When to Upgrade Your Network

By Tony Kontzer  |  Posted 04-05-2013

When to Upgrade Your Network

By Tony Kontzer

The last time the San Francisco Giants updated their core network at AT&T Park, following the 2004 Major League Baseball season, home run king Barry Bonds was still a relevant player, having just logged the last MVP-caliber campaign of his 21-year career.

As further evidence of how long ago that was, 2004 was also the year the Giants pioneered the concept of wireless access for fans, introducing a component of the in-stadium experience that the team's longtime CIO, Bill Schlough, says has become as important to the modern sports fan as good food, an HD video board or a comfortable seat.

In the succeeding years, the Giants franchise has invested in steadily improving its wireless network by replacing and adding access points every few years. In fact, as the 2013 team was beginning their pursuit of the franchise's third World Series title in four seasons, Schlough and his 12-person IT staff were completing an upgrade that doubled the number of stadium access points to 700.

"It's all about providing a greater density of coverage to enable fans to remain connected," says Schlough. "Not only are more people getting on the network, they're doing more stuff."

And yet as connectivity has been regularly added to the wireless network, the stadium's core network—the one that provides the primary connectivity for all wired and wireless traffic at the stadium—has remained unchanged. Part of the reason is that there's always been a big-ticket item Schlough had to account for in his budget, such as a new HD video board or an upgraded ticketing system. Another factor was that the stadium's Nortel- and Avaya-powered network had, as Schlough says, "served us extremely well," exhibiting the level of reliability a CIO requires with a critical infrastructure component.

But now, Schlough says, "it's the number one topic in my head." As equipment and support contracts approach their end-of-life, the increased maintenance costs have swung the decision pendulum toward upgrade. As a result, the 2013 baseball season, its ninth year of operation, will be the network's last. An RFP process is underway to choose a new network backbone provider. Schlough should receive responses from six vendors—Avaya, Brocade, Cisco, Dell, HP and Juniper—and he plans to choose a partner by mid-season. The network upgrade will occur during the next offseason, the most feasible option for a professional sports team.

While the mushrooming demand for high-bandwidth wireless services is a significant driver, the decision to upgrade the core network was essentially made for Schlough in that the team couldn't take the risk of waiting any longer.

"It's been around a long time, but it's time to upgrade before it fails," he says. "We don't want to run a network until it dies on the side of the road and forces us to call AAA for service."

As luck would have it, the Giants may find that their upgrade is coming at an ideal time if they want to tap into new innovative technologies.

"Networking equipment hasn't evolved very rapidly over the last 20 years or so," says John Abbott, a distinguished analyst at 451 Research. "But it is starting to change now."

In fact, a raft of emerging technologies—flat, server-to-server network topologies that de-emphasize the core; much more power-efficient hardware; and virtual, software-defined networks—promise more nimble, cost-effective and easy-to-manage networks than Schlough and the Giants are used to.

The latter two of those technologies—more power-efficient hardware and virtual, software-defined networks—are playing an important role in the ambitious network upgrade now under way at Diversified Agency Services (DAS), a unit of Omnicom Group Inc. that oversees more than 200 agencies worldwide for the $14.2 billion-a-year marketing and communications giant.

When to Upgrade Your Network

DAS is in the midst of a massive centralization effort that will converge the IT assets and services of its growing stable of agencies into a multi-tenant private cloud environment running on mostly virtualized hardware in two new state-of-the-art, energy-efficient data centers built during the past 18 months. Having accomplished that task, DAS is now in the midst of an upgrade from a patchwork of local network services to an AT&T Ultravailable Network Service ring, with the goal of having the project 90 percent complete by year-end.

"It was on yesterday's plate, it's on today's plate, and it'll be on tomorrow's plate," says CIO Jason Cohen. "You have to have a significant process to organize and manage a central network that feeds multi-tenant environments."

Cohen says the decision to upgrade was inevitable, as DAS's holdings continuously grew through steady acquisition. That continual growth resulted in an environment rife with duplication of equipment and services, plus an overabundance of standards, making it a challenge to govern and thus ensure compliance with internal policies and government regulations.

"We were having management issues," says Cohen. "We had too many technology tools, and we were doubling and tripling up on people and processes. It wasn't scalable."

By consolidating all IT investments and decision-making in a central operational core, Cohen says DAS will be able to acquire technologies, such as the AT&T network, that individual agencies couldn't have afforded. The network will also be better equipped to support the level of mobility demanded by a 17,000-person workforce that accesses applications and data from the home, office and field.

What's more, the new network will enable DAS's agencies to collectively offer the kind of digital tools and services that are craved by the social media-focused business world.

"We have to have networking tools to support these services or we'll never be able to compete in a global marketplace," says Cohen.

Despite that urgency, and the clear challenges DAS's fragmented former infrastructure presented, Cohen clearly believes the company's decision to embark on such an aggressive rethinking of its infrastructure was far from knee-jerk, which he considers a significant advantage.

"I've noticed a lot of my colleagues becoming very reactionary," Cohen says. "The best time to upgrade [your network] is when you're confident that you've got the right IT plan to match your business plan. All of the concerns will happen no matter when you plan your upgrade. You will have issues every single day during this kind of migration. How well you plan and go back to your IT strategy's true north will determine how disruptive it is."

To be sure, DAS has undergone the kinds of hiccups to which Cohen was referring. For instance, Cohen acknowledges that there was significant resistance from local agencies upon being asked to give up so much control and responsibility. And there have been the growing pains associated with adopting such an all-encompassing new technology, as well as the customary challenges of tying together so many formerly disparate components.

That said, Cohan says the anticipated benefits are many, from the aforementioned gains in mobility to more inter-agency collaboration and improved agility, responsiveness and security.

The latter will be especially handy when clients come to DAS agencies for help parsing increasingly large sets of customer data.

"There's always a need for more network bandwidth," says Abbott of 451 Research. "All those analytics and things that people are doing in real time are a driver."