Frustrated by sluggish throughput and clogged wide area network (WAN) links to its branches, one of the country's largest credit unions reaped a hundredfold speed increase when it upgraded from T1-based frame relay to multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) networking. Simplifying its design with more powerful switches in the core has also eased WAN management, saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and brought more operations in-house.
"With every branch we added, it seemed [that] everything got slower and everything got more complex [before the move to MPLS networking]," said Brad Williams, chief technology officer at South Carolina Federal Credit Union, headquartered in North Charleston, S.C. "It just seemed too slow and too big to manage."
Until about a year and a half ago, the credit union had relied on T1s to connect its headquarters to its 25 branch offices -- pushing packets from the client to an HP ProCurve 4801gl switch at the edge and then through Cisco Systems routers on both the branch and the host sides, Williams said. After passing through the "frame cloud" and coming out into the router on the other end, traffic was pushed toward ProCurve switches in the core.
As South Carolina Federal demanded more from its network, port density became a problem, Williams said. The credit union had also begun to pursue a voice over IP (VoIP) deployment, he added, and ProCurve had little to offer at the time in terms of power over Ethernet (PoE) hardware.
"We were ending up at the max capacity. It was really a headache," he said. "Speed was a huge issue, reliability was an issue, and overall complexity was an issue."
High-speed switches and MPLS networking eliminate need for routers
With plans for a new data center on tap, the credit union opted to pursue MPLS networking with regional carrier Spirit Telecom and a 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10 GbE) link to bridge the branch offices to headquarters.
In the process, the two high-speed, 32-slot chassis routers South Carolina Federal purchased from Brocade enabled it to essentially flatten its network architecture by eliminating the need for the Cisco routers sandwiching the WAN, Williams said. Brocade's core NetIron MLX-32 switches could do the Layer 3 networking on their own.
Brocade's FastIron SuperSX and GS series switches take care of the edge, replete with PoE capabilities to make the credit union's VoIP deployment easier.
By consolidating equipment and vendors, South Carolina Federal reduced the physical footprint of its network and simplified WAN management. Williams also eliminated one more configuration point -- one more place where something could go wrong -- by removing his two dozen Cisco 2821 routers from the network, he said.
"With the Layer 3 and MPLS network, we were able to just plug the metro [Ethernet] network directly onto the switch," he said. "It eliminated the Cisco overhead … [and] being able to get rid of a piece of hardware was a huge benefit."
Inefficient WAN management without MPLS networking has big costs
Before South Carolina Federal embraced MPLS networking and upgraded to Brocade, Williams still struggled with WAN management. The credit union's five-person networking team often had to shelve other priorities because of troubleshooting or routine maintenance on the WAN infrastructure.
Even adding or relocating a VoIP line required calling a contractor who charged $150 per line, he said.
"[Maintaining the hardware] took up time," Williams said. "Not only did we have to do code upgrades to those routers, but we had to do it to the switches … as well."
Meanwhile, the new WAN design has allowed South Carolina Federal to save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually by bringing back in-house networking services that had been outsourced.
Because of the legacy network's complexity and lackluster speeds, Williams said, the credit union has relied on third-party providers to manage and maintain its online banking systems and 45 automated teller machines (ATMs) at the branches.
"We just spend the money it takes for them to manage [branch ATMs], which is around $250,000 a year. It's not a lot, but it's definitely something," he said. "We pay a premium for [outsourcing online banking services, too]. That's something service providers charge a lot of money for, but by bringing it in-house, we can easily save a million [dollars] a year."
No longer having to maintain, replace and pay for support services for its 24 Cisco routers would also save South Carolina Federal about $150,000 annually, Williams estimated.
The combination of speed, resiliency and simplified WAN management with MPLS networking and 10 GbE has meant that the credit union can bring its online banking services in-house and connect its branch ATMs to the WAN, Williams said.
"It really left us with a flexible arrangement," he said. "It gave us an infrastructure that would last 10 years."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer