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Turning around a bad network: What to do when you inherit one

A bad network is something no one wants to take over, whether stepping into a new job or inheriting one through a merger or acquisition. But once you own it, you need to fix it. The first steps to turning it around are discovering what you have while defining where you want to be.

A bad network is something no one wants to deal with, but at some point every IT professional is handed one and told to turn it around as soon as possible.

This unhappy burden may have come in the form of a sudden promotion or a new employer. Or perhaps your company has spent a lot of money acquiring a competitor with a problematic network.

Regardless of where it came from, somebody else's mess of a network is now your problem. You have to cure poor uptime, lagging performance and sloppy security, all on a budget and -- in the case of an acquisition -- without letting your fine-tuned older network come crashing down as a result.

It's a scenario Murray Butler saw dozens of times in his former role as a systems analyst for 3M, the St. Paul, Minn.-based manufacturer, where he was often charged with helping integrate the networks with minimal hassle after a merger or acquisition.

It was not always an easy job.

"You're trying to figure out what did you just buy," Butler said. "That was a tremendous issue: How do you find out what's there, how do you account for it as an asset, and how do you integrate it?"

The first step to recovery, he suggested, is taking an inventory of the troubled network you've inherited. How many routers, servers and switches are you dealing with? Which firewall is it using, and how is it deployed? Is it even using a firewall?

As you are taking this inventory, it's also important to pay close attention to the problem network's design: Is there built-in redundancy? Are there any choke points that are killing performance?

Peter Fetterolf, a partner with networking consultant Network Strategy Partners LLC, said that many core networking problems may ultimately have to be addressed with a redesign. This could mean shuffling existing routers and switches around to create a more efficient, more redundant structure.

But it is important to clearly determine the strategic goals and priorities that an organization has for its network before any actual re-architecting occurs, Fetterolf said.

"Today, it's very difficult to find a company that is not dependent on its network," he said. "But there is a difference between the New York Stock Exchange trading floor and assistants in a bank processing loans. It might be that you come back and say, 'We really need to redo this network and spend millions of dollars to build a high-performance network,' but the company might not really need those high levels." Often "good enough" is what is called for, and which level that means depends greatly on the applications that are running over the network -- like real-time data or voice -- and how strategic the network is to the organization.

Amid all the planning for re-architecting a network, another, trickier element will come into play: the human one.

If you've inherited a bad network, it is likely that you also inherited the staff that has been struggling to keep that network up and running. These networking pros will probably be nervous about working with any new faces, particularly if they feel their jobs are at stake.

"The biological aspects ... seem to be the toughest part, and I don't have an excellent answer for it," Butler said. "You're coming into a company that's unsure of what's happening, and they're not sure whether they're happy you're there, and they may or may not tell you everything that's going on."

These legacy employees might be reluctant to hand over inventory information, or they might be slow to implement network changes that they think will put them out of a job. p>But even as the employees are adjusting to new leadership, and possibly a new company, it's important to gauge the soft assets available and include those in your inventory list.

Fetterolf recommended breaking down those non-device assets into organizations, operations, and skill sets, and making sure those assets align with what you need for a fully functioning network.

Part of the problem, Butler said, is often a lack of clear information early on about how jobs will be affected. While this is often unavoidable, in most cases it makes sense to keep most of the legacy team in place, he said, even if roles and work processes are changed.

"The modern network is so diverse it requires expertise ... in a large number of areas," Fetterolf said. Since it's generally financially impossible to support experts in each of those areas, qualified network veterans, who know the ins and outs of a network, carry special weight and can often be used in a number of critical capacities.

Giving employees straightforward, honest good news about their prospects can help ease those tensions -- and get them focused back on the network and not the gossip mill.

Once this phase of inventory is done, it is time to define and correct the root problems of the network. Often, this is the easiest part.

"There might be a lot of problems, so you might not look at every single problem [individually], but you lump those into categories and look for root causes," Fetterolf said. Once you have an idea of what you have and where you are going, take a step-by-step approach to getting there, one area at a time.

Despite all the headaches and tedious preparation work, the job of revamping a network could have its own unique rewards, Butler said.

"I think if it's taken from the right point of view, it can be a voyage of discovery for the whole thing," he said. "And it might reveal some treasures you didn't realize were there when you came in, both people [and] assets."

Have your own network horror and/or success stories? Get in touch with the author at

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