The Network, Your ICT Keystone    

Support for the network is often delayed, taking a seat behind technologies which users are more aware of. But isn’t your network the foundation for these other services? Common wisdom says that without a good foundation, what you build will not stand for long. Similarly, having a network that is well constructed, resilient and error free means that when troubles occur, you have a good foundation to troubleshoot from when issues do arise--you don’t have to guess where the trouble spot may be. And, as networking becomes more complex, such as by making use of Cloud-based services or when expanding or moving your offices, a good foundation goes a long way.

In this article, I’ll take a look at how having a reliable and well-maintained network can ease these sorts of business-motivated transitions.

Connecting to the Cloud
Moving into the Cloud reduces capital expenditure and lowers management concerns. As companies try to realize savings by moving parts of their ICT infrastructure to the Cloud, they tend to find that their networks need to be beefed up.

The two benefits noted above are not without there own costs: additional connectivity paths and increased management for Internet connectivity become mission critical. With 100% of the network traffic travelling over the public Internet there are requirements for higher bandwidth and more reliable connections to support the need for never-fail connectivity, and in fact, never-fail business services. This means deploying two or more Internet connections sourced from independent providers on diverse paths along with the equipment that can handle routing changes if one of the connections fails.

There are a number of ways to effect a change to the default route for your local area network. Selecting which to choose is often based on organizational size, available budget and available talent. The best means of providing fail-safe routing is to use Boarder Gateway Protocol or BGP. This technology is typically reserved for networks with a large presence on the public Internet, it can automate routing decisions based on reachability to the Internet. And you have other options if your network doesn’t meet the BGP criteria. Many network manufacturers have adopted a technology called route tracking. Here the network edge device regularly sends out a packet to see if a known destination is reachable. The moment that reachability is lost the default route shifts to an alternate provider. This is an outbound remedy only and provides no load balance capability.

When moving into the cloud, maintaining the confidentiality and security of the data is no longer simple, if it ever was. Previously with the data centre in-house the LAN was assumed to be reasonably secure. Now that the typical LAN traffic is being sent out across the public Internet in the case of cloud computing or on a private link in the case of a remote data centre, the traffic content has to be protected as well. The solution here is to use encryption, whether you deploy HTTPS or a VPN. The selection is driven by the type of traffic traversing the link.

Many believe that moving into the Cloud can be cost-effective and reliable. For me, this holds true only if the network foundation is well-designed and maintained.

We’re online so why doesn’t this work
Another reason having a good network foundation is paramount is to detect anomalies or trouble spots early. Let’s look at the business services themselves. I have often come across situations where a client will ask, “We have a working internet connection, so why doesn’t our application work?” Barring the usual reasons (the server is down, the end user made an error authenticating) there are ‘below the radar’ situations which will adversely impact application performance. The more frequent are explained below:
  • Duplex (or the ability to send and receive at the same time)
    There are two parts of your network where duplex impacts network performance: connections inside the network infrastructure, and Internet connectivity.
    • Most ICT professionals are so used to the auto-configuration capabilities of personal computer network cards that they forget that some routers and switches do not support this functionality. They do not support automatically configuring duplex. This leads to one end of the connection being set to 10mbps ½ duplex. Manual intervention is required here to ensure optimal data flow.
    • Secondly there is the nature of the internet link. Here I’m referring to asymmetric broadband connections which by their very design only work best for surfing the web. A small URL is sent out and a large amount of data is returned. This simple fact is often forgotten when servers are made available to the public from within the office. Remote users looking to transfer data to and from the office will notice that the file retrieval is painfully slow compared to the file upload speed.
  • Latency
    Latency is the time a data packet takes to get from point A to point B and back again, and it can be slow sometimes. While typically this characteristic is scrutinized for VOIP traffic it also impacts database-related applications. When the latency is high then VOIP calls can be of poor quality or even be lost and in the case of database connectivity a time out can produce inconsistent data results.
  • Bandwidth
    On the Local area network speed is fast compared to internet access speeds. Moving a file on the network can take milliseconds, downloading a file from the internet seconds and uploads minutes depending on your connection and the file size. ADSL and cable broadband connections were designed to surf the World Wide Web. The table below shows transfers times for a 12 MB file. I picked this size as many ISPs won’t allow something this size through email.
    Transfer Time
    HH : MM : SS
    Thin Ethernet10 MbpsLAN/WAN00 : 00 : 10
    Fast Ethernet100 MbpsLAN/WAN00 : 00 : 01
    Gigabit Ethernet*1000 MbpsLAN00 : 00 : 00
    DSL/CABLE(upstream)768 KbpsHOME00 : 02 : 11
    * The 12MB file at Gigabit transfers in milliseconds, hence the zero time shown.

Watch for these the symptoms of these three issues, especially when providing business critical services over the Internet. Errors at the network level will cause applications to repeatedly attempt to fulfill the communication request thereby exasperating the situation. With a well designed and maintained network your critical services will be available at satisfactory speeds and response times. If things are moving slowly, your network may need fine-tuning to better support these more complex services. A good foundation will ease the troubleshooting and speed up tuning time.

Move your office. Move your network.
When settlers first moved west across the Americas they settled on land that could sustain them. The land had to have a few essential items such as access to water, arable land and some means to provide protein, be it natively or in support of domesticated live stock. Selecting an office location should go through the same process. The local area network or LAN is analogous to the live stock - you bring it with you. The availability of water is in this case access to the public Internet.

When you are planning a move one important consideration is the proximity to the Internet at the speed and connection type you require. In the financial districts of large cities high speed Internet access (10 Mbps or faster) is readily available. In fact it is so available that construction costs are nearly zero. In lower-density areas and in older neighborhoods though obtaining access to the public Internet at those speeds can be very costly.

Public Internet access is a must for almost all businesses in our society today. And if reliable and fast Internet access is critical to your business success then ensuring its availability at the new location is a must. There are options out there> Here is a short list: fibre optics, broadband, wireless WAN and the T technologies (T1, T3). Choosing a good connection by choosing a good location can be essential to networking success.

When you are looking to make big changes, such as relocating your office or pushing your services out to the Cloud, or when users experience problems with online services, remember that good connectivity is the keystone of your organization’s ICT success. Know your network, fine tune it to better meet the growing and changing needs of your end users. Through active monitoring of the state of your network, applications will run better, transfers will happen faster and employees can be more productive.

Understanding the importance of your network means that your mission critical resources close and far will be there for your organization as needed.

Originally published November, 2010

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