By Stephen J. Bigelow, Senior Technology Writer
As a company grows its business, solution providers play a leading role in the network design projects needed to update the client's existing network and expand it to accommodate additional users or workloads. Vendors have commoditized their network products, allowing solution providers to implement powerful network elements that would have been cost-prohibitive just a few years ago. Modern network design has moved away from the traditional challenges of component selection and configuration and is now focused on using established technologies to solve clients' business problems. This first installment of our Hot Spot Tutorial discusses the essential goals of network design planning, helping providers address today's network design issues.
Problem identification. The most important consideration in any network design project is identifying the client's business problem. Network design is less about technologies and components (e.g., switches and NICs) and more about meeting clients' network technology goals and business objectives.
"What are they trying to accomplish through the use of technology?" said Adam Gray, chief technology officer of Novacoast, an IT services and product development company based in Santa Barbara, Calif. "If [a technology] doesn't relate back to solving a business problem, they're not going to purchase it." Determining the business goal often requires a detailed understanding of the network services that the client will offer to their end users, business partners, customers and vendors.
Unified communications support. Clients recognize the importance of a distributed and mobile workforce. Mobility technologies allow users to access data any time from any place on any device -- a core concept behind unified communications. "That's been a major shift that has crept up on us over the last several years," Gray said, noting that mobile computing has moved past the weaknesses found in early implementations. "If you're a solution provider today and you don't have a unified communications strategy, you're probably not going to survive."
Security requirements. Network design projects must include security -- particularly as it relates to the client's regulatory compliance obligations. Security can complicate business objectives such as mobile computing, so solution providers are always challenged to balance security and compliance with the client's business objectives.
"Security, as a rule, imposes restrictions on things," said Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies, a solution provider in Fairfax, Va. "So know the total needs for the client's business first, then look at the security needs to make sure that you can accomplish the business goals with those security requirements in place."
Network design projects frequently create cost-cutting opportunities for the client, such as replacing aging infrastructure with newer, faster and more efficient devices, which can save the client money over time. Experts like Gray point to experiences with medium-sized SMB shops that are only taking on new projects that will reduce their operating costs and show a complete ROI within several years. This is usually coupled with an interest in granular control over company assets and property, which involves the introduction or expansion of identity management technologies for the client.
Cloud computing. Cost-cutting also involves network simplification -- shedding excess infrastructure or moving more services and applications from the data center to the Web, a Software as a Service (SaaS) provider, or into "the cloud" to limit the client's dependence on bandwidth and network hardware. Sobel said that solution providers should consider cloud computing for their network design projects.
"The customer may be looking to do that now or may need to do it in the future -- have some of their infrastructure stored out in the cloud rather than on-premise," he said. "Factoring that in is important in the design stage." For example, moving to cloud computing may demand more or different WAN connectivity or greater VPN access, or precipitate other changes to the client's network. Outsourcing network maintenance and other related tasks can cut costs, as well as provide recurring revenue opportunities for solution providers that are positioned to deliver those services.
Review of current network infrastructure. And finally, the role and suitability of the current network infrastructure is important. Unless you're fitting out a brand-new business from scratch, the client will have some kind of network in place and running before an initial meeting. Network design planning should involve a pre-assessment including a review of the current network and access to any existing documentation. This will ensure the interoperability of new technologies and aid you in identifying any network elements that my require upgrades or configuration changes to support the new project.
Network components. The basic elements of a network have changed very little in the last few years. NICs, switches, cabling, routers and storage have become cheaper, yet support higher bandwidth and easier management. Today, the choice of basic network components is rarely a mission-critical consideration for solution providers working with SMB clients. Still, switches and devices that employ emerging Power over Ethernet (PoE) technology are gaining acceptance, and there are many more unique storage options available for the client, such as inexpensive NAS and SAN systems.
There are some notable new technologies you can add to your network component repertoire. First, mobility technologies have proliferated far beyond the continued expansion of conventional 802.11x (Wi-Fi). "I've seen a whole lot more 3G cards, Sprint Wireless cards, and now WiMax seems to be the next piece that's going to hit that mobile end of the computing stream," Gray said, noting that it's often end users that bring such technology into the enterprise, where it ultimately has to be accepted by the business. Wireless security ensures proper wireless authentication and prevents the presence of rogue access points (APs) on the premises.
Impact of virtualization. While not a network component per se, virtualization has taken on an important role in servers, storage, desktops and even the network. Virtualization increases utilization and allows workloads to be moved seamlessly without regard for the underlying physical hardware. This adds complexity to the client's environment, but saves money through consolidation. Solution providers that introduce virtualization or handle network designs in a virtualized environment will need to ensure that hardware is suitable for the amount of work being performed -- especially in network connectivity and bandwidth. For example, a server handling 10 workloads will need significantly more network connectivity than the same server handling only one workload.
Another central design trend to consider is higher bandwidth utilization. Virtualization can add to network bandwidth demands, particularly when data or workloads are migrated between systems (e.g., backups, snapshots and DR). But clients are also incorporating other network technologies like Voice over IP (VoIP), iSCSI and streaming media servers, which can all impact LAN performance.
Network architecture and performance. Basic network architectures have also changed very little in Ethernet LAN design. Solution providers have four main choices: point-to-point (P2P), hub (or star), ring and mesh. The point-to-point and the more traditional hub network architectures remain the simplest to set up and manage, but both present single points of failure that must be factored into network resiliency and redundancy considerations. The ring architecture is slightly older and the wiring can be cumbersome to set up, but ring characteristics offer redundancy that is desirable for many organizations. Solution providers may consider the mesh architecture for larger clients with the most stringent redundancy requirements and self-healing capabilities, but mesh is also the most complex to set up and manage.
Solution providers will often base network design on the client's current network architecture, but experts like Gray note the crucial importance of flexibility in the final design. "We've always been a strong proponent, especially in recent years, of choosing architectures that don't lock you into a platform," Gray said. "The choices you make in how you're going to provide services to customers and end users should always allow you to be agile … [and] respond to need."
Solution providers like Gray say that mobility is key to this agility, and Novacoast embraced Web development tools like Adobe's Flex to create cross-platform applications. "It gives our customers the ability to run the same application on … an embedded platform, mobile platform or [various browsers on] desktops and it doesn't change at all," Gray said.
Network design projects also involve performance testing. During pre-assessment or planning discussions, solution providers should identify areas of concern or establish a baseline for the existing network. Testing is also used after project deployment to verify that agreed performance goals are met and to detect unintended consequences.
"Network performance is and will always be an ongoing battle for organizations," said Allen Zuk, an independent IT risk management consultant formerly with GlassHouse Technologies. Zuk noted the ongoing need to balance network performance, availability, cost and support. "Organizations need to constantly monitor and analyze traffic patterns and application/data footprints to ensure the best balance."
This was first published in October 2008