How – and Why – to Take a Phased Approach to Network Modernization

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For many government agencies, Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) technology has formed the core of their networks for decades. Because many mission-critical operations run on TDM services, organizations often took an ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to TDM. Today, TDM technologies are at end of life – or beyond – and expertise in them is quickly dwindling.

Faced with this reality, along with the challenges of managing exponentially growing siloed operations and data stores, agencies are gradually moving to modern, packet-based network infrastructures that can bring legacy and modern technologies together. Network modernization is no longer an option; it’s a necessity.

In an interview with MeriTalk, Chris Ransbottom, Department of Defense director at Ciena, a networking systems, services, and software company, and Scott Baer, senior director, Federal government, at telecommunications provider Comcast Government Services, discuss the move away from TDM and how phased migration can help agencies reap the benefits of modern networks and stay within budget.

Question: Many agencies are still using TDM technology. Why is it important to move away from this legacy technology to modern, packet-based technology?

Scott Baer: The oldest of the TDM technologies are synchronous optical networking and synchronous digital hierarchy, which came to market in the early 1990s. These legacy networks have been in operation for 10 years, 15 years, even 30 years. Some have been at end of support for more than a decade. Parts, management and expertise in legacy, siloed systems are increasingly hard to find. Security, reliability, and performance can suffer as a result.

Evolving to modern networks allows agencies to provision new sites faster than they can today from an application perspective. They can improve performance with application-aware technologies, which can help manage costs. At the same time, they can significantly improve cybersecurity by virtualizing more services. Modernization also frees IT staff from low-level, manual tasks so they can focus on security, applications, or workflow automation.

Question: Where does network modernization rank among agency IT modernization priorities overall, and where do you think it should rank?

Baer: It’s a priority for most agencies – and it should be at the top of most priority lists. A modern network infrastructure is table stakes in today’s environment. It is foundational to security, reliability, and performance, which are all top key concerns for CIOs in both government and in industry.

Chris Ransbottom: 5G makes modernization an imperative. For example, 5G can enable new capabilities for warfighters, especially in forward-deployed areas, and it can enable smart bases and smart warehouses. But it requires a significant increase in bandwidth that the agency’s core infrastructure has to be able to support.

Question: How far along are agencies in the progression from legacy network technologies to packet-based technologies? Where have you seen success?

Ransbottom: I’ve seen a lot of memos setting dates for the end of TDM. But there’s never been enough funding to go out and attack that problem. I think it’s going to take a forcing function – DISA or the service providers actually stop providing that service – in order to get wholesale migration.

But we’ve seen a lot of successful migrations. Ciena has been helping roughly a dozen large Air Force installations migrate TDM services to an IP infrastructure.

At Vandenberg Air Force Base, for example, they are going to launch missions every day. We are working with them to drive new capabilities into the network to support the large traffic demands that they’re planning for. We’ve been very successful at partnering with these bases to replace TDM technology in a phased fashion, so that we can meet whatever budget constraints they have. We’re building multiyear, multiphase projects so they can create a foundation and then incrementally replace legacy equipment or deliver new capabilities.

Baer: DISA is serious about modernizing its network and services. In July, Comcast Government Services received its fifth Commercial Ethernet Gateway contract award from DISA in the past year. DISA is looking to modernize many of its networks throughout the continental United States.

A couple of intelligence agencies are taking a similar approach. They have large, expiring TDM services contracts, and they’re choosing to replace them with software-defined, Carrier Ethernet, 5G, and optical transport networking technologies. When agency program managers have well-defined requirements that align with industry standards, it makes it easy for agencies to acquire modern, dynamic networks that have agnostic capabilities from the underlay perspective. They’re less concerned with who the provider is as long as the provider is following modern technology and security standards to provide their digital services.

Question:What are the biggest challenges agencies face when they’re trying to move to packet-based technologies from TDM?

Ransbottom: I think the biggest challenge agencies have is that they can’t rip and replace everything at once. They still have a lot of legacy endpoints that are TDM based. Hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in some legacy platforms. We’ve been helping agencies take a phased approach to modernization by converging their IP infrastructure and TDM infrastructure into a single, IP-based infrastructure. This way, agencies can still deliver their legacy services, and they gain some operational efficiencies.

Baer: I see it as boiling down to culture, training, and budget timing. The CIO or the G6 of the organization needs to lay out a clear vision for network modernization and get buy-in from the workforce. Without that vision and buy-in, no modernization effort is going to be successful. Continuing education is important as well. The workforce needs to be educated on the new technology. If the employees aren’t comfortable with the transition, the agency has another hurdle to overcome.

On the budget, the timing is really key. If agencies are operating legacy systems while they are installing modern systems, their budget requirements will increase, not decrease. Question: Let’s talk about Ciena and Comcast. Tell us a little bit more about how you help agencies on the network modernization journey.

Ransbottom: Ciena has been working with the government for almost 20 years. We’ve created a range of solutions for TDM-to-packet migration that help agencies keep their mission-critical TDM services in place as they modernize their overall network infrastructure.

We’re also working with agencies to make the network more like a sensor – to use telemetry to determine how the network is performing. We can pull information from the lowest levels of the network into our management platform and run analytics on it. The data can tell us, for example, if the characteristics in a fiber link changed, and if the change is significant enough to warrant human intervention. Maybe construction is causing vibrations in the fiber. Or maybe somebody put a physical tap on the fiber because they’re trying to intercept data. Then, automation can take over if a certain threshold is reached. For example, the network could automatically reroute traffic while humans investigate the change in the link.

Our partnership with Comcast Government Solutions strengthens our capabilities because Comcast is a disrupter in bringing new capabilities to the market.

Baer: Comcast is very different than a traditional telecommunications company. Our company started with residential services. We are densely built into our territories with networks designed to carry a lot of bandwidth. We planned for 5G capabilities, which means we have a robust network that can handle that significantly increased load. 5G private wireless networks enhance Comcast’s robust networking capabilities while giving clients more wireless options. Comcast successfully entered the midmarket and enterprise markets, and two years ago we launched Comcast Government Services, focused on the Federal government. We will continue to innovate and support emerging connected ecosystems, helping businesses and governments better prepare for the future.

For government agencies moving from TDM to modern networks, phased migration is key.

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