Analysis: Is your network a disaster in the works?

Chris Gloede

When was the last time you took a good look at your network? I mean a good long look. How many protocols are you running? How many network operating systems? Has the network been examined from a high enough level or does your team only address the urgent issues of the day?

I've seen some networks that appear as if they were thrown together by whomever seemed to have a particular whim on a particular day. These installations sometimes included the IT department and sometimes did not. What's worse is that when networks are still small and can be redesigned with relative ease before adding to the mayhem, they're often ignored and the problems compound.

If your enterprise stands a chance of being truly manageable you'll need to take some proactive measures and fix the infrastructure while it can still be fixed and not just patched. Hopefully this happens before you open the network to bi-directional Internet traffic.

First, if you're not already doing so, you should be running a single network protocol, TCP/IP. If this is not the case, or if you're running a single protocol but it's a different one, you're taking precious network bandwidth for no reason, and you'll more than likely need to make a change to your protocol later. Either way, it's easier to make the change now and clean up the very core of your network.

Network cabling can be your savior or it can be the cause of your demise. At the least, you should be running category five cabling. If you're really lucky, run fiber. Either way, ensure that the wiring is neatly installed and CLEARLY DOCUMENTED.

New cabling is not complete until you can identify which port at which workstation corresponds to which port on your patch panel. If you can't do this, your life just got more complicated than it needs to be. There should be a network port anywhere there is a phone jack and a label on that port that matches a label on the patch panel to which it's attached. It's that simple and there should be no exceptions.

While a case can be made for running two network operating systems (NOS), any more adds significant overhead and management problems. One is best but more than two will cause significant graying of the hair.

This issue must be looked at carefully. What NOS should you run and why? What are the benefits and what are the drawbacks? Every NOS has drawbacks. If you don't see them you're not looking hard enough. Keep in mind that a NOS vendor's market position has an impact on your business. If the vendor changes their business or worse, goes belly up, you're in trouble.

Maintaining network security is a pain. Standards employed here will have a beneficial impact on your organization down the line. A simple naming convention for user ID's is a good place to start. Meaningful groups is another. Managing security by groups is really the only way to go if you have more than 20 users. Then make sure you set up your shared network resources and secure their access with your new security model.

Your next step is e-mail. I've seen too many single companies run multiple e-mail services. What's that about? What possible benefit could there be in this? An Outlook client set up with Exchange, Internet e-mail, MS Mail, fax, personal folders, personal address book, Outlook address book and two or three additional services! Show me one person who actually needs all of that.

The simple fact of the matter is that most networks which include infrastructure, communications, hubs, routers, multiple special purpose servers, clients and so on need to be better designed. Standards need to be established and adhered to, and documentation created. Anything less borders on incompetence and those responsible should not be called IT professionals.