10 Tips to Boost Your Company Network

Tracking and cracking network performance problems is no easy task. More than a matter of identifying often mystifying bottlenecks, ensuring network efficiency requires an almost preternatural understanding of your organization's IT operations, as well as a thick skin for withstanding the heat when problems inevitably arise.

To keep your network humming, we've outlined 10 areas where tweaking and moderate investment can lead to significant performance gains. After all, as more and more organizations seek to conduct business at wire speed, making sure your systems blaze is essential to the competitive edge your organization needs.

Speed up that WAN

IT has long been caught in the web of leased lines and costly WAN charges. Linking multiple sites with T1 lines, MPLS, and even Frame Relay used to be the only way to guarantee connectivity, but the scene has changed. Rather than curse at your monthly WAN bill, it's high time to investigate your alternatives.

[ For more hands-on networking tips and techniques, download InfoWorld's Networking Deep Dive | Looking to revise your storage strategy? See InfoWorld's iGuide to the Enterprise Data Explosion. ]

Cogent Communications is one of several providers boasting a significant fiber footprint around the United States. Tapping these outlets might mean a substantial increase in site-to-site bandwidth at a significant cost savings -- it's all a matter of location. Even bringing a few sites into a new WAN design can save enough money to increase bandwidth to the sites that aren't accessible by the same carrier.

You may wind up running your own VPN between these sites, but if the carrier's SLA is strong enough and the network is as low-latency as it should be, this won't be an issue. Think of the benefits of 100Mbps across all your sites and a WAN bill downsized by half.

Sites outside the footprint of the larger carriers, and thus destined to remain on leased-line connections for the foreseeable future, could benefit from a WAN accelerator, such as Riverbed's Steelhead appliance (see the InfoWorld Test Center's hands-on review of Riverbed Steelhead). If you can't increase bandwith to those satellite sites, your only option is to decrease traffic on those circuits without reducing their efficacy. That's where WAN optimization tools come in.

Lose the Leased Lines

Unless you're headquartered in the Sahara, it's time to ditch leased-line Net access. Between Time Warner Business Class, Comcast Business Class, and FiOS, there's bound to be a better, cheaper way to bring high-speed Internet into your environment. A ten-fold Internet bandwidth increase in place of existing T1 circuits is not out of the realm of possibility and can be achieved for a fraction of the cost without compromising reliability.

Granted, T1 and T3 leased lines provide more of a guarantee against latency, but the cost differential is extraordinary, and the maturity of these networks -- especially the business-class products -- has grown substantially. It's time to tell your telco to pull its SmartJacks and bring in something better.

Slow Internet access is always a major complaint among users. Bringing them the same relative speed they get at home goes a long way toward appeasing the masses.

Let Auld Acquaintance be Forgot

Many businesses cling desperately to elderly application platforms, leaving IT saddled with the high-cost, resource-intensive task of shoehorning old platforms into new infrastructures. This is how you wind up with a brand-new VMware vSphere architecture running a handful of Windows NT4 boxes.

Refusing to let go of the past often results in increased costs, downtime, and fragility of core business systems. Instead of holding meeting after meeting to figure out how to get a 10-year-old accounting package transferred to a new infrastructure, launch it into orbit and migrate to something new. The upfront costs may be more, but they will pale against the long-term costs you'll incur by not severing these ties.

This is a personnel issue as much as it is a technical one. There are always those in IT shops who see everything through the prism of their favored technology, facts be damned. It's not always easy to shepherd these folks through the dark and stormy night of new technology, but remember, hanging on to fixed-purpose IT admins can be as detrimental as hanging on to elderly technology.

Build a Lab

There's no excuse. For the cost of a single server, you can build a monster IT test lab. A cheap, dual-CPU, 12-core AMD Istanbul-based 1U server can run several dozen virtual machines in a test scenario for about $1,500. Using VMware Server on Linux or VMware ESXi, you can avoid software licensing fees, while maintaining a perfectly valid platform for testing anything, from software upgrades to new packages, new operating systems, or even network architectures.

Combine a virtualized server lab with tools such as GNS3, and you can build and test just about any planned network or system infrastructure you want. There's no easier way to determine where resource bottlenecks reside than in a test bed, and if that test bed is as easily constructed as it is in a virtual lab, there's no reason not to find them. Moreover, with a virtual lab, you can find the sweet spot for certain servers, including how much RAM and CPU resources they'll need to function under expected (and unexpected) loads, thereby ensuring you waste fewer resources.

Watch Everything

Network and system monitoring is the granddaddy of bottleneck diagnostics. When users complain that the network is slow, the network usually has nothing to do with it. But unless you have the facilities to show exactly where the problem resides, you're left hunting around in the dark for the solution.

Whether you prefer proprietary or open source tools, there's a myriad of options available to monitor everything from network latency and throughput to RAM and CPU utilization, to SAN performance and disk queue lengths -- you name it.

If it exists, it can be monitored. If it can be monitored, it can be graphed. And if it can be graphed, there's a very good chance that a simple perusal of the resulting graph can lead you in the right direction, greatly accelerating the problem-detection portion of any troubleshooting effort.

And when implementing network monitoring, be sure to leave no stone unturned. Monitor the CPU utilization of your routers and switches; watch the error rates on Ethernet interfaces; have your routers and switches log to central syslog servers and implement some form of logfile analysis to alert you when there are reports of anything from IP conflicts to circuits going down. Careful, conscientious implementation and tweaking of your monitoring framework will save enormous amounts of time and energy, especially when it counts the most.

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