Network Expansion: Building Out Infrastructure & Meeting Capacity Needs

2/9/2013 9:07:08 AM

Most companies only hope their business will grow to the point that network expansion becomes an absolute necessity, as that in­dicates a need to accommodate a greater number of employees or customers. But network expansion can be a messy process with com­plex implementation and costly equipment purchases. Never mind the fact that knowing how much capacity you'll need now and in the future is an equally difficult proposition.

Network expansion

Network expansion

We'll identify some factors you need to consider when starting the expansion process, outline methods for improving network efficiency, and help you decide whether now is really the right time for expansion.

Determine if expansion is 100% necessary

Before you start adding greater bandwidth or more access points to your network, determine whether a full expansion or refresh is what's needed. In some cases, network prob­lems result from inefficiency rather than lack of capacity.

"Networks are actually underuti­lized in most companies and they're not run very efficiently, because everything is very manually done," says Andre Kindness, principal analyst at Forrester Research (www.forrester.com). Kindness says that the solution for some companies is to look into "transforming their net­work as opposed to expanding it" and not necessarily adding more bandwidth, but instead "changing the way that networking is being done."

But in order to get a clear indica­tion of whether you have efficiency or capacity issues, you need to have some way of digging into the net­work and gathering crucial informa­tion. This is where an NMS (network management system) comes into play, according to Mark Tauschek, lead research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group (www.infotech.com). "You should have solid visibility into what's actually happening on you network, how much bandwidth is being consumed, and what kind of traffic is accounting for the bulk of your consumption," he says.

Website: www.forrester.com

Website: www.forrester.com

With an NMS in place, you will often discover that intense, but not necessarily business-oriented traffic is causing your waning bandwidth. For instance, YouTube or peer-to- peer networking traffic can actu­ally "drown out that higher priority traffic" and distort the data related to your network utilization, ac­cording to Tauschek. But if, after you install an NMS or otherwise gather data from your network and still have issues, there could be more underlying problems that need to be addressed.

Listen to employees

Perhaps the best way to pinpoint specific problems and potential solutions is to speak directly with your workforce. In most cases, em­ployees aren't shy about sharing problems they have with the net­work and how poor performance affects their productivity.

"It can be anyone from the storage personnel complaining that the net­work isn't reacting to what they need [to people complaining when they] bring in their own devices, use the network, and can't connect to it and get the information they need," says Kindness. "Complaints are the major impetus for a lot of change within companies," he adds. "If they can't get to the applications or ser­vices they need, then you're causing the business to not perform the way it needs to."

With this feedback taken into consideration, you will then be in a much better position to assess how the network is actually working for employees, right whatever wrongs may exist on the network, and improve your overall busi­ness efficiency. Kindness says that by having your networking team venture out and "understand what the business needs," they can make sure that the expansion plans are "in alignment with where the busi­ness wants to go."

But still, it's important to re­member that "the network touches everything," including not only users, but applications and devices as well, says Kindness. You can't simply look at your hardware for upgrade opportunities that will an­swer the complaints of your work­force. You have to determine how your current network, as well as any changes you may make, will af­fect the performance of computers, smartphones, tablets, and other de­vices. After all, you don't want to fix one problem only to create half a dozen more.

Leverage historical data

If you decide your network is in need of expansion, the next step is to develop an expansion plan be­fore making the leap to purchasing software or equipment. And using the data gathered from your NMS or other monitoring solution is ab­solutely essential throughout the process.

"You want to have some historical [information about] the growth of the data on the network to have a sense of how much you expect traffic to grow . . . over the next two to three years," says Tauschek. "If I'm going to throw significant money and re­sources at a network expansion, I don't want to just meet the capacity I have today, because six months from now I'm going to be in the same po­sition." This all leads back to understanding the specific needs of your company. As you plan to build out your network and expand capacity, you need to look at how "each business unit uses that network differently, from HR to manufacturing to mar­keting," says Kindness.

Luckily for companies, vendors are starting to break their solutions into suitable fragments that accom­modate more segmented markets. Therefore companies can move away from "best of breed solutions" and instead focus on those that "fit the business the best," adds Kindness. He uses the example of a hotel that needs to provide access to many guests, compared to a manufac­turing plant that doesn't require that same type of access allowances. And by finding a solution that fits your environment, you can save money in the process.

Consider the costs

When it comes to building out in­frastructure of any kind, sticking to a strict budget will always be a crucial aspect during implementation. But instead of focusing on the hardware and other upfront costs, Kindness says that companies should place a higher priority on operational costs. "Change in itself will always have a cost, but it's only a blip, because you typically keep infrastructure, on av­erage, for anywhere between five to eight years."

If you've gone through the plan­ning process and chosen equipment and software that will serve you over the long term, Kindness says that people "will be blown away" by the actual costs. One way to make sure that you are "blown away" in a positive way is by going beyond the ini­tial investment and finding solutions that can make your net­work more efficient. "Most of the cost is on the operational side," says Kindness. "Initially, people look at the hardware cost," but, he adds, it's best to look at the costs of the manage­ment and monitoring solutions that come with the overall solution.

"There's always an overall orches­tration package that runs the entire infrastructure," Kindness says, "but the thing that people really want to look at is that solution makes my operation much more efficient." And if you can do that, you will save a significant amount of money over the next few years rather than trying to cut corners upfront.

Wait to expand, if possible

Even if your company has all the telltale signs of an overburdened network and you're well prepared for large-scale network expansion, Tauschek warns now might not be the best time. He says while data centers "might be in a better position to take advantage of emerging solu­tions right now" if they're dealing with top of rack expansion, most other companies should simply focus on "trying to keep the wheels on" and do only what is necessary to get through the next year.

"There are a lot of things going on where I would say if you need to ex­pand your network today, you might want to just be mindful of where you're expanding," says Tauschek. "If, for instance, you're running out of capacity in a switching closet that's serving end users, just add one switch if you have to right now."

If you're wondering why Tauschek is hesitant to say compa­nies should go full-bore with net­work expansion, you need not look any further than SDN (software de­fined networking). Right now, most companies have to go from switch to switch or from router to router to make policy changes or affect the overall performance of the network. It's a time consuming process many IT administrators have become ac­customed to, but it won't have to be that way for much longer.

SDN will help centralize control for different access points in your network and make network adjust­ments much quicker and easier. And if you can wait until 2014, according to Tauschek, SDN and other emerging technologies will build on their solid foundations and "really take off."

SDN will help centralize control for different access points in your network and make network adjust¬ments much quicker and easier.

SDN will help centralize control for different access points in your network and make network adjust­ments much quicker and easier.

"I think a year from now, we'll be in a position to take advantage of SDN and emerging technology [in cost-effective ways that will] not only simplify the refresh and expansion, but the ongoing day to day managing of the network," says Tauschek. "We're talking about performance improvements and greater visibility into the behavior of the network. In the next year to 18 months, you're going to have a very different view of how you can ex­pand or refresh your network cost effectively."

Key points

Speak to employees about their network experiences and gather historical data in order to better plan out a success­ful network expansion.

Network management systems and other monitoring solutions provide an in-depth view of access points and traffic.

Keep expansion-related costs in mind but focus more on lowering operational costs through improved efficiency rather than upfront hardware and software purchases.

Do only what is necessary to get you through the next year and wait for software- defined networking to hit its stride.

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