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How to Expand Network Capacity Quickly and Cost-Effectively

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Network Automation
(Source: Pixabay)

In these days of rapidly spiraling network demands, driven by COVID-19 dispersed workforces as well as the emergence of new bandwidth-hungry technologies, enterprises worldwide are scrambling to find ways to rapidly increase network capacity without blowing out their budgets.

A first step toward cost-effectively expanding network capacity is assessing existing bandwidth needs. "Identify the key applications and resources, whether on-premises or in the cloud, that will require increased capacity," advised Mike Riemer, global chief security architect at secure access services provider Pulse Secure. "Then, explore application and security tool license and capacity shifting options to handle burst utilization."

Expanding enterprise network capacity requires reimagining the network while ensuring that employees retain secure and reliable connectivity, observed Craig Williams, CIO at network technology provider Ciena. "From a strategic and business standpoint, this means prioritizing scalability, embracing proactive planning, and analyzing the best and worst possible scenarios that will lead IT to design a network that's flexible and agile enough to adjust to any circumstance," he explained. Williams added that enterprises planning a lasting solution can't look at expanding network capacity through a "pandemic lens." A thorough, long-term analysis is necessary. "Ask yourself, 'If we started over as a company, how would we build our network?'," he suggested.

David Linthicum, Deloitte's chief cloud strategy officer, also urged IT leaders to create a holistic network capacity blueprint. He noted that network engineers tend to approach challenges by simply tossing technology at the problem. "But there's a better way," he advised. "An organization needs to do a root cause analysis, create plans and [build] architecture to correct the capacity problem, and then conduct an implementation that's pragmatic."

Once properly planned, network capacity can be added rapidly and painlessly. It often takes only minutes to double existing bandwidth, said Rick Belsky, vice president and senior director, technology, at Liberty Mutual Insurance. A prepared engineer will request specific port and access speeds. "Access speed can be thought of as the maximum size of the circuit, while port speed, [is] the valve limiting use up to the access boundary," he explained. "By having a circuit with 500Mb/s access and 200Mb/s port speeds, costs are kept to only what is required for 200Mb/s usage with the option to expand to 500Mb/s." When needed, an engineer can use the carrier's administrative tool to adjust the port speed to 400Mb/s in just a few minutes, Belsky added.

Belsky said that Liberty Mutual used this approach to react immediately to changing traffic patterns when 40,000 associates began working from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Optimization techniques

Network optimization can create the effect of increasing capacity at little or no added cost. "Many critical connectivity solutions have redundant links," Belsky observed. "In the event that one link is unavailable due to network maintenance or a misguided backhoe, the second link is designed to carry the full load of the unavailable circuit," he noted. By using both links as primary connections for traffic, capacity is effectively quickly doubled. Using this method requires no additional expense until replacement redundancy is added. The downside to the approach is that until replaced, the redundancy safeguard is eliminated, so the technique should only be used as a temporary stopgap.

Prioritizing traffic is a highly efficient way to enhance network performance. Quality of Service (QoS) management will streamline data flow by tagging traffic to inform network components about the current payload's priority. "When performance-sensitive traffic, such as audio, reaches a router or switch, for example, it will process this [flow] over non-prioritized traffic," Belsky said. "This method ensures that the network is being utilized for critical business needs most efficiently." While QoS prioritization is generally cost-free, the technique can lower the performance of non-critical traffic, he warned.

Andy Lipnitski, IT director at software development company ScienceSoft, noted that a fast and relatively inexpensive way to increase network capacity is to analyze network traffic with the NetFlow protocol and a next-generation firewall (NGFW). "Then, with the help of traffic shaping, your network administrator can restrict access to non-essential resources, such as YouTube, social media, and news."

Takeaways

Don't rush into network capacity expansion. While the need may be critical, haste can lead to costly errors. "A critical mistake when expanding network capacity is purchasing duplicate or redundant tools," Riemer observed. "This not only increases the likelihood of security risks, like misconfigurations or third-party vulnerabilities but also makes security harder to manage for security teams, who often need to set individual policies for each new application or platform."

On the bright side, Linthicum noted that cost-effective network capacity expansion isn't as challenging as many IT leaders believe. "It's really about making the right diagnosis, putting a plan in place, and finding the right technology solution to correct any issues," he explained. "While not as exciting as playing with new networking technology, it's the best and most cost-effective way to get the job done."