Anthony Ramos, Milwaukee County’s IT Manager of Infrastructure, knew his county had to move forward with network upgrades despite the challenges.

Jul 08 2020

Refreshing Network Switches Pays Big Dividends for Counties

Upgrading network hardware may result in increased reliability and improved security.

As the pandemic loomed, Milwaukee County, Wis., faced a decision.

In the preceding year, the county’s network hardware failed twice. Should the IT team press forward with planned infrastructure updates despite the layer of planning difficulty introduced by having the IT staff dispersed and working remotely? Or delay the upgrades until the threat of the virus had passed, and risk another failure?

Ultimately, the county pressed forward as planned with the upgrades; the hardware was at the end of its lifecycle. “We knew this had to be done,” says Anthony Ramos, the county’s IT manager of infrastructure. “The risk of it not getting done was higher than trying to complete it during unprecedented times.”

The county gained full campus and core switching redundancy with new Cisco switches. “We now have full failover functionality between both of our data centers, and we can complete future maintenance, such as patching and IOS upgrades, without interruptions to our users,” Ramos says.

Selecting the right switches for a network upgrade requires a holistic approach to planning and strategy, says Rita Reynolds, CTO of the National Association of Counties and head of the NACo Tech Xchange, a 400-member portal where county IT leadership can discuss challenges and share insights. Reynolds frames upgrade challenges by identifying the highest areas of risk. Frequently, connectivity and cybersecurity need the most attention. And upgraded switches often result in faster throughput and more security.

“With either one of those, if they’re not in good shape, you’re going to be exposed from a liability and data loss perspective, and also from an employee productivity perspective,” she says.

How to Plan Network Switch Upgrades

“There should be in place a three- to five-year technology strategic plan,” Reynolds says. “If you’re new coming into a county, you have to start by taking a step back to assess what is in place.”

With switches in particular, there are several considerations to balance, she says. Reliable, high-performance network infrastructure can be costly, and switches are no exception.

“Weigh the cost with the ease of use and the vendor support that comes a long with the equipment,” Reynolds says.

“Many suppliers will allow you to do a 30-day trial,” she says, noting that it’s a great way to see how the equipment fits into your architecture and judge if you are putting sufficient modules in place, especially when pairing a switch upgrade with a partial migration to cloud-based services.

Milwaukee County upgraded its Cisco switches as a strategic part of the IT department’s long-term goal: a full rollout of the Cisco Digital Network Architecture. “We wanted to start at the core of our network and work our way out to the edge,” Ramos says. The IT team selected two Cisco models: the Nexus 93180YC-FX and the Catalyst 9500-48Y4C.

Anthony Ramos
The risk of it not getting done was higher than trying to complete it during unprecedented times.”

Anthony Ramos Milwaukee County IT Manager of Infrastructure

With most of the workforce remote, Ramos and the entire infrastructure team focused on keeping the highest-priority, around-the-clock facilities available during the upgrade and minimized disruptions. The team collaborated on Microsoft Teams to keep everyone on the same page.

In addition to performance and throughput gains, the county government network is now far more reliable with the new switches in place, Ramos says.

Schoharie County, N.Y., Focuses on Network Security 

In rural Schoharie County, N.Y., IT Services Director Scott Haverly and his team keep security at the forefront of their network maintenance planning. The reality of constrained budgets means that Haverly is always looking for small changes that make big impacts.

“The only course for me is to continue gradual replacements due to the financial constraints rural local county governments face these days,” Haverly says.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene devastated five of the county’s offices, including the facility where its file servers were located. With funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Schoharie County migrated to a VMware vSphere virtual network environment.

“Today we operate a hybrid cloud and virtual server setup with 90 percent of our internal and public-facing servers on our in-house units,” Haverly says. Recently, he upgraded to Cisco Power over Ethernet switches to accommodate moving to an IP-based phone system.

Security is Haverly’s major concern as he surveys his government network. He cautions that small county networks are not immune from cybercriminals and other hackers.

“Back in 2016 during the election season, my secure web server saw failed attempts to gain access from a Ukrainian server,” he says. “That changed my outlook on network security.”

The Key Considerations for Network Upgrades

Reaching out to colleagues to discuss their experiences with network architecture is a step that will help IT leaders avoid buyer’s remorse, NACo’s Reynolds advises.

“I’m going to be reading reviews online, I’m going to be reading case studies — but more important, I’m going to be talking to other organizations like my own,” she says. “Get references.”

For Milwaukee County, Ramos has focused on the county’s long-term goals and advises that people not get sold on something that is billed as best of breed.

“More likely than not, the best-of-breed solution is very good for you at one, maybe two things,” Ramos says. “Take the time to make sure it’s the right solution for now and the right solution for five years from now,” he adds. “Make sure you are investing in a solution that can grow with you and help you meet your goals.”

Photography By Darren Hauck