Relocating your corporate network

Provides six tips on how to plan for a computer network move

It's every network administrator's worst nightmare: The company that you work for has outgrown its current office and decides to move. Of course, this means that the responsibility for moving the computer network will fall onto your shoulders. If the thought of this scares you, you're not alone. In about a week, I'll be relocating my network to a new office halfway across the country. Planning for this move is a lot of work, but I've had to relocate networks before. In this Daily Drill Down, I'll share some of the relocation techniques that I've learned.

Step 1: Be involved in the process of picking out office space
At the first hint of a possible move, I strongly recommend that you talk to whomever will be in charge of finding a new office building and ask to be involved in the process of picking out the new office. Typically, the committee that's picking out the new office will consist of the company's president, maybe a few vice presidents, and maybe a human resources representative. The problem with such an arrangement is that the folks from upper management will be primarily concerned with issues such as making sure that there's enough workspace for everyone, making sure that the conference room is big enough, making sure that the building will be appealing to clients, and most importantly, making sure that their personal offices are cushy enough. If there's a human resources representative present, he or she will primarily be concerned with making sure that the new office doesn't blatantly violate any OSHA rules. As you can see, there's a good chance that no one will be looking out for the needs of the IT department. Therefore, you or someone on your staff needs to be closely involved in the process of looking for new office space.

Step 2: Know what to look for in a new office
Once you've convinced the powers that be to let you tag along while shopping for real estate, you've got to know what to look for in a new office. If you've ever built a network from the ground up, then you've probably got a good idea of what you need in order to make the network function in a new office. However, if you (or the person that you send in your place) are a little less experienced, then you may need some guidance. Even if you're a seasoned network veteran, it's not a bad idea to prepare a checklist before you go to look at office space. There are so many things to check for in a new office that it's easy to forget about something while you're looking around.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you exactly what to look for in a new office. Every company's needs are different. However, I can point out some common requirements of most networks.

One of the first things that you'll need to look for is a server room. Ideally, the room should have a raised floor that pumps cool air underneath the computers. However, if you're not lucky enough to find this type of computer room, all is not lost. Just make sure that the room is large enough to accommodate all of your present servers and to allow for future growth. You'll also need to make sure that the server room is climate-controlled and can be kept cold enough to keep your servers cool. Another thing that you'll want to check for is whether there's an easy way to run network cables between the server room and the rest of the building.

One of the most overlooked issues when planning a server room is electricity. At one place that I used to work, one of the managers seized the server room as his new office because he liked the size of the room. He ordered the servers moved to a large closet on the next floor. Aside from the obvious logistical issues, the biggest problem with this arrangement was that, aside from the light fixture in the ceiling, the room had no electricity. This brings up another point. When you're hunting for a server room, make sure that the management staff knows that you're planning on using the room for servers, in case they have other plans for the room. Finally, make sure that the server room has a locking door.

When you're touring the rest of the building, what you'll be looking for will be similar to what you looked for in the server room. For example, you'll want to make sure that there's an abundance of electrical outlets and an easy way to run network cable to all of the locations where computers will be. I once helped a construction company move its network to a new location. Unfortunately, no one had planned for the issue of network cabling. Because of the logistics of the building, the person who had run the network cable had no choice but to wire the receptionist's computer by running a network cable across the floor of the lobby underneath a rug. Maybe there was a better way to run the cable and maybe there wasn't. It wasn't my problem. The point is that if the cabling issue had been planned for ahead of time, this messy method of cabling might never have happened.

Once you've compiled a checklist of things to look for, I recommend taking along a notepad and a video camera when you go to look at offices. You'll probably find several offices that meet your needs, but you may need to go back and review certain details of an office later. A videotape provides a great record of the places that you are considering.

Step 3: Planning for external connectivity
One of the biggest issues that you'll face when planning a network relocation is finding out what types of external connectivity are available. If your company currently uses T-1 lines or something similar for Internet and other types of WAN connections, this probably won't be a big deal. T-1 lines are pretty easy to come by, although the price can vary widely depending on your geographic location.

