Paul Bonner, group head of technology at HardwareServices, outlines the planning process IT teams should go through when considering a network refresh.
Networks evolve and grow organically over time. Organisational growth and changing requirements mean additional hardware is added and the result is a network that bears only a distance resemblance to its original design.
A complete network refresh therefore offers the opportunity to rectify this, take a step back and start again with a fresh set of requirements and additional knowledge gained from previously managing the environment.
The common pitfall
Unfortunately, it is all too common to see organisations simply replace old equipment with new without a thought for the overarching design. The assumption here is that new is better and the network will therefore be improved simply through the addition of the new equipment.
This is a mistake.
By conducting a network refresh in this way, organisations are missing a huge opportunity to build a network that really works for their business. Within months they will be faced with the same pain points they have previously experienced and they will be no better prepared for the future than they were before.
A successful network begins with the business
They key to building a really successful network is understanding. Not just understanding the different technologies and options available, but understanding the business and how it makes use of the resources available.
The first step in any new network refresh should be to evaluate the business. What are its goals? What does it need to be able to function? Which of these requirements are reliant on the network? How are these requirements likely to change over time? How can the business make more use of the resources, today and tomorrow?
Ideally, this review should include input from stakeholders within each department in the business. Every department has their own functions to carry out and they place different demands on the network as a result. Understanding how the users interact with the network is key to understanding what the network needs to deliver and how it needs to deliver it.
Once the requirements of each department are understood, it’s time to start looking at the limitations of the previous network and the problems it presented. This may cover any number of areas from capacity or user experience to functionality or maintenance issues. It should include infrastructure for connectivity, security, compute, storage and wireless in addition to the main networking systems.
It is also worth looking back at how the requirements of the business have changed since the previous network was designed. Are switches still required in the same locations? Does cabling need to be present in all of those locations? Are users still using desktop machines or have many migrated to laptops with wireless capabilities? It would prove ineffective to have a strong network but poor wireless connectivity if the majority of employees expect to carry out tasks on their mobile devices.
If looking to the past is important, so is looking to the future. Most organisations will have a long-term business strategy in place so a new network should look to accommodate any growth or diversification planned for at least the next three to five years.
Finally, organisations should approach a network refresh with a full understanding of the financial situation. How much does the network currently cost to run? This cost should include the initial capital expenditure of equipment purchase combined with the ongoing running costs such as heat, light, power, maintenance, staffing, upgrades, downtime and so on.
This knowledge will make it easier to compare alternate solutions such as the cloud. If there is no necessity for all servers to be maintained in house and an opex model is appealing then cloud may prove a viable scenario. In the majority of cases a combination of the two proves the most effective but this can only be determined once all the elements have been considered.
New isn’t always best
Once, and only once, this foundational understanding is in place, the business can begin to look at the technologies that are available. At this point it’s important to remember that new isn’t always best.
Let’s take the example of 100Gig networking. It’s easy to get lost in all the hype surrounding 100G and everything it can achieve and it’s true, it can achieve a lot ; for the right business. But, if yours is not a business that needs to achieve the speeds 100Gb can deliver, where is the value in deploying it? Even the best new technology will not be right in every scenario.
So, here we begin to match up our initial groundwork to the technologies that are available. This can be a difficult and time consuming task as there is an ever-increasing list of options to research and consider.
It’s at this point that an organisation may look to an expert partner to speed up the process. A partner will already have all the necessary knowledge of the technologies on the market from different vendors. Armed with your thorough brief of requirements, they will be able to recommend the best solution for you. A partner will also, in all likelihood, have come across many of your pain points previously and therefore have a pre-tested, best-practice solution to resolve them. They may even have full reference architectures available, designed as a sample for businesses to use as an initial guide when looking at a network refresh.
The service a partner can offer may vary from initial advice through to design, proof-of-concept or full project management and deployment, dependent of the level of support required.
The point here is that a well prepared organisation will have far more success gleaning the information they need from a partner than one that goes in blind. Equally, the partner will be far more able to deliver a solution that meets the exact needs of the business they are working with.
Pre-empting the future
As before, a network refresh does not signal the end of all developments. The business and technological landscape continue to evolve, as must the network.
The best way to manage this continual evolution is to regularly re-evaluate the network. Ensuring performance metrics are built into the fabric of the network means performance can be constantly be examined and proactively improved. It is important not to wait for faults or reports of slow responses. By constantly monitoring performance, any small changes can be identified and the cause resolved before it impacts on other areas of the network.
Another key to future management is thorough documentation. One of the pain points that is often faced over time is a change in staff and therefore a lack of knowledge as to how and why the network is set up as it is. Documentation helps to overcome this challenge, providing any newcomers, or temporary engineers, with all the information they need to fulfil their jobs.
Organisations needing further support to document their systems should again look to a partner for advice on how to achieve this.
Ultimately, only those within an organisation know the ins and outs of their requirements, and even then, no one person in isolation will be able to cover all the bases. Whoever is leading the project needs to make sure they do the groundwork and fully understand all of the objectives the network needs to achieve. The focus needs to be on business outcomes rather than just the physical build. By fully aligning IT strategy with organisational strategy, businesses can achieve success now and prepare themselves for an evolving future.
Paul Bonner is the group head of technology at HardwareServices.