When Michael Duebner joined the city of Des Plaines, Ill., he inherited an old network he had the chance to replace.

Future-Proofing Your Network

Government IT leaders share the secrets of implementing infrastructure that lasts long after it's paid for.

When a network backbone and Voice over IP system were reaching end of life and the manufacturer was going to halt support, officials of the city of Des Plaines, Ill., had two choices: attempt to eke out an extra year or two on the old equipment, or bite the bullet and invest in all-new infrastructure.

For IT Director Michael Duebner, the decision was a no-brainer. While the 8-year-old network still ran smoothly, it was slow. And moving forward, if a core switch or the phone system went down, it could cripple communications and impede the Chicago suburb's ability to provide services to its 58,700 residents. So early last year, he built a faster, more reliable network that delivers new voice apps and enough bandwidth for at least the next three years.

"It was time to modernize," says Duebner, who joined the city's staff in 2008. "We realized that if upgrades were not made to the telephone system right away, we would be looking at a multistep software upgrade in the future, and that drives costs way up."

Capital investment funding is tough to come by, except when equipment reaches its end of life and manufacturers no longer support it. So when state, county and city governments like Des Plaines have the opportunity to purchase new gear, they should future-proof their investment by making purchasing decisions that will support the overall IT strategy and accommodate growth for years to come.

To build longevity into a new network, IT administrators say governments should purchase products with the latest technological advances and architect a network with more bandwidth than is currently needed, with redundancy and expandability in mind.

For medium to large government agencies with high-bandwidth needs, that means 10 Gigabit Ethernet network equipment at the core and 1 Gigabit Ethernet switches at the network edge, says Rohit Mehra, director of enterprise communications infrastructure at IDC. But for smaller communities, 1 Gig-E speeds at the core and edge may be enough. It depends on bandwidth requirements.

Building In Flexibility

In Des Plaines, Duebner replaced the aging 1 Gig-E Cisco core switch by bundling three new midrange Cisco Catalyst 3750G Gig-E switches. He purchased equipment with the latest features available to ensure the longest lifespan possible.

He also architected an infrastructure that can expand as bandwidth needs increase. "We tend to hang on to things for a long time, so it was important to see what the emerging technologies are," the IT director says. "We don't necessarily skate on the bleeding edge, but it's important to buy products that are as new as possible."

First, he replaced the old Cisco CallManager with the new Cisco Unified Communications Manager. To route voice traffic, he bought two Cisco 2811 Integrated Services Routers for city hall and the police department, and purchased a more powerful general-purpose router, the Cisco 2951 Integrated Services Generation 2 Router, to connect the city's five other remote buildings.

The 2951 router offers improved security, such as hardware-based encryption, and supports more T-1 connections, saving the city from having to buy two separate routers to connect remote buildings.

By stacking the new switches at the core, Des Plaines not only increased bandwidth, but also improved redundancy. If one switch goes down, the other two keep operations running. And if the network becomes congested, Duebner can just add more switches to the stack. Or, he could upgrade to a 10 Gig-E switch and move the existing switches elsewhere on the network, which would boost performance in those spots. This way, he can continuously upgrade the network as needed without performing a massive forklift of the entire location.

Des Plaines, which previously had mostly 100 megabit-per-second and some gigabit-speed connections, is taking a phased approach to updating the rest of its network. Duebner is spending about $25,000 a year to replace 100Mbps switches at the edge with Gig-E.

Staff members have experienced improved bandwidth and better voice quality. Des Plaines also deployed some new phone features, including the ability for employees to easily move offices and keep their old phone extensions.

The bandwidth increase has allowed the city to try new bandwidth-intensive applications, such as IP surveillance to protect city buildings. "We will continue to grow the network as demand grows, which is dictated by user applications," he says.

The More Bandwidth, the Better

Last year, Jeff Miele, IS manager of Casselberry, Fla., found himself at a crossroads. Although the city's network was running fine, some equipment was aging, including the core switches, whose warranty had expired. He asked the manufacturer how much it would cost to extend the warranty by five years and was quoted an astronomical price.

