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How to Upgrade an Aging Network Infrastructure With Ease

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(Credit: chombosan / Alamy Stock Photo)

An aging network is bad for business, customers, and anyone else who comes in contact with it. Yet many organizations hesitate to make the upgrades necessary to maintain optimal network performance, fearing the cost and possible service disruption.

What keeps businesses from upgrading their network infrastructure?

Until recently, it was possible to keep a legacy network infrastructure limping along with an acceptable cost versus performance trade-off. That's no longer generally true, however. "Mostly because the risk of failure is too great and the energy consumption is too high," says Kevin Sheehan, CTO of the Americas, with network automation firm Ciena. "In some cases, equipment is so old and spare parts so scarce that the infrastructure is no longer supportable. “Despite the cost and performance drawbacks, many enterprises continue to rely on aging networks based on designs that were developed many years ago.

Yet advanced technologies, such as the cloud and artificial intelligence, as well as new business models, including remote and flexible work, have pushed those designs to the limit and beyond. "Now is the time to reset and create, challenge, validate, and document business and technical requirements that will serve as the foundation for the upgraded network," says William Perry, principal, US cloud innovation and engineering at business advisory firm PwC.

How to prepare for an infrastructure update

1. Conduct an audit

Any upgrade of an aging network infrastructure initiative should begin with a thorough audit of the network's existing state and a careful evaluation of currently available technologies. "What's required is an open, adaptive infrastructure that can provide high bandwidth on demand, with network and automation capabilities that can streamline service development and provisioning," Sheehan says.

2. Define the project scope

Defining the project's scope can be the most challenging step when planning a network upgrade. "With a clear definition, the client can assess whether to undertake a self-run project or outsource to service providers," says Rob Long, network advisory partner with technology research and advisory firm ISG.

3. Ask the market

Long says he often sees network leaders looking to the market for assistance with larger upgrades, typically relying on a mix of value-added resellers (VARs) or managed service providers (MSPs). "The market is thriving on transformations, including SD-WAN, SDN, NFV, and SASE," he notes. "We see competitive RFP events most often being the preferred route over self-managed upgrades."

4. Communicate with stakeholders

Include all relevant business owners in communication and planning. "A lack of inclusion and communication with anyone who could be impacted by service interruption often leads to additional delays," Long warns. He also advises bringing cloud and security teams into planning sessions. "Having a broad team increases visibility and awareness, leverages diverse capabilities, and minimizes conflicts or risks with other projects."

Tips for achieving network upgrade goals

Minimizing technology and business risk should be a top priority for any aging network infrastructure upgrade project. "Downtime or service disruptions can have significant financial and reputational costs," Sheehan cautions.

When planning an upgrade, IT leaders and administrators should assess current data transmission utilization while collaborating with business leaders and technical teams to understand the organization's future needs. "The network is often a secondary thought to many IT and business leaders because it can be complex and hard to understand," Perry notes. "But a network upgrade demands an attention to detail."

The upgrade project's hardware and software vendors should be engaged to help validate designs and configurations, Perry says. Operations teams, whether in-house staff or managed services providers (MSPs), should be consulted early to provide feedback as well as operational guidance. Operations teams should also be used to prepare any new tooling and to develop new processes and procedures to support post-deployment. "The security team should be heavily involved to ensure the network is secured from external threats," he advises.

While a major network overhaul can be daunting, it also provides an opportunity to evaluate new vendors, Perry notes. Potential benefits include lower costs, the introduction of useful new features, and even the promise of attracting new talent.

Support upgrades with warm handovers

Many network leaders opt to conduct a warm handover process in coordination with the operations team. "This process is often clunky and insufficient," Perry warns, "as the team races to the upgrade's next phase, resulting in operational gaps." Upgrades are often used to introduce features and functionality, and these are usually poorly communicated to the operations team. However, it's critical that the operations team is involved from the beginning with any aging network upgrade effort to ensure they're helping to define the detailed operational handover process. "Having the operations team drive the first few handovers, updating the process as needed and making changes as appropriate, will significantly streamline things," Perry says.

Long recommends creating a 30-day window during which existing and new network deployments will run in parallel. "Managing disconnects can become problematic if the window is too tight," he warns. "Even a single reschedule for any reason can jeopardize the upgrade plan without an active fallback."

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