Today’s networking untangled
1 April 2005 | 0
Is it conceivable that the IT market in Ireland is actually maturing? Surely it can’t just be the economic situation that has corporate customers focusing on ‘return on investment’ and vendors asking us ‘What exactly is it you want to do?’ — and actually listening to the answers? Nowhere is the new maturity (probably just post-adolescent, realistically, just like the PC) more apparent than in the growing appetite for managed services. We’ve all spent a decade or more fussing about the megahertz magic of PCs and the wonders of Windows only to finally realise that we were all being boy racers while the important thing all along was to get from A to B to C and even sometimes Z — on time and every time. System crashes? In the adult IT world (where those snooty mainframe guys in the white coats were all along) that’s regarded as failure, not adventure.
It’s also dawning on us that what really counts, achieves business goals and is changing the social face of the planet is connectedness. The Internet and its user-friendly face, the Web, taught us that very quickly that the network was more important than the individual components that made it. In fact the increasingly mobile connected world has also brought its lessons, with the market actually talking about ‘the device of choice’: You can use laptops or PDAs, or even smart mobile phones according to what suits your needs or circumstances.
On a fixed network, depending on their needs, some users might have minimal spec PCs at a retail or warehouse counter, some a CAD quality engineering workstation and others just a docking station for a laptop (or its wireless alternative). Our software choices go all the way from fully-featured copies of Microsoft Office on every desktop to server-based computing and thin clients that need little by way of local resources. Our applications are more and more shared across the whole organisation over the LAN or WAN, often with a browser front end so that they are easy to use and consistently presented to every user.
What underlies all of these scenarios and IT versatility, of course, is the network infrastructure. If it is the connectedness that counts today, then the most important technology is the network. It has to be simultaneously robust, fast (lots of bandwidth) and smart — in rugby terms, a sort of Clohessy / O’Driscoll solution (COD would be a nice TLA). More seriously, a number of parallel developments have made us look back again at our networks simply because so many of the things we now need to do — or aspire to — need smart networking technology.
Internet access for each desk is one straightforward example for we have entered a world of e-business where increasing volumes of e-mail and messaging have become the norm. We have also seen the continued growth of laptops as the PC of choice and, in hand with this, the growth of e-working from home or on the move.
With the wide-scale adoption of the laptop as a workhorse, wireless networking is beginning to really come into its own. Granted it has its limitations, but wireless offers great physical flexibility in offering network access. It has two obvious applications: It can be a straightforward cable substitute (older buildings, isolated locations in a building complex or big open areas like container depots, logistics hubs, etc.) or as a ‘work wherever you like’ option to complement the fixed network.
When you consider the development from networking to wireless networking, and then add to this the universal trend towards voice and data convergence (Voice over IP or VoIP), before you know it you have a huge, complex and temperamental beast of a network. Meanwhile, the cost of buying in the necessary skills to untangle the potential mess have risen well above the reach of most Irish SMEs.
Just some of the issues that Irish SMEs may be faced with include: The introduction of new cable specifications at the physical level (Category 5e or ‘enhanced’ and now Cat. 6); Gigabit Ethernet and other bandwidth issues; switched networks; the latest iteration of WiFi or 802.11 a, b and now g — and so on. At the network management level there are major complications around server and data storage architecture, data traffic management (especially if VoIP is at all in question) and the crucial questions of firewalls and security.
‘In many ways our infatuation with technology for its own sake has passed,’ says Gerry McCarthy, senior manager in IBM Global Services, ‘and customers today are looking for demonstrable cost effectiveness and best value. Return on Investment is king. At the same time the development of enterprise networks, in particular the insatiable demand for business process and e-business applications, is driving the requirements for network integration to a new level of value and complexity. Today’s successful retailers, service providers and manufacturers are continually investigating in re-engineering their processes, using a well founded network strategy based on a managed network solution’.
That ‘managed network’ element is all-important today because of the mix of types of data traffic on even the simplest LAN but especially on any form of WAN. Once upon a time the flow was all of simple data and file exchange. Now it includes that but also ranges from e-mail to graphic images (large files) to Internet access and multimedia and — top of the hierarchy because of its need for real-time priority — voice. Whether the management is in-house or outsourced, the requirement is there and the quality of service to the users and the performance of the network will be dictated by the policies that are set to govern all of the elements as much as by the technical capabilities or configuration of the infrastructure. There is also the question — and the economics — of bandwidth. What is happily available on any LAN would be a very expensive option over leased lines, ATM or even VPN. Which means that more and more companies are discovering that they have to work with a set of pipes of very different bores. Hence the success of new technologies such as Peribit Networks or IBM’s Expand that can increase the network throughput by up to 10 times through smart data compression software.