If Miele replaced the entire network with all-new equipment, it would cost $100,000 less than the extended warranty -- so he did just that. He standardized on new Brocade gear, and after deliberating between 1 Gig-E and 10 Gig-E at the core, he went with the bigger pipe.

"Right now, 10 gigs is a lot, but with technology, you never know what two years will bring," says Miele, who purchased three 10 Gig-E Brocade FastIron SuperX 800 switches.

Before the upgrade, the city's network was mostly 100Mbps with a few gigabit connections throughout, but the new edge switches in the city's 15 buildings are all 1 Gig-E. Miele provides mostly 10/100 speeds to the desktop, which is enough for the average user, but heavy-duty computer users are given gigabit speeds.

For Miele, future-proofing a network also means there should be no downtime, so he focused on making his network redundant. He placed a core switch in each of three locations and connected them in a ring, so if one goes down, the other two will keep the network running. He also bought next-business-day support and spare parts for the core switches, so if one part dies, the IT department can swap out the part immediately and run the switch until a replacement part arrives from the vendor. He bought spare edge switches as backup, too.

Miele expects the new network to last 10 years. While the switches come with an automatic five-year warranty, Miele purchased an additional five-year warranty on the core switches, but didn't extend the warranties on the midrange and low-end switches because he says they are commodities.

Overall, Miele believes he's well positioned for the next decade. And if he needs to add bandwidth, the core switches are expandable; he can add a second 10 Gig-E module to double the bandwidth at the core and around the ring.

Advanced Features

When Jack Poland became IT director for the city of Griffin, Ga., the city's network was more than 5 years old and painfully slow at 100Mbps. The unmanaged switches connected devices together, but nothing else.

So in 2008, with the backing of Griffin's commissioners and city manager, Poland overhauled the network with 30 new Gig-E manageable switches, including two core switches that provide a redundant connection to the city's storage area network and virtual servers. The new switches offer numerous advanced features, including security, manageability and quality of service.

With the new switches, Poland separated each city department into their own virtual LAN to bolster security. That way, if a user introduces a virus, the virus stays within a VLAN and does not propagate throughout the network. Poland can also manage the network and remotely troubleshoot PCs, tasks he could not perform with the previous switches.

Enterprises planning to increase spending on network products and services in 2011

Source: "2011 IT Spending Intentions Survey," Enterprise Strategy Group

The network has been reliable, provides ample bandwidth and has allowed the IT department to provide new applications to the city's 479 employees, including VoIP and Wi-Fi hotspots. The manageable switches support quality of service, ensuring good voice quality. They also support Power over Ethernet, allowing switches to power devices such as IP phones and wireless access points.

Overall, future-proofing the network was worth the investment, Poland says. Griffin's network has more than paid for itself through better security, improved business processes, new applications and faster bandwidth, which improves worker productivity.

"The network is the heart," Poland says. "We live off the network. It's our livelihood."

Aging Gracefully

Photo: Mike Kemp/Glow Images

Ty Fuqua, network manager of Charles County, Md., shares these best practices for building networks that last.

1 Plan for disaster recovery. Buy spare parts in case switches or routers go down. Purchase a maintenance program for big-ticket items. Cisco SmartNet, for example, provides replacement parts within four hours. A solid data backup and restore system is also critical.

2 Standardize. Implementing equipment from multiple manufacturers adds needless complexity. Standardizing allows IT staffers to provision network services more quickly and easily. For example, network administrators can create VLANs without worrying about compatibility or configuration issues caused by having multiple brands.

3 Hire and retain a strong IT staff. Network staffs are doing more with less. Despite budget cuts, Charles County's IT department maintains good customer support because IT staffers have been around long enough to have institutional knowledge of how everything works. The department has also deployed a flexible schedule, ensuring that all hours of the week are covered.

4 Adopt cutting-edge technology. The county plans to take advantage of 4G cellular networks when service becomes more prevalent. In the future, for example, a utility could monitor remote pumps with telemetry equipment and send the data back to the county network through the 4G network.

<p>Todd Winters</p>
Apr 01 2011