According to Murray Butler, senior network analyst with 3M, that boost in traffic prompted networking pros at the company to take a step back and re-examine the network to determine what types of strategic upgrades would aid in helping the traffic flow better and more reliably, while also keeping costs as reasonable as possible.
"Our big upgrade recently has been egress bandwidth," Butler said, adding that his team had to allow for more traffic to come in and go out. "There really just seemed to be a general increase in Web traffic coming in and going out."
Internal applications, which are mostly Web-based, included site-to-site applications, enterprise planning tools and other demand-side applications. That requires funneling a lot of traffic from external sites into the same pipes.
Using a centralized architecture, 3M attempts to provide most of its branch office server needs from a single location, Butler said. The company has whittled down the number of servers to avoid redundant purchases and equipment, ultimately cutting costs, and it has built Web-based applications and must allow them to be accessed from almost anywhere through a secure SSL connection.
"Traffic has just increased over time, and that made our current lines a bit over-utilized in some places," he said. "We have to make sure we have good baselines."
The bandwidth upgrade, while necessary to account for current traffic increases, also has an eye to the future, Butler said, as 3M continues to examine its plans for VoIP. While VoIP has been much contemplated, he said, the method of deployment has been an "ongoing debate."
Things can get tricky, because each business unit within 3M is fairly autonomous but still needs to use the company's centralized architecture for access to business-critical applications.
"VoIP is one facet of that," Butler said. "How can we do that and make it a generalized offering? How can we make it scale up and down? I need things to scale up and down."
Many VoIP vendors 3M has talked to offer ideas about how to scale up, he said, but scaling down -- accommodating not only offices with 1,000 users but also offices with fewer than 10 -- is a puzzle. At the same time, he said, 3M must determine how to manage VoIP centrally for consistency and supportability across the entire network.
Butler said he knows the benefits of a VoIP deployment, namely cost savings both on the back end and with connectivity, but figuring out the best way to utilize it while upgrading the network to support it is the key challenge.
Working voice into the existing data lines will reduce provider infrastructure while also reducing 3M's need to utilize that additional infrastructure, something Butler called a "win-win."
Still, Butler said, there are a few nagging problems before VoIP can be given the green light. First, where will QoS play? "If I can do it and I can do QoS, I could have a very nice way of managing communications from here," he said.
Butler is talking to vendors to find a solution that fits the company's unique need to scale both up and down. From there, he plans to get the back end up and running -- converting the standard phone system 3M is using now to the existing data lines is a good starting point, he said, before cutting over to VoIP. Then 3M would have to get VoIP to the desktop, deploying Power over Ethernet for every endpoint.
But still the big question is: "Do you want to mix the data and voice network or not?" Butler said. "I vacillate on that one daily. There are a number of steps to it, all to get it the way we want it. It's a tall mountain to climb."
And if bandwidth upgrades and VoIP conundrums aren't enough to keep the network staff busy, 3M has a few other upgrade tricks up its sleeve, Butler said, including changing and updating the streaming media and caching proxies and testing out WAN optimization tools in the lab.
"It's a new thing, something we have to make valuable and attractive before we deploy it," Butler said of WAN optimization. "We do it somewhat with Web application proxies and caching." Also, he said, a lot of the tools 3M has bought can already handle the application load without the benefits of optimization, such as updated router cards that can handle the line speed.
Butler said his view of the network is that it is a tool that offers easy and ubiquitous access for users. He wants to fulfill the "expectation of dial-tone" and craft the network so it just works.
"My own personal view of IT is … IT is an enablement to help the business function better, quicker and faster," he said. "Network improvements facilitate that. As we're improving the network, we're improving its availability and stability for the users. It just makes life easier for IT and for the users."
This was first published in July 2008