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Select the Right Network Technology with Proven Best Practices

Regardless of an IT organization's size, there is usually some type of network planning activity that determines the technology mix and the services provided. However, unless those personnel responsible for technology evaluation and selection use best practices to make their choices, considerable amounts of time and money can be wasted.

Regardless of an IT organization’s size, there is usually some type of network planning activity that determines the technology mix and the services provided. However, unless those personnel responsible for technology evaluation and selection use best practices to make their choices, considerable amounts of time and money can be wasted.

Executive Summary

Network technology choices and the associated services that support enterprise business units are vital business-enablers. When selections are based on proven best practices, it is likely that they will deliver the requisite value. To consistently select the correct network technology, employ the following best practices:

    Base technology selections on verifiable business requirements.

    Identify technology strengths, weaknesses, and support needs.

    Complete technology lifecycle estimates.

Both voice and data technology selections can have a major impact on the performance of business units and the corporation. Judicious planning and best practices can ensure that selected technology solutions actually deliver the service levels that business units require.

Optimization Point

When it comes to network planning activities, there is always room for improvement. This practice ensures that business unit needs are consistently met and that the selected technology solution remains competitive and provides acceptable enterprise value. The network planning function must make certain that the critical alignment between a technology solution’s capabilities and business unit needs occurs.

Key Considerations

In every enterprise, someone must be responsible to periodically monitor, evaluate, and select the appropriate network technology solution from the many candidates that are available. Furthermore, even the best network planners regularly step back to analyze the effectiveness of their technology choices and the network services they provide to business units. However, the responsible staff member(s) must also identify and understand current and changing business unit requirements in order to make the appropriate technology choice. Because of the complexities involved in these different areas, the use of best practices is business prudent. Implementing the following best practices will improve network technology and service selection processes.

Base Technology Selections on Verifiable Business Requirements

Those enterprises that enter into telecom service provider contracts without validating that the procured services meet business unit needs are courting disaster. Some companies have learned the hard way that unless contracted network services support concrete business unit needs over the contract term, problems occur. To help avoid this contractual problem situation, take the following actions:

    Develop a long-term technology alignment focus. Although short-term technology views are indeed useful, longer term views can be more important in the selection process. Service provider contracts are usually multi-year and the services provided during this period must dovetail with business unit needs or serious alignment problems could occur. A good way to achieve alignment is to compare the telecom service level needs of the business units against the technology’s ability to deliver them for the required term. When they begin to diverge, consider this the start of an alignment problem.

    Identify when potential problems could occur. Sooner or later, any technology solution will no longer deliver the required value because of the availability of better priced or better performing solutions. Match the technology’s estimated ability to meet business unit needs with the proposed contract term. Verify they align because unforeseen problems are costly – even with technology refresh upgrade clauses. For more information on how to avoid inappropriate technology selections, refer to the ITA Premium research note, How to Engage C-Level Execs in Network Tech Selection.The goal is to identify solutions to potential technology problems before they occur. For example, a three-year network services contract may provide better discounts, but a two-year term may afford enterprises the flexibility to take advantage of important, future technology developments and services – without any onerous contractual penalty.

    Validate why a given technology is the best choice. Again, focus on business unit requirements and how a technology choice, such as VoIP or Multi-protocol Label Switching (MPLS), supports them. Verify business requirements are accurate and select the technology/services that best support them for the required time frame. If there is more than one possible solution, categorize them using the strengths, weaknesses, and support needs described in the next section of this research note.

    Discuss technology choices with business units. Do not make this an esoteric, technical tutorial. Simply present the benefits to business unit executives and validate that the technology provides the service levels necessary to meet business needs – before signing any contract. At this point, the collected business requirements should already have been reviewed against the technology solution’s ability to deliver them and there should be no surprises.

    Do not focus on technology/service costs. It is not normally the job of network planners to negotiate the contract or the cost of services. Simply categorize the costs into broad categories such as high, medium, or low for general comparison purposes to help the purchasing/negotiating team get started.

