"First, we focused on day-to-day operational issues, then we identified and prioritized by location what needed to be upgraded to improve network performance," Westchester County's Lennox Harris says.

On Track

Rather than be taken for a ride when upgrading networks, agencies can reach new heights if they hew to a few smart tactics.

WHOOOSH ... After what seems like an endless upward trek, you're rocketing down the incline of a roller coaster. It's both exhilarating and mildly horrifying. Upgrading an enterprise network -- the backbone for shuttling government services among internal usersand to the public -- can create much the same feeling: Do we have enough funding? Is this the best technology for us? Will we make our schedule? Can we keep our users happy? Will we improve throughput and access to services? Do we understand what we're installing? How can we minimize downtime? ... AAAAIIIIEEEE!

In the case of Network Engineering Manager Lennox Harris, he and the IT team for Westchester County, N.Y., literally support the roller coaster crew at Playland Park, an amusement park in Rye, N.Y., that the Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation has owned and operated for 80 years.

But that's just skimming the surface of the network program that the county IT department runs, points out Deputy CIO Michael Odestick. Right now, Westchester is in the throes of an end-to-end upgrade, completing a migration from Asynchronous Transfer Mode to Gigabit Metro Ethernet -- a move that will support growing demands for data, voice and video services from the network's 6,000 users, who are spread across 433 square miles and work in county and other municipal offices.

Although any municipality or state that's undergone a major network overhaul will acknowledge that it can be a wild ride, there are ways to maximize the exhilaration and minimize the terror. Network chiefs and experts point to best practices for planning, investment strategies and technology that can make network upgrades worthwhile -- and accompanying sudden course changes less jarring.

And there will be changes: "There are several key areas that must be considered when taking on such a monumental task," says Will Lyons, IT director for Paulding County, Ga. "Identify the available timeline for planning and review, identify services that need to be improved or services that can be delivered at a lower cost using new technology, identify the critical areas which cannot be interrupted, and create a plan that satisfies all areas.

"But most of all, expect the unexpected." That needs to top the watch list for these projects, he says.

This spring, Paulding County opened the doors to a new government complex consisting of a courthouse and administration building that relies on a new Cisco Systems network to support county services and provide public wireless service. Lyons' six-member IT shop cut over almost half of the county's 52 departments and consolidated 12 buildings into two. The new network supports a workforce of nearly 12,000 users and serves approximately 130,000 citizens.

Ken Agress, a senior consultant with the Burton Group who focuses on network technologies, recommends that state and local agencies embrace the unexpected and consider ways to do things differently. Rather than a hindrance, the current economy can benefit an infrastructure upgrade, he says. "When you're under stress, it's time to ask: ‘Are we doing this right?' You can set yourself up to do some strategic thinking and figure out what you should be doing."

So exactly how can agencies succeed with network infrastructure upgrades and save money, avoid operational headaches and prove that a change will provide value? Consider five pointers to make it a smooth ride from start to finish: Get the lay of the land, evaluate costs, be forward thinking in technology use, do your tech homework before deployment begins and keep the lines of communication open.

Survey Your Environment

It pays to know absolutely everything about your current infrastructure, the services that ride on it and your users, whether the network has 60 nodes, 600 or 6,000.

In the case of Westchester County, the major technical hurdle was the overall structure itself, Harris says. Because the network straddles county and other municipal organizations, serving users at more than 400 locations, it accounts for thousands of miles of fiber.

Migrating from ATM to Metro Ethernet simplifies the overall network design and infrastructure, provides more services to users, and allows users to improve productivity and efficiency in day-to-day operations, says Odestick.

Adds Harris, "We will have more flexibility in utilizing bandwidth and managing traffic patterns," while circuit costs will decrease. On the back end, IT has phased in the upgrade over the past five years, deploying 650 Cisco routers, switches and access points to support wired and wireless users on Metro-E service from Optimum Lightpath.

Working with teams across technology and program offices in Westchester, Harris says, the county crafted a detailed view of its network services around which to build a phased deployment strategy. "First, we focused on day-to-day operational issues, then we identified and prioritized by location what needed to be upgraded to improve network performance," he says.

Paulding County's Will Lyons says it helps to "have mastery knowledge available for each applied technology at the time of the rollout phase."

Photo Credit: Quantrell Colbert

Run the Numbers

The New York City Housing Authority took a similar tack, although its project was more modest in scale: deploying a Broadband over Power Line (BPL) network to 115 apartments in a single building to support service for intercom and surveillance camera systems.

"A thorough site survey is an absolute requirement," says Anthony Palermo, program manager of premise broadband initiatives for NYCHA.

For its proof-of-concept BPL pilot, the agency did a cost-benefit analysis that used actual costs incurred for a fully wired solution deployed at 17 developments for approximately 20,000 apartments in 222 buildings during 2004 and 2005.

"Allowing for escalation, those costs were then compared with estimates for a BPL rollout of similar scope, which yielded a savings approaching 50 percent," Palermo says. "The greatest benefit was minimizing the need for apartment access and eliminating costly core drilling and cabling."

