How to Build a Concrete Network Infrastructure

Internet technology (IT) leaders know that even basic types of networks are complex multitudes of components, including cables, routers, switches, and other infrastructure devices. But those looking for total control and complete optimization may be considering building (as opposed to buying) their own network infrastructure. In these cases, it’s tempting to jump right into the deep end concerning what exactly needs to be built.

But solid infrastructure is purpose-driven. And even solid infrastructure needs ongoing maintenance to keep it running. This means we need to understand what the network needs to do before we build it. And, once built, we have to keep it running to meet those needs.

Consider Kevin Costner in the 1989 film Field of Dreams, famously tasked by a ghost-voice to “build it, [and] he will come.”

field of dreams

Field of Dreams (1989, Universal Pictures)

Despite the magical realism of the moment, Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, didn’t just turn around and build...something. That would have made for a very short and not-so-great movie. Instead, Ray first had to understand what he was building (and for who). And even then, once he built his field, Ray still had to go the distance to ensure what he’d created would work (and keep working). This makes Field of Dreams an excellent way to explore the plan, build, run model that leads to concrete network infrastructures.

“Ease Their Pain” | Plan Your Network Infrastructure

The first and arguably most important step in building a concrete network infrastructure is to determine how you’ll use the network. So, before any building begins, develop well-defined use cases to account for all the different ways the network hardware, software, and application services will be used. Solid use cases should help guide the purchasing decisions you make for your network devices and infrastructure. But they should also help you understand which vendors are the best fit for your project.

field of dreams

Field of Dreams (1989, Universal Pictures)

Establish your Use Cases: Where to Start

Part of Ray’s mystical challenge in Field of Dreams was to “ease his pain.” It turns out ghosts living in cornfields are super-practical because the first step in figuring out use cases is to determine who will be using your network, in what ways, and what pain points they could subsequently encounter. And it should be noted, Ray’s exasperation at the ghost’s timing (i.e., dropping the “ease his pain” comment after the field build is underway) underscores the importance of establishing all your use cases before you begin any planning (or purchasing).

The seminal Writing Effective Use Cases remains a valuable primer on this subject. In this text, Alistair Cockburn roughly defines a use case as “a description of the possible sequences of interactions between the system under discussion and its external actors, related to a particular goal.”

Cockburn then goes on to break down the basic use case into five main parts: “Scope, Actors, Goals, Main story, Alternative conditions, Alternative paths.” Cockburn also recommends the author flesh the use case out in this order. Doing so, he reasons, is the most efficient way to spend time and energy filling out the use case in its entirety.

THE BIG 4: ELEMENTS of a Minimally Viable Use Case

We’ve distilled Cockburn’s main parts down further. The results, defined below, are what we consider to be the bare essentials of any given use case.

1. Scope

A project’s scope establishes the guidelines on what can be done. At its simplest, scope typically encompasses what will and will not be included in the project, resources, timelines, and specific deliverables. Depending on the nature of the project, the scope could also include relevant processes, assumptions, and constraints.

2. Actors

In a use case, “actors” refer to anyone whose behavior will, directly or indirectly, affect the system under discussion (SUD). Were there a Field of Dreams use case, Ray would be a primary character whose actions directly affect the baseball field. But important stakeholders are also considered actors in a use case. Ray’s wife Annie and their daughter Karin are stakeholders in the ballfield.

3. Goals and Main Story

As you might have guessed, goals are what the actors in your use case hope to achieve. Some of our primary actors may hope to materialize from a cornfield and play a couple of innings of baseball. Or, far less ghostly, an actor might hope to easily shop online using their phone or transfer sensitive information securely from one location to another.

Main stories (sometimes referred to as scenarios) detail the tasks our actors perform over time while attempting to achieve their goals. Sometimes, these stories will also include the context in which the actors are trying to perform these tasks if doing so will help guide network infrastructure design and optimization.

4. Alternative Conditions and Paths

In more contemporary writing, alternative conditions and paths are more clearly defined as exceptions and alternate flows. And their value in the use case is to help plan for situations where, just like in the movies, things don’t go the way they’re supposed to. To Ray, in Field of Dreams, digging up corn in order to build a ballpark would be his main story. Getting the promised special someone to arrive would be his goal.

But what if Ray built the ballpark, but the promised person never arrived? This would be an example of an exception — the main story followed, but the goal was not achieved. On the other hand, what if Ray went on to tell the ghost to take a walk and went home, only to wake up the next morning to find the mysterious person at his kitchen table? Here we have an example of an alternate flow, where the story was not followed, but the goal was achieved.

“There Was a Reason They Chose You...” | Build Your Network with the Right Vendors

With your use cases in place, we can move forward with confidence to source the technology and services of our network infrastructure. Our challenge now shifts to navigating the healthy tension between delivering on the use case we’ve envisioned and getting the most we can out of every single dollar of capital spent. Especially since estimates show upwards of 20% (i.e., $65 billion) of telecoms’ CAPEX (capital expenditure) is wasted per year.

field of dreams

Field of Dreams (1989, Universal Pictures)

So, to build or to buy: that is the question. Had the corn ghost said, “If you build it...or perhaps lease it, he will come,” Ray may have had more options to choose from.

