How to control the expanding government network (ShutterStock image)

COMMENTARY

Why networks should come first in DOD IT modernization

With more than four million military and civilian employees teleworking across the globe, the Department of Defense had to significantly increase network capacity to accommodate the surge –doubling the Pentagon’s call volume capacity and increasing its internet connection by 30%, according to Essye Miller, DOD’s former principal deputy CIO. As many organizations are realizing, the network is the most critical piece of remote work. When it fails, anything that is connected to it fails -- from mundane, routine apps like email to mission-critical warfighter apps. Yet the network infrastructure is one of the most overlooked components when it comes to modernization initiatives.

Network performance is a key modernization component

Defense agencies should focus on optimizing performance across multiple domains – air, land, sea, cyber and space – from the data center to the end user. When it comes to network performance, many think that if it’s running, it is not broken. Network performance, however, is not just about being up and running. Today’s remote workforce expects the same access to secure applications whether they are in the office or offsite.  Problems such as latency and delayed troubleshooting are unacceptable when the mission is to provide services and capabilities to the civilian employee and global warfighter over a vast breadth of domains.

Too often, agencies think that boosting bandwidth is the only way to increase performance. But bandwidth does not fix latency issues, which result from delays in the transfer of data or other functions that cause poor performance. Instead, the solution is to optimize the network and gain visibility with network performance monitoring tools.  This can enable a faster and more meaningful fix for efficient load balancing, latency reduction, packet loss monitoring and bandwidth management. Modernization initiatives such as remote access, automation and orchestration could be stifled if NPM isn’t part of the equation.

Having visibility into the network and having a timely access to data is the key to intelligent decision making and performance optimization.

What’s needed for optimal network performance

So, what does DOD need to ensure networks are performing optimally? There are three key capabilities all networks should have:

  1. Enhanced visibility and monitoring to assess the impact of service performance across multiple domains, the network, end users as well as front- and back-end applications. Agencies want to be able to quantify network performance in a “common pane of glass” so IT teams and department leaders can access all information in one place without additional manual correlation.
  2. Acceleration and optimization by streamlining data to reduce redundancy and latency. Effective use of network resources to prioritize traffic allows for optimal utilization of MPLS circuits while overcoming bandwidth limitations. Agencies will need network capabilities that enable the identification and classification of applications end-to-end and securely optimize their performance across hybrid networks to end users everywhere.
  3. Software-defined WAN capabilities that help traffic navigate the most efficient path across multiple/hybrid networks can also build a policy-driven overlay network to provide optimal paths to an agency’s services. For example, zero-trust security will require a policy enforcement engine that may be a hybrid capability (on-prem and cloud-based) as well as involve the integration and collation of access policies. SD-WAN provides the software-defined fabric to steer all traffic – whether in the cloud or on private resources – to its destination.

For example, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, one federal agency’s network only supported 1,000 remote users at a time. The sudden surge to accommodate 10,000 remote users caused performance problems across many critical applications. In some cases, email and other apps were practically unusable. The agency deployed network accelerators for remote users and WAN accelerators at its data centers. Network accelerators cache duplicate byte patterns from transmitted data so they can be referenced instead of having to be sent across the WAN again. Compression and data deduplication techniques reduce the amount of data that must be transmitted. This functionality speeds up the time it takes for information to flow back and forth across the WAN.

With these accelerators in place, the agency achieved an average of 60% data reduction, with upwards of 87% data reduction and performance acceleration depending on the specific application. For remote workers, applications ran as well if not better than before.

Moving forward

Imagine a scenario where an IT specialist does not have to spend the first hour of a troubleshooting call throwing an issue back and forth between an application team, network team and client engineering team. Imagine that instead, within the first hour of the call, it is understood that the problem is in the application and the application owner is already trying to figure out how to fix it. The time to resolve the problem is much faster by reducing the time to understanding it.

By prioritizing network performance, Defense agencies will be better equipped to tackle important IT modernization initiatives while supporting mass telework in the era of COVID-19. Enhanced monitoring, acceleration and optimization and SD-WAN make it easier for IT teams to do their jobs in supporting the critical missions of civilian personnel and warfighters alike.

About the Authors

Vernon Samuel is vice president of engineering at RavenTek.

Marlin McFate is federal CTO at Riverbed Technology.

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