It used to be that when an IT team wanted to upgrade their organization’s network, it was a relatively simple proposition. Since the network only supported data, even in organizations that generated large files such as graphics or complex drawings, it was relatively easy to determine what hardware, software and bandwidth was necessary to meet current and future needs.
Today’s networks place enormous capabilities at employees’ fingertips. But that functionality comes at a price. These networks are vastly more complex and require more resources and expertise to build and manage. Maximizing the potential of these networks to help employees meet business and personal performance goals requires a significant amount of information, planning and expertise. The seven steps below act as a general framework for IT teams eager to successfully upgrade their networks as efficiently and cost effectively as possible.
1. Identify Business Goals and Needs
IT teams should meet with senior managers and understand the organization’s short- and long-term business goals in terms of how employees currently work – and could potentially work – in an ideal situation. Typical goals include improving employee productivity, improving customer service levels, increasing revenue and reducing operating and overhead expenses. The senior managers interviewed should reflect as many areas of the business as possible, and should also include administrative functions, such as human resources, accounting/finance and legal.
From these meetings, IT teams can create qualitative and quantitative performance objectives for the new network. An example of an objective might be, “enable customer service employees to handle 10 percent more inbound calls with a 25 percent higher customer satisfaction rate.”
2. Assess End-user Needs
Determining end-users’ needs always proves challenging. When IT teams ask employees what improvements they would like to see in a network, they receive an enormous variety of answers. These range from employees who say, “I don’t know,” to those who ask for dozens of features that the IT interviewer knows they will never use.
A successful approach to address employee needs starts with eliciting employee opinions via online surveys, email surveys and/or focus groups. This research would prompt employees to both identify features, but also tie the feature to a specific business goal, such as improved productivity. A sample answer the IT team might attempt to elicit: “If I were able to share voicemails with other members of the customer service team, we could handle five-10 percent more calls per day.”
With this information in hand, IT teams then create two-to-three “tiers” of features starting with those that the team knows are critical or that employees mention most often. The next tier would include another group of features somewhat less frequently mentioned or less directly tie to achieving a specific business objective. For most organizations, two-to-three tiers of features cover most employee needs.
3. Understand Forensically the Current Network
Because many IT teams are stretched thin, they tend to focus on problem areas and not spend time monitoring areas that are working well. However, assessing the total capabilities of the network is critical before implementing a network upgrade. At a minimum, this assessment should include a review of the following:
- Wireless access
- Information security hardware / software
- Business continuity/disaster recovery systems
IT teams will frequently find that while a specific area is functioning well, there are conditions that cause that area to underperform. For example, the team might find that information necessary for customer service employees to retrieve necessary information rapidly is stored on tape drives, which are typically slow to retrieve data. If that same information were stored on flash drives, for example, service reps would be able to answer customer inquiries more quickly.
4. Identify the Best Partners
Many organization’s networks today support voice, data and video. Each capability requires specific levels of expertise and most IT teams do not possess the most current information on the implementation and management of all three capabilities. Experienced, professional service providers are an invaluable resource to supplement an internal team’s expertise and availability.
Using IP telephony as an example, IT teams should look for the following in a service provider:
- Is the provider able to design a total solution to match the organization’s telephony needs, and will they provide advice based on past implementations?
- Does the provider serve all geographic areas where the organization maintains facilities?
- Can the provider offer references from organizations with similar business needs?
- Does the provider offer the products and services that will meet the needs of the business and its employees?
- Is the provider able to offer creative solutions to any unique situations within the organization?
- Does the provider have qualified technical support teams to handle all aspects of the deployment?
- Will the provider supply necessary support, and what is the cost structure for support services?
5. Designing the Network
In most situations, designing the network is a joint exercise between the service provider and the organization’s IT team. Since designing a network for a medium-sized or enterprise organization can be daunting, it is often helpful to divide the process into specific project areas. An example of the areas in which the collective team can divide a new network’s design is below:
- Topological design – This includes determining where to place each component (server, router, storage device, et al.) and how to connect them.
- Capacity design – In this phase, the IT team and service provider(s) determine required capacity throughout the network to meet specific performance criteria. In an integrated voice, data and video network, this would involve meeting or exceeding capacity needs identified in the business and/or end-user analysis.
- Reliability/continuity design – Here, the collective team builds in components and systems designed to maximize network uptime. This can include disaster recovery plans, as well as hardware and software to create “defense in depth” security against cyberattacks.
6. Deployment and Testing
Once the IT team and service provider has deployed the new network, the switchover should occur gradually, ideally starting with one or more non-essential functions within the company. This approach ensures that any unforeseen issues are identified and handled.
During deployment, the IT team should also conduct a series of tests to ensure the network will function well under a variety of circumstances. A sample of the tests IT teams should conduct include:
- Data, voice and video quality – for each capability, test to ensure employees receive high-quality content. For example, when testing voice services, test with internal, local and long-distance calls. Measure for latency or other issues that could hamper call quality.
- Bandwidth quality – place gradually increasing loads of content over the network to measure the performance of routers, switches, servers and other components. Identify and relieve any bottlenecks or single points of failure that appear.
- Storage quality – test to ensure teams are able to retrieve critical data at appropriate speeds; i.e., critical data in near-real time and non-critical data in an acceptable timeframe.
- Recovery quality – Simulate a power outage or related event, and determine if employees are able to retrieve projects that were open after the network is restored.
- Service provider quality – if utilizing the service provider to provide ongoing management and support, simulate situations that require support and measure response time and ability to address the network issue quickly and effectively.
7. Ongoing Network Management and Support
An increasing number of IT teams are turning to outside service providers to manage on-site and remote network support. This approach extends the bandwidth of the IT team and allows for 24 x 7 support. Critical to successfully outsourcing is an airtight SLA that clearly and specifically identifies which activities the service provider(s) will manage versus the internal IT team. IT teams should realistically evaluate which functions they are able to handle given levels of expertise and availability. Many have pushed for narrowly-focused SLAs with the goal of preserving budget, only to witness their networks suffer an outage, virus or other event that their teams are unable to quickly address, leading to reductions in productivity, loss of critical data and other negative outcomes.
Completing a successful network upgrade can result in significant improvements in productivity, customer service and network uptime, while concurrently reducing capital and operating expenses. Critical to achieving success is a detailed understanding of the organization’s business objectives and existing network capabilities, identification of the best service provider partners, careful planning and design, thorough testing and robust management. IT teams that create and execute a detailed approach to upgrading their networks will reap the most significant gains.
Edited by Brooke Neuman