University tracks network to success

Dundee University is upgrading its network to prevent downtime and meet rising demand. Asset-tracking software is helping to make the transition easier

Dundee University has begun a £6m upgrade of its entire network and is using asset-tracking software to manage the upgrade and ensure resilience.

With 21,000 users comprising staff and students spread over four campuses, the university has embarked on a complete refresh of more than 600 switches and 300 access points.

With more than 14,000 port connections running on its network, Dundee University needed to ensure reliability under the new architecture, as prior to the upgrade the IT department found that occurrences of downtime were rising.

The incidents of downtime resulted from network switches causing single points of failure. A rising demand for services had exacerbated the problem.

High profile departments such as medicine and life sciences conduct research costing millions of pounds at the university, so ensuring high availability for them was a priority.

"It could take hours to locate the problem switch, get a replacement and then configure the new switch to perform the same functions," said Vinesh Chandra, networking specialist for the university.

"Our biggest problem was determining what equipment we had running on the network, what it was connected to and how it was configured, as well as the knock-on effects of making any changes to services."

Reconfiguring switches - for instance, when new students joined - meant that network administrators had to locate hard copy documentation to find what each switch did and its set-up details. This paper-based system was difficult to maintain in a useful way.

The university responded by deploying iTracs monitoring software to map the physical connections and equipment. The software also allowed an insight into the university's network so that, in the event of a failure, problem points could be identified more quickly.

Replacement switches could also be configured to a database that holds all set-up information about devices running on the network.

"With this visibility of the network we have reduced the amount of man hours we would have spent addressing problems," said Chandra.

However, he noted that transcribing information about what each component on the network did from hard copy into the iTracs system took more than three months, and that the magnitude of this task should not be underestimated in larger deployments.

Jean-Pierre Garbani, a research vice-president at Forrester, said the move away from paper-based documentation about network configurations to dedicated configuration management databases was an emerging trend, as network managers try to gain a more comprehensive view of their infrastructure.

"Gaining transparency into the network assets and how they are configured is a key ingredient of service management," he said.

"We find that the configuration management database is a work-in-progress among companies, and that the implementations currently available - while making considerable progress toward service management - are only a partial response to user needs."

Garbani said that having a repository of information was only the beginning of the process, and that IT departments must implement policies to ensure that this information is kept current, and that when new equipment is installed, it is installed in line with policies.

"Having configuration management databases can be helpful, but if businesses carry on adding equipment regardless, and without conducting impact analysis on services, then this could undermine the benefits of having a clear view of the network," Garbani said.

Without a clear view of the network, businesses can overspend on the network. According to Gartner, IT departments will waste an estimated £50m over the next five years by overspending on network expansion plans.

Mark Fabbi, a research vice-president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, said that companies need to optimise network infrastructures to ensure that they deliver proposed benefits. "Enterprises are continuing to follow bad practices, such as not auditing their network environments and determining what equipment they have, and how their equipment maps to delivering services," he said.

Research conducted by Gartner discovered that having poor audit information of the network leads to bad network design, and that 70% of companies will be at a competitive business disadvantage because they do not have the information available to manage and update their infrastructure appropriately.

Fabbi said that to run their networks successfully, companies must know what applications and business processes are running on the network, rather than building a generic network and increasing its size when demand for services rises.

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