In the old days, your network was simply a device for transferring bits of information between silicon. The key selling point of a network was the speed and relative reliability of delivery it provided. Not anymore, tomorrow’s networks will have enough intelligence to even scare Big Brother.
Looking at the corporate connectivity market is rather depressing for many IT product vendors. Excluding services, there is precious little companies feel a burning desire to buy, and even less they feel are `must haves'. Among the 95% of corporate PC users only making use of normal business applications, who can make use of more than a 100 Mbps network connection?
We hear stories about video to the desktop, voice over IP and various other technologies that would warrant huge bandwidth to the desktop, but in truth these will take years to reach the average desktop user - if they ever get that far. If instant messaging is already causing a problem, how much greater will it be when people can videoconference at will?
Focusing more closely on the networking market of the future (we are sure there is going to be some spending), specifically the makeup of next generation networks, the real money in the coming years will not come from new, faster cables. And while wireless technologies are being used as the catalyst for improved IT spend, it will not be the killer vendors want.
"In today's market, selling networks is becoming much like peddling cars, where everyone can set up a secondhand shop and everyone knows how to change a spark plug. But the reality is that only a few customers ever really get the full capacity out of their networks," says Martin May, regional director, Africa, Enterasys Networks.
"If we put the enterprise under the microscope we can surmise that companies not only need the physical network per se, they need an intelligent network that is able to, in many instances, manage itself and protect itself from the onslaught of outside attacks."
What we can expect to see happening is an expansion of the capabilities of the network to include intelligence and automatically added value.
In this article we will interchangeably use the term intelligent network and next generation network to refer to the corporate network we expect to see taking shape over the next few years. The more common understanding of next generation network focuses more on convergence - which will naturally be a large part of networking in the future.
Addressing Futurex, Marius Mostert, Telkom's executive: Technology Strategy and Integration said: "There has been a strong focus on technology-centric networks up to now, but this has been accompanied with limited market pull for services. Going forward, services need to drive the appropriate enabling technologies that need to be in place. This is what the industry is currently grappling with in the search for better, converged solutions that will meet customer demands."
There are many views and no clear universal definition of what a next generation network should look like. "Current legacy networks all stem from a technology base. Until recently it was a question of here is a new technology to take us forward, but now that we have it, what services can it deliver?"
"Perhaps the most important aspect of the next-generation philosophy is the notion that one must start with the service needs of the customer and then evolve the network utilising all the new technologies that are continuously becoming available. Telkom's perspective is services dominance over technology dominance,'' Mostert adds.
The network really is the computer
May suggests that the intelligent network takes all the independent bits and pieces that support and control the flow of data and create a holistic communications management system able to adjust to the realities of today's technology environment in realtime.
This means real quality of service determined in realtime according to the environmental circumstances. For example, virus attacks today are becoming more dangerous and faster, leaving little chance for patches and proactive preventative measures before the damage is done. With an intelligent network, the firewall or intrusion detection system (or some security mechanism) will detect something out of order and be able to immediately take action without waiting for a technician to click on a button.
The system may shut down the port where the suspicious activity is happening and wait for human assistance, or if a Trojan is sending out thousands of e-mails it can throttle the bandwidth to allow necessary business traffic while hindering the virus, again until the support department can take control.
This approach makes sense since the corporate network is the first point of contact for external data. Why not make it the first line of defence? Of course, the idea is that these new features do not affect the normal running of the network, but support the traditional data transfer necessities while adding value to the business in the process.
Moving to intelligent networks does not necessarily imply a complete re-installation of the corporate infrastructure - although many vendors would no doubt like to boost their bottom lines with the revenues from projects like these. Mostert says, "There are many pathways to reach next generation network services by utilising appropriate legacy systems. Telkom favours an evolutionary approach rather than a radical one."
He also warns providers "to exercise caution and look beyond the hype. There is a need to assess market demand for services prior to indulging in heavy capital investment, as opposed to over-reacting to perceived demand."
Cable free forever more?
Whether wireless networks are in vogue at the moment or not, we can certainly expect increased usage over the long term as more wireless technologies appear, some perfect for specific tasks and functionality, others appealing to the broad mass of bandwidth-starved people out there.
Atio's Deon Scheepers is a believer in the future of wireless connectivity as another extension to the wired network. He says that as more wireless access mechanisms become available, whether via wireless broadband such as Sentech's MyWireless or any new opportunities that may arise, there will be people and companies ready to take advantage of them.
The crucial selling point of wireless, as many cellular operators found after making large investments in 3G or even in GPRS (closer to home), is cost and application. The cost aspect speaks for itself, but users are not going to take their PDA and log into the corporate network while at Sunday lunch just because they can. Wireless operators need to partner with other companies and deliver necessary applications that users want to use, ie, applications that make their lives a little easier.
However, Scheepers highlights security as the primary issue that needs to be overcome before wireless is completely accepted. The ignorance of wireless network's inherent insecurity will pass when corporate leaders realise the risks the technology brings along with its myriad potential benefits.
The fact that wireless technology is installed and on by default in many products, such as a Centrino notebook, is cause for concern. Scheepers adds that it is not only 802.11 products but also less well-known technologies such as Bluetooth that are cause for alarm. Unlike a cable connection in which one knows exactly to and from where data flows, wireless networks have no restrictions on access points.
IT departments need to cater for these potential rogue network access points and monitor new access or data transfers beyond the norm constantly. However, to have teeth, the policy that will enforce this policing needs to be driven from the top, which will require some educating of management regarding the realities of wireless communications.
Whether wired or not, networks are moving into the 21st century by leaving the focus on technology behind in favour of a focus on added value. As the hardware and software to make networks more intelligent appears in companies across the globe, networking will be defined not by megabits or gigabits per second, but by services.
We still need technology to make these new services happen, but the bits and bytes are a sideline. To succeed, these intelligent networks will need to first align their new functionality with business needs and prove their necessity to the decision maker. Talk business to get the deal and then technology to deliver will be the process for network-related sales in future.
Business need is the only real networking device driver
With the networking equipment market following closely on the heels of some of its technology predecessors, commoditisation of the routing and switching space has meant that organisations are no longer focusing on devices, but rather on what the device can do for the business.
"Organisations are looking at business value, which delimits the extent to which performance continues to drive this market sector. Key to this is determining what then differentiates one vendor from another," says Wayne Venter, sales engineer at Nortel Networks.
By circumventing the traditional product punt, what are organisations looking at when making key networking decisions?
"In an economy that has been on a downward curve, enterprises are quite reticent when it comes to implementing new technologies, and will only embrace a solution that shows tangible business benefits," he adds. "In terms of technology solutions, the vendor should aim to use innovative technology offerings that provides adaptability and profitability, this should be a value-add product to the business not just a by-product."
Current market requirements are calling for IP telephony, which is driving the idea of unified networks. Organisations need a business strategy that will ultimately unify their network, whether that relates to an integrated fax server or IP telephones, the key factor is the potential cost savings and what a unified network can do for the business.
Instead of thinking about best effort, organisations are starting to consider content aware intelligence. Quality of service (QoS) is no longer a differentiator as every vendor's switch and router supports best effort and QoS. Organisations are looking at content aware intelligence on top of this, motivated by business realities that heed application requirements. It is more about the applications people use and intelligent balancing of network traffic.
Security also remains a central consideration. Existing products were not designed with security in their DNA; security has never been the driving factor of routers and switches.
"If people are still interested in buying 'devices', they need to look more specifically at what it can do for them, but not from the perspective of performance for example. They need to look at the level of intelligence it will bring to business."