If you're using another type of connection, though, you may face more serious issues. For example, my network uses a DSL connection for Internet access. Unfortunately, DSL isn't available in my new location. Because of this, I had to find a different type of Internet connection. I didn't want to use a dial-up connection because of its slow speed, and I didn't want to lease a T-1 line because of costs. I had originally considered switching to a cable modem, but this proved to not be available, either. When all was said and done, my only low-cost method of having a broadband Internet connection ended up being through the use of a satellite-based Internet service. However, this raised more issues, such as reduced bandwidth, making sure that I had a clear view of a certain part of the sky, the cost of the new equipment, and, of course, the fact that it takes about a month to get the equipment. As you can see, it's extremely important to plan for your external connectivity ahead of time.

Another issue that I faced was the way that the satellite modem interfaces with the network. As you may know, most DSL modems connect to your server via an Ethernet card. However, the satellite modem that I decided to purchase connected to my server through a USB port. Prior to this, my server was running Windows NT 4.0 and Microsoft Proxy Server 2.0. Unfortunately, Windows NT doesn't support USB connections, so I was forced to upgrade the server to Windows 2000. This also caused some compatibility problems with Proxy Server. I was eventually able to make Proxy Server run under Windows 2000, thanks to a patch found on Microsoft's Web site.

Step 4: Preparing the new office for the move
Once your company acquires the new office, it's time to start preparing the new office for the computers. One of the first things you'll need to do is install the network cabling. If your company has the budget, you may be able to get a professional to come in and run all of the network cables. Doing so saves a lot of headaches, but it can get really expensive, especially for big offices.

If you find yourself having to run the network cable yourself, you'll find that doing so can be a lot of work, but it isn't impossible. Just make sure to use the proper type of cable for the data speeds that you'll be using and make sure to stay within the cable type's maximum allowed distance between workstations and hubs.

If you're working with CAT-5 cables, you'll find that the trickiest part of the process is installing the RJ-45 connectors. However, you can save a lot of frustration if you follow a few basic guidelines. First, leave a few extra feet at each end of every cable that you install. Doing so will insure that the cable is long enough to reach the PC, even if you have to cut the RJ-45 connectors off several times because they were installed incorrectly.

The first time I ever moved a network, the only thing that went wrong was that several PCs couldn't log in to the network because of cabling problems. I learned from my mistakes and bought a cable tester for the next move. A cable tester allows you to find out whether or not your cable is functional before you move the PCs into the office.

One final thing that you need to do to prepare the new office for the move is call the phone company (or whomever) and arrange to have all of the external network connections installed prior to moving day. You don't want to have to wait until after the move to get Internet access. Keep in mind that some utility companies take several weeks to fulfill such requests. Be sure to give them plenty of notice.

Step 5: Preparing your computers for the move
The day before the move, I recommend taking each server offline and making an image file of the server's configuration. You can use a utility such as Symantec's Ghost 2001 for this. The reason for creating an image CD is that during the move, the component that's most likely to be damaged is a server's hard drive. Although hard drive durability has come a long way in the last few years, hard drives still tend to be sensitive to shock. The idea behind building server configuration image files is that if a hard drive is damaged during the move, you can replace the hard drive, restore the image file, and you'll be back in business within a matter of minutes. Of course, you'll also want to back up all of the users' data, but this task is better suited to a standard tape backup, rather than to an image file.

Step 6: Moving day
When it comes time to actually move the servers, there are a few things you can do to make things go more smoothly. First, label each server. Remember that many servers look alike on the outside and it could be difficult to tell the servers apart without labels.

Another thing that you need to do is protect the servers against damage. The components that are most likely to become damaged are those with moving parts. Therefore, you need to make sure that the moving parts don't move. To protect a CD-ROM drive, make sure that the drive is empty and then tape the drive shut. To protect the floppy drives, insert a blank disk into the drive for the move. Keep in mind that the purpose of the blank disk is to keep the drive heads from moving too much. Don't use an important disk, as the disk may become damaged during the move. However, it's better to damage a blank disk than the drive heads. Even though floppy drives are extremely cheap these days, it's still a pain to have to replace them when you've got better things to do.

Relocating a corporate computer network is a big job. I've shared some techniques that I've learned in the past. If you're lucky, you'll never have to move a network, but if you ever do, then this Daily Drill Down should make the job easier.