May 21 2024

Milwaukee’s Fabric-Based Path to Network Modernization

A flexible configuration allows the city to make nimble technology upgrades.

Since 2011, Milwaukee has used Extreme Networks’ Fabric Connect solution to extend the reach of its fiber backbone, which has positioned the southeastern Wisconsin city to make tech updates when needed, says CIO David Henke.

More than 500 ExtremeAccess Platform 1400 Series switches have helped expand the city’s fiber-optic network from core police and other facilities to upward of 100 buildings, enabling 7,000 city employees to access network resources using devices ranging from Dell laptops to desktop computers that are used for geographic information system development.

The fabric environment has supported a number of virtualization and other tech enhancement efforts over the years, Henke says.

“We’ve gone through several equipment generation changes to modernize hardware,” he says. “It allows us to evolve with technology, and we definitely have done so over the past decade-plus.”

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Fabric Can Offer Structural Advantages for Cities

Using the fabric environment, the city is able to supply access to new locations, such as the temporary sites it plans to add when the Republican National Convention is held in Milwaukee in July.

“It’s really helped for when we want to extend to an area that’s outside of where we have our fiber or existing network connections,” Henke says. “We can make it just a transparent extension of the city’s network.”

Plans are underway to build the network out to more than 700 traffic cabinets, which the city has been upgrading from older-model units over the past five to 10 years, so they’ll support network connectivity.

Currently, traffic signal problems must be verified remotely before a technician can work on them. With the extended capabilities, Henke says, the city will be able to identify issues as they occur and better synchronize the signals. Traffic pattern data could also be collected to improve traffic operations.

The fabric environment has provided other benefits, Henke says, such as the ability to house city departments on segmented visualized networks. Some might remain behind their own firewalls for security reasons. Secure criminal justice systems, for example, can be cordoned off from the comptroller’s office’s financial systems.

“We use the same hardware to support multiple departments, but we’re also able to keep them separated virtually,” Henke says. “We can have a camera system alongside a regular desktop environment and know that they’re totally isolated without concerns about one compromising the other.” 

Backbone capacity upgrades are fairly easy, thanks to the fabric-attached environment, Henke says.

“It makes growth very manageable and straightforward,” he says. “Rather than taking a whole network down for every upgrade to get from 10 gigabits to 40 gigabits, now we can do it one site at a time and be very selective and less disruptive in how we do that.”

Network Modernization


Fabric-Based Architecture Fosters Municipal Operations

By moving from essentially “a ring network to a fully meshed environment with lots of links,” Milwaukee has also gained additional resiliency, Henke says.

“Whatever path is most efficient is the one it takes,” he says. “If we need to do maintenance on fiber, if it’s scheduled, we know we can take that down and network traffic will reroute. If it’s unscheduled, and a core link goes down, the traffic reroutes automatically when we have those redundant connections in place.”

Network management needs have been reduced because of the solution’s automation capabilities, which have helped simplify deployments, Henke says.

“The connection may go through several devices to reach out farther into the network,” he says. “We don’t have to make changes on the core device plus an intermediate device plus the edge device. You just edit the edge device, and everything upstream automatically is configured to what those changes were.”

Overall, the fabric solution has been a good fit for Milwaukee, Henke says. In the past dozen years, the city has been able to effectively institute periodic network modernization updates, enhancing its tech capabilities without having to significantly add to its IT team, which includes three dedicated network managers.

“We can grow and scale up to serve more areas, systems and technologies without a significant burden on our staff,” Henke says. “It’s proved itself to work for us, which is reassuring. We’ve seen it in action, and that helps us sleep better at night. If something does happen, we’ll likely be in good shape with the redundancy and segmentation that we have.”

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