How to Build a Networking RFP that Works

Columbus Regional Airport authority replaced new gear after encountering integration and visibility issues. How do you build an enterprise RFP so you don't run into the same issue?

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted Jul 25, 2011
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Going through the process of selecting and then installing new networking gear is not a trivial process for an airport. At the end of the process, you'd expect that the new gear would stay in place for several years, but that's not what happened with the Columbus Regional Airport Authority. Their story is one that should serve as a cautionary tale to IT buyers about the need to understand your requirement first before you jump in and acquire technology.

The Columbus Regional Airport was a 3Com shop using networking equipment and management tools from that vendor.

"When it became apparent that the writing was on the wall for 3Com and they were getting close to getting bought out or changing direction, that's when we started to look at other platforms," J. Shawn Prince, PMP, Technology Services (TS), Operations & Infrastructure Manager at Columbus Regional Airport Authority told InternetNews.com. Prince noted that cost was a focus as was a long term focus on what the airport authority required. 3Com ended up being acquired by HP in 2010 for $2.7 billion.

Prince said that they did an RFP and when they got the results back, due to the support model and the upfront pricing, they decided to go with HP. Prince noted that the Columbus Regional Airport Authority then began the process of migrating from 3Com to HP equipment. One of the big things that the airport authority was adding to their network was VoIP capabilities and that's where the troubles began.

"When we were trying to get everything setup and configured for Quality of Service our VoIP vendor gave us their manual which showed how to implement with Cisco," Prince said.

Prince added that the VoIP vendor said that they had never implemented on 3Com or HP and that left the airport authority with a real problem that they had to solve.

"We're not a large IT shop, we do need to work with outside partners for networking," Prince said. "We continued to find people that were experts on the gear that we had."

At that point, Prince noted that the Columbus Regional Airport Authority decided to sit down with Cisco. He added that Cisco sat down with them and helped to figure out what the needs were as well as coming up with multiple options for network design.

"So our director when to our executive team and our board and we got the approval and funding we needed to do a wholesale change," Prince said.

Aaron R. Hibbard, Technology Services, Sr. Infrastructure Engineer at the Columbus Regional Airport Authority added that they had just finished rolling out the HP switches in May of 2010 and by August they were moving to Cisco.

"We had just spent all the money replacing switches leaving the occasional 3Com switch in place," Hibbard said. "Within six months we were replacing everything with Cisco."

A key area that the Columbus Regional Airport Authority had been lacking with their networking deployment was a monitoring and management system that provided the performance metrics they wanted.

"When we did the change out and put Cisco in, we've been building dashboards with metrics we've needed to monitor for quite some time," Prince said. "Now things are readily visible."

Prince added that monitoring has enabled them to see that they needed additional changes to their networking bandwidth. While the Columbus Regional Airport Authority has moved to Cisco for its networking gear, they're actually using another vendor's solution to provide the full visibility.

"We're using Solarwinds Orion and the native support that it has for Cisco is what was missing for us," Prince said. "We're pulling in metrics for our network and our servers so we can make a variety of dashboards that handle different things we need to manage and monitor."

Hibbard added that even when it comes to native tools from HP, 3Com or Cisco, 3Com's sflow didn't provide good visibility. In contrast he noted that Cisco's netflow provided as much detailed as he wanted.

"So even if the switches had the same capabilities from a performance perspective, I can get more detail on a link with netflow then sFlow," Hibbard said.

Building a Better RFP

The Columbus Regional Airport Authority experience with replacing new networking gear has caused them to rethink and redo their approach to RFPs (Request for Proposal). It's an approach that is likely valuable for other IT shops if they want to avoid the same challenges.

"The more specific you can be about your requirements and your deliverables the more chance you'll have for success," Prince said. "We're putting a lot more effort into making sure we detail what we need the end result to be."

Prince added that they are now making sure that there are areas in RFPs to identify the value-added components. He added that the more succinct an RPF response is, the better.

"Pricing is a component, but it's not the driver," Prince said. "The driver has to be getting what you need in order to perform."

Hibbard stressed that it's not enough just to source a component that meets requirements. He noted that it's critical to understand all of the little intricacies around what you need to do including business processes and future roadmap.

"Our mindset is now taking a a 5 or 10 year view on what it will take to run this airport and applying that long term view to our selection process is very important," Prince said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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