4 Tips to Choose the Right Switch for State and Local Government Networks

Forget the notion that these critical connectors change little over time. To get it right, switches require a lot of thinking up front.

Driven by increasing traffic demands and advances in underlying technologies, today’s network switch products offer a broad range of benefits in capacity and utility, addressing evolving requirements in connectivity, gigabit-class Wi-Fi and the ever-growing traffic flows state and local IT pros face as they expand and modernize their networks. 

Cisco, Extreme, HPE and other vendors offer multiple enterprise-class switches to meet government demands, stretching from the edge of the network to the data center and out into the cloud. But the large number of products available can present a daunting challenge for IT planners and operators, often complicating the task of choosing the right switch for specific applications.

The right decision-making framework simplifies selection. While switches may be viewed by some as static elements that change very little over time, that’s simply not the case. It’s important to consider the core requirements for the network’s switch hierarchy — not just for today, but for the future. The following tips will assist state and local agencies of any size when planning the next switch upgrade.

1. Start with Network Management Systems and Solutions

While network management systems and consoles used to be something of an afterthought in the switch-selection process, they’re now critical to network optimization, as well as to application performance, reliability and operations and staff productivity. Management solutions’ capabilities vary widely, so it’s important to consider the features, functions and benefits essential to the agency’s facilities, and ensure selected products are fully compatible with — and supported by — the IT management system hierarchy. 

That requires careful review of organizationwide requirements for security, traffic policies, virtual LANs, logging, analytics, integrity, redundancy and troubleshooting, and ensuring that any selected switch products will meet those requirements. Also examine compatibility with other management and operational tools, especially Wi-Fi management, to avoid conflict with wired-network management policies and settings.

2. Perform a Requirements Audit of the Agency's Network 

Review networks regularly — at least twice a year — to ensure that implementations meet overarching IT and organizational objectives, current and planned. It’s especially important to consider growth in the number of Wi-Fi access points and evolving throughput requirements as speeds increase, as well as power requirements for APs, where 802.3at now replaces 802.3af in most cases. Similarly, examine operations logs and feedback from operations and support staff to identify common and recurring pain points. Take note of issues such as insufficient capacity during periods of peak demand. Review all of the data with private sector vendors to narrow the list of available switch possibilities. 

Finally, consider fiber for long runs, along with upgrades to Cat-6 cabling where fiber isn’t required. While switches limited to 2.5 and 5 gigabits per port can mitigate a need for immediate cable upgrades, state and local agencies today should at the very least plan for 10Gbps.

3. Carefully Examine Network Capacity Planning Assumptions

Throughput historically was viewed as the key performance metric for switches. Today, overall solution capacity should be considered more. Mobile and wireless demands from the majority of clients today have changed this dynamic, particularly when accessing government services. Sufficient capacity optimizes for end-user productivity, given that demand in any given location can vary over time.

With the addition of APs, the number of switch ports per physical switch is a vital concern, though stackable switches are a great way to address demands that grow over time while also simplifying management. It’s also important to consider trends in time-bounded traffic, such as voice over IP, streaming video and multicast, along with support for class of service/quality of service, 802.1q and related capabilities.

4. Don’t Forget Physical Network Planning Requirements 

While many elements of networking, such as management consoles, have shifted into the cloud, state and local governments will require onsite switches for the foreseeable future. Consider the physical space (usually in an equipment rack), power, cooling and wire runs required in each case when planning for installations and upgrades. Carefully analyze the number of ports required on each switch (or stack). Finally, consider the operating environment: A wide variety of industrial, ruggedized and otherwise specialized switch products are available to suit most requirements.

Remember that Switches Need to Be Upgraded Regularly 

Switches are a lot like plumbing: essential but mostly invisible, at least when they function as they should. But unlike plumbing, switches require more frequent upgrades to allow organizations to meet growing user and applications demands, improve reliability, take advantage of new technology and lower operating costs.

Lance Pettiford
Sep 10 2018