‘We strongly recommend that any project begin with a network audit,’ says Tomás West, manager of Cara’s Network Integration Services. ‘It is all too often ignored, but analysis of what kinds of traffic and volumes the network is handling and the relative proportions — particularly over a WAN — can astound the network owners. The proportion of HTTP traffic — Internet — is a frequent eye opener.’ That information in turn is crucial to setting realistic network objectives and priorities to embrace the various applications, departments and other elements of the organisation — before moving on to review the available technologies and what they have to offer and then designing and costing the solution. ‘Putting the cart behind the horse is always the right way round! Actually, the really important thing is that the customer has to take the reins at this planning stage of the project — with advice and assistance and information — because his decisions have to be based firmly on his business strategies.’
When the detailed costing and implementation is then being considered, Tomás West says, is when managed services come into the equation. ‘Today, managements look at the complete cost of ownership — including forecasting the costs of support for perhaps three years or even more. That is where managed services come into their own, with real partnerships where both sides have a vested interest in the initial implementation — skilled and experienced project management can be really vital — and its ongoing success, supported by service level agreements.’
Irish customers have traditionally been reluctant to move to managed services, says Frank Clonan of Hewlett Packard consulting and integration services. ‘But the trend is more and more towards outsourcing — which is why we have recently invested in the Dublin data centre — because a network today is so much more than a connection between points. What organisations want is a consistent service to users with guaranteed up-time. Behind the scenes, as it were, all of the things like WAN routing, automatic fail over and so on are taking place — plus network management that takes advantage of today’s speed and bandwidth capabilities — all transparently to the users. User organisations come to this as they seek to upgrade older networks and see that buying managed services is a cost-effective alternative as well as being attractive in terms of concentrating on core business.’
There has also been what amounts to a major cultural change in our use of IT. As Francis O’Haire, technical director of Data Solutions, points out ‘We were for a long time conditioned to having resources distributed to where we were — the desktop — and then to working off-line when away from base and just logging on for the minimum time to transfer files up and down and synchronise data. That was the generic way of doing things. But as we grow accustomed to always-on connectivity the ideal eventually becomes no compromise between desk or remote e-working. We can work wherever TCP/IP can travel and so long as the device can speak to its applications’. As a Citrix partner, Francis O’Haire naturally points to the trend back to centralised enterprise applications — or certainly all of the enterprise data. ‘The main points are that the data is more easily secured centrally and a lot of headaches are removed when you distribute the access rather than the computing. Cost of ownership tends to be looked at mostly in terms of hardware but in reality organisations have a huge investment in the maintenance of their data and applications.’
There is one sense in which the rise of managed services is ironic, because the basic elements of networking have become both commoditised and easy to install and set up. Anyone can add a PC or device through a EUR40 network card; 3Com for example prides itself on plug and play switches and hubs. WiFi is a consumer product at the lower end of the market and even day-to-day network administration is user-friendly. Manufacturers are prepared to give very long guarantees (five, ten years and more) with network equipment and the technical specifications for Category 6 cabling and 802.11 wireless Ethernet, for example, are contributing to the standardisation of all of the elements in networking.
But those are all really nuts and bolts stuff at this stage of our IT evolution. Like electrical wiring and appliances, DIY is perfectly fine for almost everything except what needs to be attached to the mains or has safety, insurance and warranty implications. The new era of converged voice, video and data — multi-service networking — is adding complexity because it is extending the range of applications and activities for which networks must cater. As with so much else, our expectations are now higher. So a ‘simple’ WAN to link a number of locations in a business now has to be designed and managed to take in VPNs, remote access and e-working, Internet access for all users, unified messaging and integration with telephony if not yet full VoIP. And then the requirements might change tomorrow.
But now that we have matured, somewhat, we know better than to cope with this constantly evolving world by throwing skills and resources at it. The advantage of a service is always that somebody else is responsible for delivering it. As for costs, yes the sums have to be done but you will know in advance exactly what they will be. Being responsible adults, we have learned the hard way that there is buying well and there is buying cheap. We also know that it is very satisfying to know exactly which backsides to boot if things go wrong.