We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Server: Preparing Network Infrastructure for Future Elections

A voter casts his ballot in a vote center in Los Angeles.

A voter casts his ballot in a vote center in Los Angeles. SHUTTERSTOCK/RINGO CHIU

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Elections are times of both predictable and unpredictable surges in IT infrastructure strain. Adequately preparing for this reality ahead of time is imperative for state IT leaders.

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed how much strain network infrastructures are under. The shift to remote work created high network loads on state infrastructure, and the recent election added to it. With increased traffic to state websites as voters requested mail-in ballots and monitored election results, an exponential influx of network activity occurred.

This time, the election infrastructure held up. But going forward, it’s imperative that federal and state agencies prepare for both anticipated and unexpected periods of high traffic with robust, optimized and flexible network infrastructure that account for both static and fluctuating needs. For organizations unsure of how to approach preparing for these eventualities, the following tips will provide a solid foundation toward building a strong network infrastructure.

Stress Testing

As is the case with most efforts focused on improvement, organizations must first take time to assess and identify any potential shortcomings that need to be addressed. In the context of network infrastructure, this assessment is most often accomplished through “stress testing.” During this process, IT teams simulate periods of high activity on a network to see how it reacts under pressure. From these tests, organizations gain insight into where failures or disruptions in service may arise and can take the necessary measures to prevent such circumstances from occurring in a real-world situation.

However, federal, state and local IT leaders must understand that not all stress tests are created equal. No two network infrastructures are the same, so tests must be built with the specific realities of the election infrastructure and potential scenarios in mind. For example, during the most recent election, states that regularly conducted mostly in-person voting would need to be sure to build in extra capacity for the anticipated influx of absentee votes. Furthermore, a good stress test should go beyond providing mere performance benchmarks and equip IT leaders with analysis and insights into specific areas of failure and potential solutions that can be employed to address them. If tests are conducted properly, the likelihood that election-disrupting weaknesses will be detected is greatly increased.

Optimizing Infrastructure Deployment

Once a government has properly identified problem areas in its network’s ability to handle surges related to elections, it must determine how to fix them. One of the most important things to realize in approaching this challenge is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Each state and local government faces unique needs and challenges in preparing for an election, and any deployment of network resources will need to be tailor-made based on considerations such as budget, deployment schedule and integration with legacy solutions. Workloads should be closely examined in order to determine if they are best suited for on-premises or public cloud environments and ensure governments are not paying for infrastructure they don’t need.

Public or Private Cloud?

Public cloud solutions are often sought after as a quick fix in modernizing existing legacy on-premises data centers. But while the public cloud can deliver a lot of benefits, many IT leaders overlook the fact that such deployments can create challenges. Managing complex networking, re-architecting applications and using multiple infrastructure tools for various clouds are time and resource intensive exercises that render a public cloud solution more trouble than expected. All the perks of public cloud also come at a premium, often leaving IT leaders stuck with unexpected costs. At the same time, an overreliance on on-premises solutions can leave an organization’s network static and inflexible, unable to handle the dynamic workloads often associated with the surges in activity we are discussing.

In most cases, the best route forward will be a combination of on-premises and public cloud infrastructure commonly referred to as a hybrid cloud. Whichever solutions end up being deployed, the most important thing remains carefully considering all of the relevant factors specific to a state or local government to be sure it maintains a robust network that can handle high volumes of traffic while flawlessly handling daily operations, all without breaking the bank.

The Importance of Security  

The flurry of hacking activity often associated with elections is also an important reminder of how vigilant organizations need to be in order to deter malicious actors—especially during periods of high traffic. Cybercriminals will often use confusion caused by the high volume of activity to attack an already overwhelmed network. Teams should be on heightened alert for suspicious network traffic and be prepared to take swift action without causing disruption in service. To do this, they must be equipped with modern cybersecurity tools such as next-generation antivirus protection and endpoint security tools that allow them to detect and stop attacks as they happen. Just as with the aforementioned tips, the goal must always be to maintain service and prevent disruptions.

Preparing for Years to Come

The past few years have forced a number of our technological weaknesses into the spotlight, and Covid-19 has been no exception to that trend. Fortunately, with such challenges now revealed, we are better positioned to make necessary improvements that will strengthen crucial aspects of our IT infrastructure for years to come. And by following the advice laid out above, organizations will find themselves at a good starting point to begin their journey towards a higher quality, more reliable election network infrastructure.

Dan Fallon is the director of public systems engineering at Nutanix.

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