Jefferson County, N.Y., upgraded its network to support a unified communications deployment, says Gregory Hudson.

How to Build a Backbone to Support Next-Gen IT

Lay the proper foundation for advanced applications by upgrading network infrastructure.

State and local governments have big dreams for their networks — private clouds, virtual desktops and video conferencing among them. Yet all these IT projects could fail outright if the network backbone can't handle the increased load.

Next-generation enterprise projects require a solid infrastructure to ensure proper availability and performance levels. For IT leaders who are thinking big, it's important to make sure the backbone is strong enough to support these projects.

"Governments want to minimize the amount of infrastructure they must purchase to support new initiatives," says John Tolly, research engineer at The Tolly Group, an IT consultancy. "They lean toward low-hanging fruit, such as increasing processing power or memory. But if they don't dig deeper, then projects, the network and users will ultimately suffer."

Gregory Hudson, IT director for ­Jefferson County, N.Y., concedes he didn't delve deep enough into planning before launching a unified communications deployment.

"We hit obstacles, such as where our new switches would be housed," he says.

Hudson was able to quickly correct course for a successful rollout of Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS). Along with Tolly, he and other government leaders offer these recommendations for beefing up the backbone before fully engaging in large-scale IT projects.

1. Bolster your switch environment.

Hudson decided to ditch the county's almost 30-year-old public switched telephone network in favor of Voice over IP. With 850 employees using 700 phones, the entire system had to be highly available and reliable. Hudson knew that would be almost impossible with the heterogeneous blend of aging, inefficient 10/100 megabit-per-second Ethernet switches scattered across eight locations.

"We had a mixture that definitely wouldn't cut it," Hudson says. "Even our newer ones weren't sufficient because they didn't support Layer-3 switching."

Re-architecting the backbone into a consolidated group of Cisco Catalyst 3560-E and Catalyst 4500-series switches was the easiest, most cost-effective strategy, according to Hudson. The new gear can easily handle UCS traffic in all its forms, including desktop phones, softphones, web-based access and instant messaging. "We now have the ability, speed and bandwidth to make departments run faster and more smoothly," he says.

2. Ratchet up your network interface cards.

NICs are a technology often overlooked in budget planning, yet they can cause serious problems for large-scale deployments. For instance, if an agency wants to roll out a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), it must carefully consider the throughput capability of its server NICs.

"A Gigabit NIC might be perfectly able to handle standard workloads," Tolly says. "But start dealing with 30 concurrent VDI sessions, in addition to the base workload, and it could get oversubscribed."

He recommends monitoring the average demand of a single session and multiplying that by the number of simultaneous sessions that will be hosted during peak times. The resulting number will dictate whether the NICs need an upgrade.

1,500 The number of concurrently connected devices a single NetMotion Wireless Mobility XE server can support

SOURCE: NetMotion Wireless

3. Future-proof your network.

Governments rarely get the go-ahead to purchase new infrastructure, so the IT staff should think long-term each time the opportunity arises. Consider other projects on the horizon and their requirements. By upgrading switches, NICs, server CPU and memory, storage arrays and bandwidth, money can be saved down the road.

The city of Alexandria, La., for example, used a VMware View VDI deployment as an opportunity to migrate from Gigabit Ethernet core switches to Enterasys' S-Series Stand Alone (SSA) 10 Gig-E Fibre Channel switches. Blake Rachal, assistant director of information systems, had numerous virtualization efforts in store, including expanding the pool of virtual servers beyond 70 and broadening VDI from 100 users to almost 400.

"Gigabit switches could have sufficed for just the current VDI project, but wouldn't have lasted the five to seven years we have to get from our infrastructure," Rachal says. He believes the five locations where the 10 Gig-E switches were deployed, including city hall and the utility service center, would otherwise have buckled under the strain of widespread virtualization. "Programmers are not developing virtualization products that are bandwidth-friendly," he says, and, therefore, advises his peers to "shoot for the moon" when it comes to infrastructure upgrades.

Jefferson County's Hudson says building in wiggle room also reduces downtime. For instance, he purchased additional switches to ensure the county has spares that can be quickly configured and swapped in during an emergency.

4. Think beyond the switch.

Re-enforcing the backbone is not just about traditional infrastructure. Rick Wall, information services director for the city of North Myrtle Beach, S.C., realized that for users to fully enjoy the productivity gains of a VMware View VDI installation, connectivity itself would have to be addressed. That meant figuring out how to circumvent the inevitability of dropped connections as users, including public works employees and building inspectors, accessed servers across cellular networks.

Wall deployed mobile VPN software from NetMotion Wireless to prevent session disruptions between applications and users. For instance, if a person drives into a parking garage or walks into an elevator and temporarily loses cell service, he or she doesn't need to log back in and re­authenticate; the VPN session is sustained. "NetMotion keeps user frustration levels down," Wall says.

5. Focus on the essentials.

The city of Alexandria's Rachal says he could have pushed to have 10 gigabit-per-second connections all the way to the network's edge, but realized it wasn't necessary for low-usage groups such as the fire department. Instead, he targeted larger sites with sizable server-to-server traffic, including city hall, for the new 10 Gig-E Fibre Channel switches. "We need enough bandwidth available between those locations so that users experience little to no downtime," he says.

Do Sweat the Small Stuff

When determining what must be done to fortify a network backbone for next-generation projects, it's easy to forget small but essential components.

For instance, Gregory Hudson, IT director of Jefferson County, N.Y., had to pay close attention to conduits to ensure that cabling could run safely throughout the network. In the past, some switches had resided in dusty, dirty elevator shafts, and he wanted to better protect the network gear and connections.

Hudson also encourages IT staff to include backup power and redundancy as part of budget planning.

Blake Rachal,assistant director of IS for the city of Alexandria, La., notes that new infrastructure, such as 10 Gig-E switches, can push energy limits and may require additional uninterruptible power supply systems. "Power is predictable, so measure the specs of what you are currently running against what you plan to install," Rachal advises. And don't forget storage, which will be utilized more and will consume more energy.

<p>Brady Dillsworth</p>

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Jul 12 2012