While sluggish applications, frequent downtime and inconsistent performance are some of the warning signs that your network is riding on fumes, an even more compelling reason to upgrade your network infrastructure just might be the allure of the shiny new network models beckoning from the showroom floor.
"As a rule of thumb, if your switching and routing gear is more than four years old, it's probably not smart enough," said Robert Whiteley, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "But just deploying the gear isn't enough. To handle a more complex network, firms must invest in the right network management tools."
Network upgrades a top priority for most
Adopting and integrating new network technologies is a top priority for 80% of companies surveyed in a recent report by Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, with 61% of these enterprises planning a transition to IP-based networks within in the next two years.
Although technology obsolescence is a driving factor for many, enterprises also believe that centralizing data centers can lead to improved productivity and reduction of telecom spending.
"Unified communications, VoIP and other applications are forcing a sea change," said Joe Basili, an Aberdeen research director.
IP and voice technology mean new network demands
Indeed, when voice technology is added, vulnerabilities in a network are exposed. Adding voice requires the support of real-time applications, and even partial-second delays are unacceptable. Instant dial tones and clear audio are basic requirements.
When Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) enters the picture, quality of service is key. "Drop a few packets on a network carrying voice and users complain right away, which often brings into question the voice implementation when it is actually the underlying infrastructure causing the issues," said Eric Hobbs, president of Technology Associates in Cary, N.C.
Nanometrics Inc., a semiconductor test equipment manufacturer based in Milpitas, Calif., recently grappled with connecting voice to its network infrastructure after a recent merger. Engineers in overseas branches couldn't share information over the network and were unable to pull large technical files from the corporate data center due to slow WAN performance.
To improve workforce productivity with minimal downtime, Nanometrics employed Cisco Systems Inc.'s Wide Area Applications Services, which offered a pre-configured, integrated router and wide area network optimization, said Dave Kizer, Nanometrics' IT director.
"We were able to take multiple IT setups and backup systems and consolidate them. As a result, we no longer needed to replace old hardware that needed to be upgraded," Kizer said. "The replacement costs of these data centers alone paid for the solution."
Scalability, not speed, is key criteria
When selecting a network vendor or new network equipment, "speeds and feeds" (the ability to quickly process and manage traffic) is typically on the top of the IT checklist. But today's high-performance products have little variability in this area, said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Boston-based The Yankee Group.
Instead, criteria should also include the ability of an upgraded network to grow and add new features. "You need to think long-term about what you're going to do," Kerravala said. This scalability applies not only to bandwidth, but also to built-in acceleration capabilities and other intelligent features that organizations may need in five or seven years.
Procurement selection should also focus on system interoperability. "It's common that when technology manufacturers purchase other manufacturers, adding products that compliment their offerings, the 'new' products have a different operating system and administration tools," said Bill S. Annino Jr., director of Carousel Industries, a Peace Dale, R.I., technology solutions provider. "But ideally you want to deal with as few network operating systems as possible, and preferably just one across your organization."
Getting your money's worth
ROI is always the Holy Grail of IT expenditures, Hobbs said, but measuring ROI from a network infrastructure standpoint is difficult without first looking at overarching business issues.
If a network is designed or maintained poorly and introduces performance glitches, for example, then lost productivity can form the basis for ROI.
Or, Hobbs said, if infrastructure enhancements are implemented for new technologies such as VoIP, then ROI can be driven from enhanced network services such as reduced telecommunications expenses.
Another way to measure the ROI of a network upgrade, Kerravala said, is through end-user satisfaction including better overall reliability and application uptime. "The network is a shared service that enables a lot of applications. You have to measure the relative value of each application before and after a network upgrade to apply financial metrics to it, and that is an extremely arduous process," Kerravala said.
So if VoIP, mobile users, service-oriented architecture or remote offices are complicating the network, perhaps now is the time to look at the new, smarter network offerings. After all, a poorly running network is like an old car, Kerravala said. "If every month you have to bring it in for work, perhaps it's cheaper to buy a new car."
Cindy Atoji is a Boston-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology.