Be Prepared for the Unpredictable

Written by Mike Sheldon for Disaster Recovery Journal

In today's competitive business environment, the corporate communications network is the lifeblood of the operation, so all possible avenues typically are taken to protect this invaluable asset. Preparing for the unpredictable, however, which could encompass anything from natural to manmade disasters – and everything in-between can be a daunting and costly undertaking.

Regional catastrophes, for example, can cripple a communications network if a company is forced to reestablish operations in an alternate location and yet can't get the required replacement networking gear because the OEM is overwhelmed with similar requests. Even more mundane events, including power outages and equipment failures, can have equally devastating effects if businesses cannot recover and resume operations quickly and economically.

Well-publicized delays in OEM equipment deliveries of more than three months have become more commonplace recently due to persistent component shortages. While this ongoing situation creates an everyday challenge in maintaining networks, it also can have a disastrous result during a crisis.

Backup Procurement Pays Off
To put a new spin on a most familiar adage: when disaster strikes, a company's IT supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link. After all, if the equipment isn't readily available via the primary channel, then paying for expedited support will do little if there isn't enough supply to go around.

So what can be done to improve any organization's network resiliency in a DR situation? First off, consider expanding standard network equipment procurement practices beyond sole reliance on the traditional OEM/reseller channel to include an alternative source. Organizations increasingly are turning to the market for pre-owned network gear as another viable equipment procurement source for current and previous-generation replacement gear that's available for up to 90 percent off OEMs' list prices.

New surplus and previous generations of network switches, routers, IP telephony gear, access servers, and security hardware are readily available from the secondary market. While there are times when only equipment from the OEM will do, the standard method of order fulfillment on the secondary market – where most goods are available overnight – stacks up particularly well with most companies' DR methodologies.

Due to the tightened economic conditions of the past couple of years, inventories in this market are at all-time highs. Available in large quantities are previous-generation gear that serves as feasible equipment substitutes when companies can't attain identical replacements and then are faced with expensive, cumbersome, in-field upgrades.

Any company can take advantage of this additional procurement source to bolster network protection while also improving the overall effectiveness of its IT supply chain. Pre-owned gear also makes for the perfect "sandbox" for developers and network professionals to experiment and test applications without impacting the production network.

Five Tips to Elevate Disaster Recovery Preparedness

  1. Perform a network assessment to augment DR plan & identify risks – Performing an annual network audit is an important step in identifying risk exposure in terms of network design, equipment replacement and support.
  2. Develop a backup equipment procurement plan – The secondary market for network equipment offers a plethora of current and past-generation gear with expedited, overnight shipping and one-year warranties.
  3. Adopt flexible sparing and depot strategies to extend protection – One-for-many spares are a highly economical and viable solution as are leveraging regional spares depots to minimize the impact of major disasters.
  4. Consider equipment substitutions when current gear isn't readily available – Previous-generation routers and switches can offer comparable performance at discounts of up to 90 percent off the latest models, which can minimize business disruption in a DR situation.
  5. Evaluate alternative maintenance options for business-critical and secondary gear – Tailor support for specific locations or portions of the network to protect network edges and remote offices while reducing vulnerabilities in the event of a disaster.

Talking Terminology
To take full advantage of the secondary market, it helps to understand the terminology frequently applied to the range of equipment in this channel. Both current and many previous generations of gear are readily available, and much of it is gently used and/or in original boxes.

Of utmost importance, it's wise to only work with leading providers of pre-owned gear that ensure all their equipment has been fully inspected, tested, and reconditioned to as close to original condition as possible. While it's common for products to be referred to as "pre-owned" or "used," in reality not all equipment on the secondary market has been used. The recent economic downturn has resulted in more unused, surplus equipment entering the market than ever before as organizations have closed or consolidated locations, cancelled projects or liquidated assets. As a result, goods called "new-surplus" or "new-in-box," denoting they are in new condition, are abundant.

Some equipment may be called "refurbished." This gear may have received cosmetic fixes such as chassis repainting or been repaired more extensively. To ensure the best quality, the largest secondary market providers guarantee that all goods have been fully inspected and tested. The leaders in this space also typically offer at least one-year warranties on all equipment, which provides another equipment reliability safeguard.

At the same time, buyers should be wary of equipment sold on online auction sites, especially if advertised in "as-is" condition. While it may offer the deepest discount, there are no guarantees and most likely little recourse if something goes wrong.

In contrast, major secondary market players have a full suite of support services, including sparing and depot capabilities that can bolster disaster recovery preparedness.

Issues To Consider
Issues surrounding software license transfers, equipment recertification, maintenance, and upgrades typically enter the conversation when companies contemplate purchasing from the secondary market. Unfortunately, this is mostly because OEMs have created a great deal of "fear, uncertainty and doubt" (FUD) about the secondary market to dissuade prospective buyers.

In reality, the secondary market follows the "first sale doctrine," a section of the U.S. Copyright Act, which allows the owner of copyrighted works, including software, to sell or dispose of them without permission from the copyright owner. Courts have repeatedly upheld this doctrine, which has reduced concerns that only network equipment not requiring software or updates are good candidates for the alternative channel. Additionally, updates to software within a version or feature set as well as bug fixes and patches are typically free for most networking products. Upgrades, which typically involve the purchase of new software, are usually the same whether equipment is new or used.

While some OEMs have policies to charge a nominal re-licensing fee to put pre-owned hardware on maintenance, this practice is neither uniform nor universal. Enforcement of this policy varies widely, depending on the customer location and VAR. Organizations concerned about transactions involving software or recertification may want to focus on edge switches and other types of pre-owned equipment that no longer require software updates or patches.

Another option would be to leverage the secondary market for extending the life of older equipment no longer supported by the OEM but still playing a role in the network infrastructure. In times of disaster, the key factor is re-establishing or maintaining an acceptable level of network availability. Previous-generation gear can fill this bill quickly and affordably.

Of course, as with new equipment, organizations must ensure compatibility so replacement gear interoperates seamlessly with other components. Most of the larger secondary network providers employ qualified network experts who can guide companies through selecting, deploying, and supporting a blend of current and previous generation routers, switches, and other elements to assure maximum network availability and resiliency.

Sparing Strategies Bolster DR
Effective sparing strategies are extremely important in expediting network recovery in a disaster situation. This is another area where the secondary market shines as most equipment can be shipped overnight, without the exorbitant fees associated with accelerated OEM deliveries.

To determine an optimal sparing and equipment replacement strategy, companies must audit their overall network architecture and identify all mission-critical, business-critical and secondary network components. This opportunity to pinpoint risk exposure in terms of network design, equipment replacement and support can be hugely beneficial in the long run as it offers an opportunity to fortify overall DR preparedness.

For example, the common practice of protecting only the most critical network components can leave the network edge and remote offices vulnerable to major disasters or even mundane outages. Securing alternative maintenance for these less-critical areas is one way to offer an extra measure of protection. Having ready access to an adequate supply of spares is another avenue for consideration.

For most organizations, it's cost prohibitive to maintain identical, redundant network configurations for back-up situations, which makes one-for-one sparing out of reach. One-for-many sparing strategies, however, are gaining ground as more economical and viable solutions since they require a spare for every three to five network elements.

Since pre-owned gear typically saves up to 90 percent off OEMs' list prices, many companies can afford to deploy sparing solutions that would have been price prohibitive via traditional channels. Many companies also stockpile "spares" for their networks, keeping onsite back-ups of critical equipment in case of emergency.

In some cases, companies are best served by keeping designated gear at off-site spare depots. This arrangement typically appeals to organizations with multiple locations or those without sufficient space or an ideal central site and appropriate personnel for safekeeping of replacement equipment. Many of the leading secondary network providers also offer basic warehousing options, which include a guarantee of expedited equipment availability and shipment wherever and whenever gear is needed.

This can represent major savings as many of the rapid replacement warranties offered by OEMs cost many times the value of the covered equipment, especially if the gear is more than a generation old. It's also possible to make arrangements for the designated gear to be exact duplicates of what it's replacing, therefore eliminating the need for new or additional training upon deployment. In addition, equipment sometimes can be pre-configured to exact specifications; the result is deployments that are as plug-and-play as possible.

Effective sparing can be a much more cost-effective strategy than buying extended manufacturer warranties, especially on previous-generation equipment. This approach also saves time and frustration by avoiding the endless series of tiered service requests. Another reason for maintaining a cache of pre-owned spares is it permits applying a quick, temporary fix to unexpected network problems.

Regardless of the sparing strategy, it's noteworthy to understand that refurbished equipment from leading secondary marketers typically includes at least a one-year, overnight equipment replacement warranty. OEMs traditionally warranty equipment for no more than 90 days, which could prove problematic if a spare doesn't work many months later when it's needed.

Cost-Effective Tech Support and Maintenance
Traditional maintenance programs from manufacturers are expensive, and product end-of-support milestones often force upgrades much sooner than needed. Choosing an alternative program for supporting network edges and remote offices can provide economic advantages without compromising rapid response, personalized customer service, and technical proficiency.

Alternative maintenance programs provide the ability to select the level of support that makes technical and financial sense for a company's core services, access, and distribution layers, as well as remote offices or other network areas. These programs can provide access to 24/7 support by certified technicians and advanced next-day hardware replacement at 50-to-90 percent off OEM contracts. Options include coverage on a per module basis, which lets organizations tailor support for specific locations or portions of their network.

In the end, best practices for equipment procurement and network maintenance should include an alternate source to reduce risk and elevate business continuity. The key takeaway: organizations that explore other options can attain an extra level of protection so that if a disaster strikes, they are in the best possible position to weather the storm.