Networking | 10.31.2017

Is Spanning Tree’s Time Up?

The Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) has been around for decades. Originally designed to help reroute network traffic in the event of a partial outage, it provided a useful solution given the environment of the time. But administrators today are increasingly finding STP is no longer the most efficient way to handle their need for redundancy and resiliency. Software defined access (SDA) has emerged as a highly secure network fabric that addresses STP’s long-standing shortcomings.

The changing network environment

A lot of factors have changed that make STP a less attractive solution than it was even just five years ago. One is the advancement of other technologies that solve problems where STP doesn’t. If a multi-path network experienced a partial outage, for example, STP would cut the number of available paths down to one, regardless of how many had been affected by the failure. That isn’t an efficient model if you have four possible connections but are limited to routing traffic over only one of them. A number of newer technologies are available to enterprises today that allow multiple simultaneous paths, even in the event of a limited outage. Solutions such as per-VLAN spanning tree added the ability to better control failover behavior, but because they also added a lot of manual complexity for redundancy and utilizing multiple links at the same time, their usability was less than ideal in some circumstances.

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In addition, STP is not a failsafe protocol when compared with traditional Layer 3 routing. Boiling it down to its essence, STP either operates in normal mode or in catastrophic failure mode—it doesn’t degrade gracefully when there’s a problem. This significantly extends the amount of time users experience disruption, as the IT team struggles to sort out what went wrong. Though failures may not happen often, when they do, STP makes them worse. With its automated workflows and more intelligent architecture, SDA gives organizations a better solution for failure handling.

Security concerns are also driving more businesses to consider SDA. Though segmentation has long been recommended to maintain protection around sensitive data sets, its implementation was sparse because it was a rather time-consuming way to go. Now, with institutions such as hospitals experiencing interruptions because their computers have been taken over by ransomware, network segmentation is quickly gaining favor. Add in the industrialization of hacking, where organized groups of people are increasingly monetizing cyber attacks, and SDA’s ability to segment sensitive data away from operational data is an even bigger benefit.

Different industry sectors—even different units and roles within the same company—will have unique needs and concerns when it comes to moving to something more efficient than STP. CISOs often worry about auditability. Many network admins are focused on automation and their networks’ ability to handle tomorrow’s requirements without adding staff or bungling the implementation of advanced platforms. For their part, CEOs typically have a laser focus on capabilities and ensuring the organization remains nimble as they look to quickly deploy new services in support of evolving business requirements.

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Managing the transition

Any technology transition can be a challenge for an organization. Disruption to employees’ network access, impacts to the end user experience, lean internal resources trying to tackle a migration amid their normal day-to-day duties—these are all good reasons to go into a transition with your eyes wide open. The good news is, there’s support out there to help your business overcome the problems you may have experienced with STP and instead begin reaping the rewards of SDA, a more advanced, more stable and more capable network fabric.