To build or to buy? Making smart networking decisions

Factors to consider when deciding between managing a network in-house and employing a service provider
By: | Issue: June, 2016 | Case Study
May 3, 2016

With the recent updates to E-rate, district leaders can choose between building and maintaining their own networks using dark fiber or trusting the job to a communications service provider. When making that decision, considerations must include looking at the total cost of ownership, evaluating technology innovation, identifying the impact to network control and security, and determining staff availability and expertise to manage future issues.

Deciding whether to build or to buy

On one hand, owning or leasing a dark fiber network can be a carefully thought-out strategy that includes delivering additional capacity as bandwidth needs and student population grow. For districts that have the budget for buying and repeatedly refreshing networking equipment and the personnel to maintain and manage their own network, a dark fiber optic network can deliver high levels of network performance.

Potential downsides to building

There are potential downsides, however, to building and managing a dark fiber-enabled network, including the initial capital cost. If resources for an upfront capital investment are limited, paying a consistent monthly recurring fee to a service provider may be easier to budget for and will help to limit the possibility of unexpected costs down the road.

Another factor to consider is employee expenses for ongoing management of the infrastructure. Can your existing personnel be dedicated to monitor and manage the network (24/7) without taking away support from other mission-critical IT functions? If not, then districts will need to evaluate whether they have a local talent pool to draw from and ensure budget is available to hire and retain additional staff. Entrusting network design and management to a proven provider can help avoid costly mistakes, improve efficiencies and ensure operational continuity.

Furthermore, building or leasing a dark fiber-enabled network locks a district into operating and managing that network and its specific technologies for the long term—up to 20 years—making it difficult to change course in the future. An unforeseen school closure or move might create some challenges down the road. It’s also important to factor in ongoing equipment upgrades, software releases and other change management requirements necessary to keep a network in optimal working condition.

Thinking about future upkeep

Service providers offer more than just fiber—they provide a team of experts that will design and configure a network and manage it over the long haul.

A dedicated Ethernet solution from a service provider allows a district to take advantage of speeds similar to dark fiber without the concern for managing day-to-day operations. This architecture—when backed by comprehensive service level agreements and proactive 24/7 monitoring—helps to ensure Internet connectivity and near-seamless access to applications.

Service providers also offer switched Ethernet connectivity over a Multi-Protocol Labeling Service (MPLS) backbone. MPLS provides an inherently highly secure environment, eases the deployment of emerging applications, supports bandwidth growth at specific sites and delivers great performance for real-time services.

Software-Defined Networks (SDNs) utilizing MPLS architecture are an increasingly popular choice for schools, providing administrators with the ability to configure and manage virtually every aspect of their network on their own. With SDNs, districts don’t have to sign up for a specific speed right up front, allowing for dialed up or dialed down broadband speeds, depending on specific needs.

The drumbeat of technology advancements doesn’t stop there. Network Function Virtualization, the next innovation on the near term horizon, will allow schools to virtualize equipment such as routers and firewalls, providing new opportunities to reduce costs and simplify network management. Separately purchasing equipment to light fiber and committing to a long term lease may prevent districts from adopting these emerging technologies and benefiting from the efficiencies they will bring.

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