Build vs. Buy

It’s not a question of whether it’s better to build your own network infrastructure or lease one that’s already built. Instead, ask yourself, based on what you’ve defined in your use case, what’s best for you? This will never be an easy question to answer. But due diligence here is legion.

By way of an example, take Dropbox. Digital adoption spurred by COVID-19 has forced many companies to grapple with massive increases in data storage and management needs. But companies like Dropbox were facing these challenges years before the pandemic began. Pre-COVID, Dropbox had amassed 500 million users and 200,000 business customers. An IT team of roughly 12 people had to manage the resulting 500 petabytes (i.e., 500,000,000,000,000,000) of data.

Impressive, but their success as a business was straining one of their core principles — offering a high-performance, low-expense product. This dilemma forced a reckoning for IT leadership: continue leasing a majority of their infrastructure from Amazon Web Services (AWS) or build their own. This was a difficult, very expensive decision. But to Dropbox, being able to deliver on their core promises and increase control over their own infrastructure was judged to be worth the significant investment.

So, it’s important to ask the right questions when weighing the option to build or buy your network infrastructure. How quickly do you need to be operational? What sort of security concerns do you have? Should you elect for fixed or burstable bandwidth? And how do you anticipate bandwidth demand growing over time?

Navigating all these questions quickly becomes a project unto itself. This is why, before you begin to select vendors, you may want to partner with outside experts like those at Lightyear, who can help guide you through the process.

Multi-Vendor Vs. Single Vendor

To build his baseball field, Ray ended up leaning on others to get the job done, namely, his wife and daughter. You, too, will rely on outside sources to build out your network infrastructure. But this brings us to another operative decision: relying on a single vendor or multiple vendors to get the job done.

Single-vendor solutions are the simpler of the two. These solutions are typically touted as being “one size fits all.” While the phrase can carry negative connotations, one size fitting all might make the most sense for some use cases. Specifically, single-vendor solutions can sometimes provide comprehensive network security and cost savings opportunities, especially during the procurement phase. And, if the needs outlined in your use case are highly specific, the interoperability some single-vendor solutions provide could be advantageous.

Multi-vendor solutions, while more complex to navigate, offer their own advantages, arguably chief among these being your ability to minimize (or avoid) vendor lock-in. Encouraging competition between vendors creates another way to reduce costs in the procurement process. And, unlike the one-size-fits-all solutions mentioned above, working with multiple vendors gives you the ability to tailor your solution to the specificity of your use case.

Contract Negotiation

Multi-vendor situations also give you the ability to negotiate total contractual spending over reoccurring (i.e., monthly or annual) spend. This, in turn, can increase service agility. And it’s just one of the many reasons contract negotiation is also a crucial aspect of building any network infrastructure.

Again, at the risk of stunting cinematic drama, if Ray had the ability to negotiate with his ghost, he could have swayed the build request more in his favor (i.e., “Okay. Just, hear me out. What if we build it but, like, NEXT to the cornfield?”).

Unfortunately, the process of buying telecom services is fundamentally broken. In addition to the multitude of vendors and services available, the IT and telecommunications industry has been hobbled by decades of mergers and acquisitions.

But it’s due to this broken system that there’s so much benefit to be gained through proper contract strategy and contract optimization. And this combination of factors is why innovative new services now exist to navigate these complexities, so you don’t have to.

“Go the Distance” | Get Proactive with Network Management

In an ideal world, sound planning and a savvy build would result in a network infrastructure that would run itself. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Even in the magical realism of Field of Dreams, Ray still had to manage the field he’d built and the actors engaging with it. Add to this how COVID-19 has compounded the rate of digital adoption on a global scale and network infrastructure management is more important than it’s ever been. So, truly going the distance necessitates adopting a proactive infrastructure management model.

field of dreams

Field of Dreams (1989, Universal Pictures)

Compared to traditional models, proactive infrastructure management includes automating the delivery of services and repetitive work, self-service tools, cross-functional teams, integrated data, and integrated application development.

Trends influencing network infrastructure and operation must also be taken into account, including new demands on infrastructure scalability, the Internet of Things (IoT), and how the explosive data growth we’re experiencing is pushing us into a hybrid-cloud future where IT is everywhere, always on and always available.

For these reasons, pay diligent attention to reducing costs while increasing the speed and flexibility of your network infrastructure. In internal operations, teams should draw clear lines in the sand between which core activities will be kept in-house and which will be outsourced and ensure chosen vendors are accountable for driving ongoing efficiency gains.

“Is This Heaven?” | No, It’s I.O.W.A.

So, you’ve envisioned your network infrastructure with the help of your use cases. In doing so, you determined how best to bring your network infrastructure to life (and with whose help). You understand that the game isn’t over once you build (or buy) your network infrastructure. And, proactive infrastructure in a post-COVID world requires a healthy dose of Internal Ownership with Attitude (I.O.W.A.).

And, by paying solid attention to planning, executing, and management, you can put your name to a solid, secure infrastructure that will scale along with your users’ needs.

But if this is your first time at the plate, things could still feel pretty intimidating. We highly recommend you deepen your bench by reading our Interview Insights from 50+ Engineers & Heads of IT. And, as always, the Lightyear telco experts are here to help - you can schedule a call with us here.

Did you enjoy this blog? Check out Network Architecture in Light of Public/Private/Hybrid Cloud next!

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