It pays to figure out how to manage “cut-over of your entire backbone with the minimum impact on your population,” says the Vancouver School District’s Steve Bratt.

Jan 07 2009

What to Examine When Creating a Network Refresh Plan

Developing a strong business case makes life easier when refreshing your network.

Developing a strong business case makes life easier when refreshing your network.

What location is to real estate, planning is to a network refresh. Without careful planning, you might wind up with more problems than you started with — and significantly less cash.

There’s much more to planning than simply selecting the right equipment or figuring out a budget. You also need to build a strong business case and make sure you have buy-in from the get-go.

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“The first concern is to get the fiscal buy-in into that plan and get that money dedicated to network upgrades,” says Steve Bratt, network infrastructure manager at Vancouver (Wash.) School District. Bratt suggests that IT directors lay out every detail in advance. “You’ve got to look at your network. Basically, every district is going to have to look at what their requirements are in terms of bandwidth.”

Public school districts often require that network upgrades be done through competitive bidding. “We needed to write the specification for everything that we wanted in advance and make that available to all the different vendors so they could provide quotes for a network that would meet our specs,” Bratt says.

If anything were left out, Bratt would have been out of luck. “Laying everything out in detail in advance is important; that includes the different routing protocols or legacy traffic that you’re going to need to support.”

Building Your Case

Before writing a detailed plan, it’s important to assess your overall needs. “Look at what you’re going to do on the network for the foreseeable future,” says Adam Fischer, CIO at Kent School in Kent, Conn. “We try to identify where we think we’re going to need greater bandwidth, such as in our digital-video labs.”

Bill Rust, research director for Gartner of Stamford, Conn., agrees. A strong needs assessment “should also include the age of the equipment that you’re running on your network,” he says.

As school districts become dependent on a network infrastructure that can support in-classroom computers, video labs, Internet access and Voice over IP (and ultimately, software as a service and cloud computing offerings), it’s key that technology leaders build sustainability models to maintain network scalability, according to Nick Jwayad, CIO for Portland (Ore.) Public Schools.

Another Option: Can’t do a full network refresh? Virtualization might be the answer. “Virtualizing desktops — so that the local computers aren’t doing very much and the work is all happening on the data center end — could take the burden off your current network.”


“Service-level continuity is generally gained from sound network investments that can yield greater user reliability in technology and service providers,” Jwayad says. He also points out that it’s essential to maintain a balance between current and future needs. “It’s important to make decisions now that don’t preclude future investments and services.”

Getting support from the school board, however, takes more than carefully laid-out specifications. The technology has to mean something to them, says Vancouver’s Bratt. His budget includes a network upgrade every four years, but most schools aren’t so lucky.

“I had to convince the school board that I would spend 75 percent of a $6 million budget on things that they would never see,” says Leonard Niebo, director of IT for Brick Township (N.J.) Public Schools. The board wanted new computers and notebooks, but Niebo told its members that would be like “giving you a Ferrari and telling you that you can only drive it in first gear.”

According to Gartner’s Rust, funding is always a challenge if you don’t have a business case. “Senior staff and the boards of education may not understand what the risks are of not doing a refresh,” he says. “By spending the money up front in terms of refreshing the network, it may be possible to reduce some of your support liabilities going forward.”

Gauging Your Benefits

Part of the planning process should include how to implement the refresh. “You have to determine how you go about managing a cutover of your entire backbone with the minimum impact on your population,” says Bratt. “When we did it this year, there was one Saturday where the network was down for about five hours. The core switch at our main site took the most time to implement. But once that was in place, all the other sites were just five-minute cut-overs.”

The total impact on the staff was minimal. “The only way we could be successful with that was by mapping out everything on the existing network and converting all the configurations over to all the new equipment,” says Bratt, who knew in advance what technology was going to plug into which port. He also verified that everything that had a place on the old network was accommodated on the new one. “That made it pretty painless in terms of time and effort.”

A network refresh also brings a boost in performance that can enhance and improve classroom and lab instructional activities.

“Performance improvement has implied effects on the operational side as well, which can ultimately streamline business processes and operations,” says Portland’s Jwayad. “A reliable and scalable WAN allows the district to adopt and implement new and emerging technologies with more confidence.”

Consider This

To avoid pitfalls when crafting a network refresh plan, be sure to do the following:

  • Search for hazardous materials in older buildings that may have to be removed before the upgrade.
  • Consider managed network services as opposed to doing it all in-house.
  • Organize the plan and get everyone’s input; bring in principals and maintenance people and get input from all groups.
  • Check network configurations: If the network is slow, bandwidth might not be the only factor.
  • Put a detailed upgrade plan in place before hiring a wiring contractor so everything is clearly labeled.

Lease Versus Purchase

You might save in the long run if you lease instead of buy network equipment.

“By using a four-year operating lease — where we return the equipment after the lease is up — we end up spending about 5 percent more than if we had purchased the network up front,” says Steve Bratt, network infrastructure manager at Vancouver (Wash.) School District. “Doing a lease keeps the money in our budget every year, so we have capacity for a full refresh built into the process, as opposed to making a new request every four or five years.”

But the biggest unanticipated factor for Bratt was the time and expense it took to inventory and return all of the gear from the expired lease. “The cost is going to be less than $1,000, but the time was more than I expected.”