work you have to default to the dial-up, but no matter how we log on, we can always use the Cisco client to access our VPN lock and get our CNIB e-mail.”
Not only does the e-mail connection enable Orr and her colleague to stay in touch with corporate activities, but it’s also used to request drugs and supplies for the van, as well as for day-to-day communication with their manager. “Everywhere we go, it’s important for us to be able to access our e-mail,” says Orr.
By bringing its VPN in-house, where it is now centrally-managed by a team of 12 information systems employees, the CNIB has saved more than $70,000 annually — money that is being redirected into additional services, says Main. It has also created a reliable network infrastructure capable of supporting new initiatives.
“We used to go up and down like a yo-yo,” says Mains, noting the new network has been fully operational since July 2004 with no outages. “For a charity, this kind of significant change is like a dream come true.”
In addition to its digital library, the CNIB is an advocacy organization for the visually-impaired. The organization also funds and conducts vision-related scientific research. Its revenue is provided both by government and private donations. It also provides services for the visually impaired, including counselling for those who have lost their sight and their families. The CNIB also has training programs to help people read braille, type, and identify money.

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