Network modernization: Where to begin?
Government agencies looking to upgrade their network infrastructure apparently have a pretty good idea of what they need: a little bit of everything and a whole lot of IP.
In a survey conducted in November 2012 by the 1105 Government Information Group, government agencies that are increasing their network modernization budgets are particularly interested in six different product categories, led by security monitoring (67 percent), core routers and switches (55 percent) and edge network services (54 percent). Security monitoring also was strong among agencies with steady or decreasing modernization budgets (see figure 1).
On the whole, a study of the survey results found that agencies are taking a fairly aggressive approach to modernization. The vast majority of respondents reported having at least a few initiatives in place or under consideration, with many focused on multiple projects (see figure 2).
Clearly, agencies are taking the need for modernization seriously. As noted in a related article, nearly a third of respondents said their budgets for modernizing the network infrastructure are on the rise. The survey found that, on average, networking operations already account for 29 percent of agency IT budgets, with the Defense Department reporting an even larger portion and more growth.
In part, that is probably because so much of IT is now network-oriented.
“The technical domain of the network has expanded, so many of the pieces we used to talk about independently are now subsumed in the network,” said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting.
But that’s not to say that agencies are spending freely. Instead, the survey shows that agencies are trying to balance the need for better services with the need to keep costs down. That is why there is such strong interest in the possibility of unified communications (UC).
The prevalence of IP-based networking solutions — not least of which is voice over IP — has paved the way for agencies to integrate their telecommunications infrastructure with their data infrastructure (including wireless) and, in the process, eliminate a lot of duplicate investments in network equipment and management tools.
Economically, UC is hard to beat, but that’s only half the story. The real payoff is that agencies can “create an environment where you can get better access from wherever you are to the information that you need,” Suss said, whether that’s for employees or the general public.
Agencies apparently are intrigued by the possibilities. Slightly less than a third of survey respondents said their agencies had a converged infrastructure in place or were in transition. But another 42 percent said they were studying the idea or had plans to make the move (see figure 3).
DOD is at the forefront of IP-based convergence. As part of its strategic plan for 2013 to 2018, the Defense Information Systems Agency aims to deliver voice, video and data services across an IP-based infrastructure that stretches from the department’s business networks to the battlefield.
DISA is methodically integrating IP-based networking throughout its programs. For example, the agency recently launched a procurement to upgrade the Joint Hawaii Information Transfer System (JHITS), which provides voice, video and data services to military bases in the state of Hawaii, and convergence is definitely part of the plan.
“Any follow-on effort to JHITS is driven by the need to migrate customers from the existing legacy Time Division Multiplexing technology base to an almost Everything-over-IP technology base,” the request for information states.
Agencies looking to make the move will find a burgeoning market for products and services, according to the market research firm Infonetics Research.
“Beyond traditional operators and service providers, we’re seeing a growing number of PBX/UC vendors, enterprise agents, systems integrators and resellers expanding into hosted UC offerings,” an Infonetics report states.
However, one potential sticking point is the transition from the IPv4 protocol to IPv6. For several years, Internet experts have been warning that the number of IP addresses available with IPv4 is rapidly shrinking and so organizations must begin switching over to the new protocol.
Experts also tout the numerous operational benefits of adopting IPv6, including better security, auto-configuration capabilities and support for more advanced peer-to-peer networking tools.
But many agencies continue to hold back. In the 1105 survey, only 8 percent of respondents said their agencies have already made the transition, with another 22 percent saying work was in progress.
The remaining 70 percent said their agencies had no plan in place as far as they knew. The reason? Half of those respondents said their agencies did not see any need to transition, while others cited concerns about staff training, support for IPv4-based operations, the lack of vendor support or the lack of IPv6-related standards (see figure 4).
Networking goes virtual
One technology generating a lot of interest is software-defined networking.
SDN, also known as virtual networking, might work in a number of different ways. But one popular approach involves creating a software-based controller that can manage various network elements. As with server virtualization, virtual networking makes it possible for an administrator to take multiple physical devices and treat them as a single entity — a pool of resources that can be allocated and reallocated as needed.
The technology is still developing, but some experts believe it could be a game-changer.
“Right now much of the focus is on the ability to enable better virtual network capabilities and have more flexibility and portability within network routing and structure,” said Jim Rapoza, senior research analyst for networking and application performance at the Aberdeen Group. “But I think, given how SDN makes networks programmable almost like applications, that in the next couple of years we’ll see some people do things with SDNs that no one expects, and that will change how networks work and are perceived.”
Government IT managers are beginning to take notice. In a survey of 251 federal, state and local IT professionals, 24 percent of respondents said their agencies had installed or were transitioning to SDN. But another 63 percent said their agencies were investigating the technology or putting plans in place (see figure 5). Stay tuned.
Methodology and survey demographics
Between Oct. 31 and Nov. 12, 2012, 251 subscribers of FCW, GCN and other 1105 Government Information Group publications responded to an e-mail survey about the status of their network transformation and modernization initiatives. Only respondents who were involved with network operations at government agencies were included in the survey. Beacon Technology Partners developed the methodology, fielded the survey and compiled the results.
Eight out of 10 respondents were technology decision-makers (CIOs or other IT managers or professionals), while 17 percent were senior managers, program managers or other business decision-makers. Approximately 64 percent came from the federal government (36 percent civilian, 28 percent defense) and 36 percent from state or local government agencies.