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.

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