Identify Technology Strengths, Weaknesses, and Support Needs

When choosing any network technology solution, its associated strengths and weaknesses must be identified. Consequently, network planners must be cognizant and well-informed of existing and on-the-horizon technology solutions. Furthermore, network planners must be given sufficient time to complete their technology evaluation process. A good approach to reduce the time required to complete these evaluations is to use a consistent methodology. For example, the straightforward approach in Figure 1 provides a quick view of how different service provider MPLS technology solutions compare.

Figure 1. MPLS Technology Service Comparison Grid

Source: Info-Tech Research Group

Service Provider    Technology Service     Strengths    Weaknesses    Support Needs    Business Requirements Compliance**

A    MPLS    Coverage areas    Corporate financial strength    HP Open View Upgrade    90%+

B    MPLS    SLA quality    International coverage    Same as above    80%-90%

C    Managed MPLS    Technical support portal    Installation times and cost    Extra cost network portal must be installed     85%-90%

** All areas of noncompliance with business requirements must be specifically identified.

Once the comparison grid is completed, add more specific details as required to clarify the various entries. Note that the above example has been truncated for brevity purposes.

Complete Technology Lifecycle Estimates

Forecasting how long a given technology can support enterprise needs is a challenge. However, there are ways to come up with a fairly accurate estimate. To prevent getting stuck with obsolete technology, some enterprises negotiate a technology refresh/upgrade clause as an insurance policy so that they can take advantage of new services or change existing ones. Still, even with this protection clause, network planners must do their best to identify when and where problems are likely to occur and develop workaround strategies whenever possible. Consider the following points.

    Technology lifecycle clues do exist. Service providers issue forward-looking announcements and press releases or work from funded product plans. This information can help planners estimate the useful life of a given technology. Some service providers share some of their product development plans with clients if they execute a non-disclosure. While not foolproof, this information can help to assess a technology’s lifecycle based upon its enterprise usefulness.

        Best Practice. Use all available information to create a timeline that is as accurate as possible and depicts when service provider enhancements and/or new capabilities will be introduced. Continue to monitor the network services arena to identify when a replacement technology appears likely.

    Map technology benefits against business needs. Normally, the short term does not create technology selection problems. However, planners should look out at least 12-18 months to identify if and where a technology begins to fall out of sync with business needs – even if it is a best-guess estimate. When business needs are clearly identified, it is easier to align them with technology delivery capabilities for the required period.

        Best Practice. Align the technology/product lifecycle chart developed in the previous section with the business requirements that were collected and validated earlier. Any gaps or concerns should be easy to spot and alternatives should be identified when the technology begins to lose synchronization with business needs.

    Create the technology lifecycle document. In most cases, this document is only a few pages in length. Most network groups use a two-year charting timeline which is more accurate in the beginning, but still provides a good estimate of how long a technology will align with business needs. Most planners update the chart’s timeline quarterly or semi-annually to maintain its accuracy.

        Best Practice. Construct the document so that it is easy to read and verify that the information is correct. Standardize the format and content so that future network planning activities use a consistent methodology to identify and display technology lifecycles. Prepare alternative scenarios that address the end of a given technology’s usefulness. Include the following items:

            A short description of the business case for selecting the technology over other candidates.

            An analysis of the selected technology’s strengths and weaknesses.

            A basic timeline that depicts how these strengths and weaknesses map against business unit requirements for the next 12 months at least.

Improvement & Optimization

Inappropriate network technology selections are generally caused by poor or incomplete network planning activities. However, network groups of any size can improve their selection proficiency and accuracy by adopting several best practices:

    Collect and verify business requirements. Understand business unit requirements and stay focused on them when evaluating technology solutions. Ensure the selected solution aligns with these requirements over the required time frame.

    Identify the technology’s strengths and weaknesses. Complete the technical evaluation to gain a holistic view for any network technology and do not simply focus on its claimed strengths. Use this same methodology for all potential technology solution evaluations.

    Complete the technology lifecycle estimate document. This document identifies when a technology will likely fall out of step with business needs so that network planners can consider alternatives in advance. Ask purchasing to negotiate a technology refresh clause in the contract if there is a high degree of uncertainty.

Bottom Line

Regardless of an IT organization’s size, there is usually some type of network planning activity that determines the technology mix and the services provided. However, unless those personnel responsible for technology evaluation and selection use best practices to make their choices, considerable amounts of time and money can be wasted.

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