Technology / Networking

Top-down vs. Bottom-up Network Design

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Updated on January 31, 2024

Network design is a beast of a topic. Even if you are well-versed in the basics of networking, creating a new network from scratch can be a daunting project. It involves the meticulous planning of hardware and infrastructure, exploring business requirements and budgets, and a bit of luck.

With most projects, certain key decisions must be made early on. These are foundational and will drive many smaller decisions and most of the work to come. If made well, these decisions set a solid foundation for the work to come. If made poorly, they can create headaches and delays, blow out budgets, or drive projects straight into the ground.

One foundational decision in any network design project is whether to adopt a bottom-up or top-down design. We'll explore these two methods of network design, their merits and drawbacks, and why to choose one over the other for your network design project.

Bottom-Up Approach to Network Design 

With either a bottom-up or top-down approach, we're talking about where on the OSI model to start. A bottoms-up design begins at the bottom of the model, the physical layer, and works its way up through the layers. However, it's not as literal as running all the cabling, then moving up to OSI layer 2 and installing all the switches, etc. 

A bottoms-up design is about establishing a functional network first, focusing on decisions around the hardware, bandwidth, security, etc. Then you move on to higher layers like applications and the decisions that affect those.

Advantages of a Bottom-Up Approach

The bottom-up approach emphasizes building infrastructure to support whatever application and business goals are to come. It's a rapid and robust deployment, with the idea that change can (and will) happen later as needs shift.

To meet future needs for change, the network is overbuilt, with plenty of power and buffers for room to grow. Ultimately, the immediate needs for networking are more than met without sweating too many of the details.

Practical Considerations

While the network can be built quickly, critical considerations must still be made towards hardware selection. Some baseline of performance needs must be established, otherwise, lower-quality gear will immediately show its shortcomings. Since bandwidth needs will always increase, starting with room to grow is a necessity, even if you aren't calculating requirements down to the megabit.

After bandwidth, other hardware considerations like compatibility, integration, and long-term support must be considered to keep the network humming long well into the future as hardware ages and is replaced. 

Security also must be carefully considered when choosing hardware. Decisions around next-generation firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and traffic inspection must be made to cast a wide security net, given how the bottoms-up design can't inform specific needs. Again, get more capacity than you think you need to leave room for growth. 

Challenges and Drawbacks

Despite its advantages, the urgency to get a network off the ground that comes with the bottoms-up model can create problems. The emphasis on speed over business needs can overshadow decisions that should be more strategic. Scalability and capacity are always expensive though; without a more tailored plan, the bottoms-up design can call for spending way more budget than might be required to meet the actual needs to come.

Without business needs and strategic objectives first identified and analyzed, the bottoms-up design can create more problems that overshadow its advantages. Time can be more important and worth the spend, but any project that rushes implementation over planning is more likely to have overruns, be late, or fully fail. 

Top-Down Approach to Network Design 

The top-down design does the obvious: plan the network from the top of the OSI layer. It requires considering first not only the application layer but also the organization's business goals and how the technology must align with them. Long-term planning for specific needs is the name of the game here, requiring meticulous and time-consuming planning of goals, service-level agreements, personnel, and budgets.

Advantages of Top-Down Approach 

The most significant advantage of the top-down approach is a tack-sharp alignment with organizational goals. Instead of building a one-size-fits-all, bottom-up network, starting at the top ensures the technical solutions you choose are tailored to meet specific and well-defined business objectives, while still providing room for long-term growth.

Practical Considerations

Foundationally, the top-down approach requires thorough analysis and collaboration across the business to identify organizational needs and requirements. Only after these items are defined and captured can the tech be chosen.

To meet goals, service-level agreements (SLAs) must be established so measurable metrics can be aligned with these goals. These metrics become the objective standards to measure success and effective service deliverability. 

Challenges and Drawbacks

The top-down approach is very time-consuming on the front end, obviously. The planning required will definitely push out deploying hardware, leading to what some might perceive as delays in establishing a functional network. Meticulous planning, while avoiding overspending and overscaling at the front end of the project, might limit flexibility as circumstances change or unforeseen problems arise (as they always do.)

Choosing the Correct Network Design Approach

Hopefully, it's clear by now that the network design you choose at the beginning of the project can have substantial effects on how the project goes. This initial decision is critical to your project, possibly making or breaking your success.

A bottom-up design can be implemented quickly, be super adaptable and scale to meet any needs that arise. A top-down design, however, is often more cost-effective and has a higher likelihood of long-term success, as long as the planning is done well.

The choice is a critical one that will shape the trajectory of your network project. There's no one-size-fits-all solution; different designs will fit different needs. Whether you go with the agile bottoms-up design or a strategically planned tops-down design, your success can hinge on how well a network is planned and executed.

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