In the mid- to late'90s, building South Africa's corporate networks used to be a cool job, and it seemed every other week large vendors would announce they had better technology than the next. New applications created the pull for these technologies that gave rise to a lexicon of acronyms, and South Africa's vendors were on hand to rip out older, slower networks and replace them with sleeker, faster models.
Carel Coetzee, CEO of XON Group
Ethernet had become the corporate network of choice, leading to the demise of most other topologies.
Local area network (LAN) speeds rocketed up from 10 Mbps to the desktop and 100 Mpbs on the backbone to 100 Mbps to the desktop and 1 Gbps on the backbone. At roughly the same time research on the wide area network (WAN) realised the asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) switch, a device that connected two or more LANs. High speed multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) networks pushed ATM from the core to the access layer.
ATM switches today underpin many broadband ADSL Internet services.
But networking development appeared to stagnate after that boom period.
Few companies needed more bandwidth than these technologies could provide and fibre-optic networks, as opposed to the standard copper cabling user for traditional telephone and computer networks, were primarily reserved for telecommunications businesses that could use their massive speed and capacity.
During the boom, networks were typically home to file, print and e-mail servers and then, with new technologies and protocols, expanded to include application, remote access, backup, telephony and Web servers.
Networking again commanded more general public interest, with a corresponding cool quotient increase, when a new acronym emerged: VoIP or voice over IP. It hit South African streets in the late '90s and promised massive corporate savings because it allows them to get rid of their internal telephone networks and use the data network for both services.
Data networks are the least demanding of the underlying technologies.
Voice is more demanding since it does npt tolerate stutters and interruptions. Video puts the most demand on the network since it must transfer more information in a given period than data and voice, and does not tolerate interruption or latency.
Broadband cellular communications has put mobile content in the hands of millions of people. ABI Research says there are fewer than 20 million people who use it today, but that demand is set to "explode so that by 2011 more than half a billion customers will subscribe to video services on their mobile phones. What was a $50 million business in terms of subscription revenue in 2005 will by 2011 be worth several hundred billion dollars". That is a big cool quotient incentive.
With that in mind, it is interesting to note that today's corporate networks look increasingly like the carrier networks of yesteryear. They face increasing demand from voice, video and Web-based ERP applications and therefore require the same redundancy, agility, quality-of-service (QoS) and security required from a carrier-class network. Customers are also increasingly seeking virtualised resources and technical skills.
That means networks must be agile and secure. While technologies like SOA (service-oriented architecture) claim to be network-agnostic, the reality is that communication between all aspects of the network must become more intelligent.
While existing vendors have been able to supply the basic building blocks of the network, the transition to realtime business is not always so simple. Technologies that make network deployment easier, faster and more secure contain inherent security features, such as intrusion prevention, and performance features, such as application acceleration required in a more agile network.
As these networks become increasingly sophisticated they will require a broader bouquet of skills to deploy and support them. South Africa's vendors and distributors are gaining these skills and this is opening up plethora choices to local businesses.