Even so, the site survey was key because it helped the city agency's IT team understand BPL better and also made it realize that the staff would have to learn some new technologies, including radio frequency and electrical systems.

Think Long Term

Given the flat or diminished budgets common from coast to coast, "you have to get the most out of your funding every single time you get it," Agress points out. Agencies need to think about whether the technology they choose will last three years, five years, maybe even seven.

That fact was definitely at play in Westchester. As a prime example, Harris referenced the cost savings it will recoup from not having to purchase expensive ATM cards. Instead, IT can use an Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet port to implement service based on each user's needs, which will give it more long-term flexibility.

And, unlike with the ATM network, Westchester can manage load balancing and optimize bandwidth demands for services across the county. As it deploys new network devices, it can tune them using CiscoWorks 3.1 and can monitor all applications using IBM Tivoli Netcool.

Do Your Homework

To keep a project on schedule, one crucial factor is pre-deployment tech training, says Paulding's Lyons. "You need to have mastery knowledge available for each applied technology at the time of the rollout phase," he advises. "Without this advanced knowledge, there can be lengthy delays during implementation that might bleed over into the beginning of the next phase and therefore place the project behind from the start."

And don't be afraid to ask for help from your vendor, he adds. Although Lyons says his tech staff "always delivers," because of the exposure to new technology -- Cisco Catalyst 6509 switches preloaded with fail-over supervisor engines and wireless controllers, wireless access points, Voice over IP telephone systems, and new management, optimization and reporting applications -- everyone needed some tech cramming to prepare the team for the inevitable challenges that crop up during installation.

"Regardless of thorough planning, it's often difficult for users to visualize exactly how they will utilize and function in a new office space until they actually move in and start working," Lyons says.

Communicate -- A Lot

The importance of good communications tends to show itself most glaringly during the deployment phase. For instance, notes Lyons, opting to relocate someone from one end of the building to the other in the new courthouse was not a problem for the movers, but what about access to network resources that were laid out for the user in his or her original office space during the planning stages? What about the other members of the department who share the resource? Suddenly and unexpectedly, that needs to change, too.

If there has not been plenty of chatter with managers and users before you get to such a situation, the changes can result in lengthy delays in the project and even increased funding to deliver the necessary services. Even small changes left unaddressed can lead to delays and service hiccups, Lyons says.

Westchester's Harris agrees and adds that the same goes with communicating with an organization's suppliers.

"There needs to be lots of conversations with your vendor about what you are trying to do and looking at the overall project with the groups about what they need," he says. "If I get a good feel about what the users are thinking and if I know what they will need from the vendor to implement it, then we in IT can prepare and navigate through things so we can be ready to serve them immediately."

And that makes for users who stay happy during their network journey. That, Harris says, is IT's ultimate goal: Give the users speedy access to many apps and services while "we try to be below the radar."

Coming Up With the Green

Getting funding for infrastructure projects has always been a challenge.

The best approach, recommends Burton Group analyst Ken Agress, is to marry the infrastructure closely to the agency's mission when explaining to overseers why they should fund a project.

"The network infrastructure tends to be viewed like plumbing, and you don't always understand what's going through the pipes," Agress says.

Get close to the program managers using the network to understand the applications, data and services that run through those pipes. That knowledge is essential for tech plans, investment strategies and cost justifications.

In most instances, it's slow or sluggish network service that justifies a network infrastructure upgrade, so the IT team needs to demonstrate an understanding of the applications, relate them to network conditions and use that combined knowledge to justify the budget to solve the underlying issues, Agress says.

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

It was one of those aha! moments.

Years before it cut over to new network services, Paulding County, Ga., looked for ways to simplify its network wiring. "We spent a lot of time looking at the best way to deploy the Cat 6e copper cabling," says IT Director Will Lyons. "We devised a color-coding system. Each color represents the service it delivers."

This will help into the future, he says. "There will be no confusion about what service you're working on. you can look up, identify the color and know which service is which -- it makes it very, very easy."

Prepare a Power Plan

Although green has become a major technology buzzword, it's still crucial to think through all aspects of what a network change will mean on a facilities systems and power requirement level. It's still fairly common for IT to have little or no role in this side of the technology equation.

That was a lesson learned for Tucson, Ariz., as the city rolled out Voice over IP to 3,000 users over the past two years. During the planning phase -- when the IT team first reviewed the power, generator and uninterruptible power systems in Tucson -- there was adequate capacity for the VoIP project, says IT Administrator Carl Drescher.

But because his team did not have authority over power, cooling or other facilities management, other projects in Tucson had added equipment "that required some of that extra capacity that we were counting on." The IT team was unaware of this; that "where the breakdown in communication occurred," he says. Only after IT had begun its deployment did it find out that more power, cooling and UPSes would be needed in several locations to support the new VoIP service.

Ultimately, the result has been good, if eye opening, Drescher says. "We are now working more closely with the people who are responsible for the care and feeding of our communications rooms in all our facilities," he says. "At minimum, it's crucial for IT to review the capacity and loading requirements for its server rooms and to budget appropriately so that part of the infrastructure does not fall into neglect or stall crucial projects."

Patrick Harbron
Jul 07 2009