“Nosce Te Ipsum” (Know Thyself)
– Inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
The idea is to get from A to B. But you have to know where A is first.
It may seem obvious, but I’ve always insisted on digging into the present state of the network before recommending any changes. Some managers found this annoying, but many were surprised to find out that things were not as they thought. In some cases, they were way off. I can’t count the number of IT projects that went off the rails because the current state of the network wasn’t established at the beginning.
For example, if you want to deploy a teleconferencing system it’s imperative to know whether the network has the available bandwidth to handle it. Not just bandwidth, but available bandwidth, which means you have to do some measuring over a typical week to see where problems could occur, and at what time of the day. It’s easy to look at a beefy MPLS line and think you’re safe, but if it’s at 90% usage during peak hours that doesn’t do you any good.
You’ll also need to look at how QoS is set up, how it will need to change, whether your security policy needs revision in the wake of video clients being installed on smartphones, etc.
Which brings us to assessments. You’ve probably been contacted by a VAR (or several) to have an assessment done, and you’ve probably questioned the value of the assessment being offered (as you should). Basically, assessments fall into three categories:
- Manufacturer-Sponsored Assessments: These typically cost the VAR nothing. The information gathered will usually center around what devices in the network are nearing end of life, or whether they are under a manufacturer-issued field notice, etc. This is useful information, but often more useful to the person trying to sell you something.
- Best Practices Assessments: These dig deeper into the configuration of your network and compare the results to industry-standard best practices. This is a big leap from the previous category and can actually be a great value depending on what you’re charged. The only problem is that it won’t account for deliberate departures from best practices (ie, it doesn’t account for your unique situation) because of the automated nature of the analysis.
- Custom Assessments: By far the best quality, but usually with an accompanying price tag. Data gathering and initial analysis is automated, but the results are examined over several hours by a senior level engineer in cooperation with your engineering team. This ensures that the recommendations are tailored exactly to your situation and account for possibilities ignored by the other two categories. If you have the budget, this is the way to go and will prevent a lot of headaches.
It’s not hard to see which category I prefer, but the main takeaway is that the gap between Best Practices and Custom Assessment isn’t nearly as large as the gap between Best Practice and Manufacturer-Sponsored. As always, you get what you pay for but there’s a point of diminishing returns.
Assessments aren’t just an attempt to add more cost to a project, they are a wise move to prevent unforeseen problems. If at all possible have one done but be clear about what you’re getting for the price, because the money you save will be your own.