When it comes to network performance, having adequate bandwidth is important, but it’s never enough.
That’s what federal agencies are discovering as they look to capitalize on recent innovations in how data is accessed, analyzed and shared. Big data, cloud computing, mobile computing, voice over IP — in the end, these and other advances in technology depend on agencies being able to provide adequate network bandwidth and management capabilities.
It should come as no surprise then that agencies are prepared to invest more money in their networks. But as a matter of necessity, they also are looking to drive down the cost of managing those networks.
These are some of the findings of a survey of 251 federal, state and local government IT professionals conducted in November 2012 by the 1105 Government Information Group. (Details about the methodology and demographic information on the respondents are below.)
The survey found that over the next two years, network traffic is projected to increase by an average of 29.3 percent across the federal government, with 13 percent of respondents expecting an increase of 60 percent or more (see figure 1).
Indeed, agencies have already begun to invest more money in their networks, with 30 percent of respondents saying their budget for modernizing their network infrastructure was increasing, 52 percent saying their budget would hold steady, and only 18 percent anticipating a decrease.
“As we go forward, the concept of issues management will be more and more complex,” he says. “The 63 percent who say they need Big Data to accomplish their mission are recognizing that complexity, and the need to gather information from a more diverse set of sources – video, audio, newspaper articles, as well as traditional transactional data -- to develop the knowledge to make critical, strategic decisions.”
However, the increased investment is not necessarily a result of the expected surge in network traffic.
In fact, federal agencies have anticipated these demands and have upgraded backbones accordingly, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting, which provides services to corporate and government clients. “Most agencies are already in pretty good shape, at least in terms of their core networks and their network backbone,” he said.
Instead, the investments are likely aimed at what Suss calls “expanding at the edges.” Many popular networking applications, such as voice over IP and videoconferencing, are real-time services that demand a higher level of reliability and redundancy in the end-user environment than many traditional applications.
“If you don’t have the right technology in your local-area network, you are going to have some extremely unhappy end users,” Suss said.
Likewise, quality of service is an increasing concern. Agencies need the ability to ensure that data associated with real-time services is given priority; otherwise, the application performance will suffer, even if adequate bandwidth is available.
The need for better tools to prioritize network traffic was one of the top concerns listed by respondents to the survey, with 41 percent saying it was “very critical” and an equal share saying it was “somewhat critical” (see figure 2).
Their concerns are well-founded, according to “The Changing Face of Network Performance,” a recent report by the Aberdeen Group, a market research firm.
“Technologies such as big data, cloud and mobile computing are changing the makeup of modern networks and applications and services that run on them,” the report states. “With these changes, organizations are finding the old ways of managing performance and bandwidth usage no longer apply.”
Jim Rapoza, senior research analyst for networking and application performance at Aberdeen, said the real measure of network performance is in fact application performance.
“Businesses should care about having well-designed and high-performance networks, but they need to remember that the main reason you have a network like that is to ensure that your important applications run well,” he said.
This is especially important when it comes to applications being accessed over the Internet, in which case the performance of the backbone network is only one factor that determines the performance of an application. “They need to leverage monitoring and analytics so they have visibility into everything that could be impacting the performance of key applications,” Rapoza said.
Federal agencies are equally concerned about the huge growth in IP-based network traffic. Other pressing issues include more robust telecommunications expense management solutions and network infrastructure asset cataloging and management.
However, government IT managers have another concern: convincing their bosses about the need to modernize. In the current budget environment, any increase in spending will not happen unless managers can make a compelling business case — one that speaks to the bottom line.
That is not always easy with network modernization, the survey found, with 34 percent of respondents agreeing that it is quite difficult to demonstrate any significant returns on investment (see figure 3).
The difficulty likely comes from the need to make upfront investments to realize long-term savings. For example, agencies can both save money and get additional capabilities if they integrate their voice and data networks, but only if they can find the money to buy the necessary equipment and services
“There is such an extraordinary focus on near-term cost savings, and such extra pressure to reduce spending, that it’s a challenge for agencies to command the resources to make the investment needed to obtain that ROI,” Suss said.
Suss believes that agencies will come up with the money because, in the end, they do not really have many other options for achieving the efficiencies they know they need. But it will not happen unless agency IT leaders are bold enough to press for long-term investments despite the prevailing focus on the short term.
He said some agency leaders, most notably at the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, have stepped up to the task. “I hope others will follow because it’s the right thing for agencies,” Suss said. “But it’s not for the faint of heart.”