Steven Goodson of William Woods University says it’s really important to deploy networking gear that can scale to the school’s future needs.

Feb 26 2009

5 Steps For a More Organized Network Refresh

Follow these best practices when you plan to revamp your network.

Follow these five steps for a more organized network refresh.

When Steven Goodson arrived at William Woods University in Fulton, Mo., two years ago, he took aim at the network he had inherited.

“I was looking at a lot of old equipment and a lot of misconfigured equipment,” recalls Goodson, network and telecommunications administrator for the Information Technologies department. The core and distribution routing switches were at least 50 ports — and gigabits of capacity — short for the burgeoning demand he was facing, from the creation of new classroom laboratories to the growing databases traversing the campus network.

At Ferrum College in rural Ferrum, Va., CIO Christine Stinson faced a different set of problems with an aging, unsegmented network. “If any part of the network went down, the whole network went down,” she says.

Stinson also worried about network security. “Even though the devices around the university were not necessarily visible, they were on the same flat network, and that was unacceptable,” she says.

So last summer Goodson and Stinson each opted to perform a classic “rip and replace” of their networks. In the first stage of a planned three-phase installation, Goodson replaced the core routing switch at William Woods with a higher capacity HP 8212 ProCurve switch with gigabit ports standard, as well as two 10-gigabit Long Reach Multimode ports and two dozen gigabit interface converter ports to increase speed along fiber-optic connections.

Goodson also installed ProCurve 5400 series routers in the most maxed-out facilities on campus: the main academic building, the student center and a combined faculty-student residence hall. Phases II and III of the network refresh will target upgrades of distribution routers in more than two dozen other buildings over the next few years.

Stinson replaced Ferrum’s network in one fell swoop with two Juniper Networks EX 4200 switches as her core routers, 50 EX 3200 switches and a Juniper Infranet Controller 4000 for identity management of the network’s newly created VLANs.

Along the way, Goodson and Stinson (and others at institutions doing major network refreshes) have amassed a series of best practices that could well serve as a manual for IT departments contemplating similar projects:

Keep the network backbone consistent. Regardless of the equipment maker you select, it helps to stay consistent across the backbone, university technology leaders say. “I didn’t want to worry about the pitfalls of connecting one Layer 2 device to another Layer 2 device,” Goodson says, explaining his decision to make an all-HP purchase.

“Our overall administration is reduced because we’re dealing with the same equipment, and we can use centralized applications to push out updates to all of our equipment at once,” he explains.

Donna Heath, associate vice chancellor for Systems and Networks at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, purchased new Cisco equipment. Heath is leading the university through the third year of a five-year network refresh that has included installing Cisco 6500 switches at the core and distribution layers.

Ship the gear to your deployment team as early as possible. Although installing William Woods’ new routers took less than 12 hours, Goodson points out that the preparation and testing process lasted four weeks. Getting the correct equipment shipped and leaving enough time to assemble, configure and test it was crucial to a successful deployment, he says.

The University of Cincinnati’s Diana Noelcke, a veteran of a rip and replace in 2000 and subsequent network refreshes in 2005 and 2006, adds that maintaining accurate documentation is also important.

“We have a record of almost 4,000 static IP addresses,” says Noelcke, the school’s director of network and telecom services. “And keeping the documentation current made those refreshes successful.”

Communicate with all stakeholders. A critical adjunct to the planning process, Stinson adds, is communicating actively with the campus at large. In the months leading up to the network replacement, Stinson made presentations to the Board of Trustees, sent regular updates on the process to all of the school’s vice presidents and published two articles in the student newspaper. He also sent regular e-mails to faculty and staff, with an eye toward finding out what critical events — summer institutes, for instance — the installation team would need to work around.

Purchase backbone equipment that can support future needs. Ferrum’s Juniper routers — which immediately increased local speed by 10 times, to 1 gigabit — are also upgradable to 10 gigabits, setting the stage for the deployment of Voice over IP telephone service later this year. “And in the years ahead, we’ll simply need a bigger pipe for serious video streaming,” Stinson adds.

“Look at how computing is likely to change on your campus,” counsels UNC Greensboro’s Heath, noting that research-intensive applications are making increasing demands on university networks.

Look for features that deliver added value. Besides finding the most affordable equipment, William Woods’ Goodson advises looking for long-range savings as well. “For me, the HP ProCurve has a lifetime warranty, and I don’t have to pay for support,” Goodson explains. “If a switch went up in smoke, they’d replace it for free, even if it was out of lifecycle.”

Stinson says she was drawn to Juniper in part because the new generation of switches promised to cut power consumption by up to 30 percent. “That saves thousands of dollars, reduces the heat that’s generated and increases the life of the switches,” she calculates.

<p>Scott Ferguson/</p>