As enterprise network engineers, we may not discover that our company has acquired a new network until we read the merger press release on our social media feed. We all know mergers and acquisitions create integration challenges for people and business processes. Combining two disparate networks is no exception. But with a little forethought, careful planning, and the right tools, we can lessen the pain of integration.
Before technical teams can gather information during an acquisition, the legal team, compliance team, and business must authorize all communication. For publicly traded companies, regulations govern what kind of information can be exchanged during the discovery. While you wait for the opportunity to begin discovery, plan your approach. Think through the information you’ll need to begin to think through systems. Prepare a list of questions that reveal how the overall IT systems are structured – instead of focusing on model numbers and protocols. For example:
- How do external users access internal systems?
- What publicly facing services are hosted from your data center?
- What connectivity model do you use for remote sites?
- Do you have redundant connectivity? If so, explain technologies you use to ensure redundancy.
- Describe your data center architecture.
- Describe your security infrastructure.
- Are their external consultants or vendors who manage parts of your infrastructure?
- Are you responsible for any infrastructure that was acquired previously?
- Describe any cloud services you current use? How do you access those services?
- How up to date are existing network diagrams?
Broad and generalized questions will give you an overall picture of the strength of the networking team, the health of the network, and the design philosophy.
After you’ve developed a general list of questions, feel free to dive into the specifics. For example:
- What routing protocols do you use in the data center, WAN, campus?
- Ask for detailed vendor information for data center, WAN, campus.
- Ask for detailed inventory information, including manufacturer, model number, OS version.
- How many sites and users?
- Do you have any in-house developed automation tools?
- What tools do you use for monitoring and visibility?
Focus on the people
It’s likely that you’ll be eager to jump in with questions when you finally get the opportunity to talk to your networking counterparts. Take care not to dive in too quickly. Remember, by the time you’re able to talk tech with your peers at the acquired company, they will be anxious about their future role. Be sensitive to this dynamic. Strike a collaborative attitude and gather information with care. Avoid discussing previous acquisitions. Don’t speculate, don’t assume, and don’t talk about how great this opportunity is for you. If you navigate interpersonal relationships with care, you can disarm your counterpart and have a more productive conversation.
Trust but verify
In many instances, the acquiring technical team will have access to only a few key staff members at the acquired company – often a manager or director. As you begin conversations, be mindful of the role of your contact. As you ask questions like “What routing protocols run in your data center?” and “What solution do you use for remote access?” keep in mind that responses may be incomplete or less detailed than you first assume. Directors and managers will likely have some information about infrastructure, but not the detail you’re expecting. Tailor your questions for your audience. Be flexible and guide the discovery process to gain the most information you can based on the knowledge of your contact.
It’s not uncommon for staff at the acquired company to begin looking for new job opportunities when they learn of an impending merger. By the time you’re ready to begin the hard work of integration, some key technical staff will have moved on to other roles. Even if you took diligent notes during the discovery process, you will find gaps in your understanding. Networks are rarely documented well. A poorly documented network absent the lead engineers responsible for its care and feeding can lead to disaster. Take time to verify the information you were given during initial discovery. Use discovery tools like NetBrain to validate your inventory, generate topology diagrams, and document the environment. Dive into configurations to understand the environment. Lab up the environment and test changes you would like to make.
Secure all the things
Before you create connections between your network and the network you are acquiring, consider the security ramifications. Regardless of the thoroughness of your discovery process, you cannot have a full understanding of the security posture of the organization. It’s much easier to restrict network access in the beginning and then loosen controls over time. Consider implementing proper security tooling – firewalls, intrusion prevention, and malware scanning – to provide visibility and protection.
Plan well, then adjust
Network mergers are always challenging endeavors. Skeletons hide in closets, and bad designs wreak havoc when massive change is introduced into the system. Your best course of action is to plan well, gather information, then work to verify as you implement your integration plans. As you mind all of the technical challenges, don’t ignore the human component. Strong relationships with acquired staff may become the secret weapon of your success.
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