Until recently, networking professionals designed networking infrastructure with one truth in mind: "Bigger and faster is better." Most notably, they did not measure networking success by its ability to successfully meet business outcomes. This tech-first concept goes against fundamentally good business sense, where a company will develop a product or service for its specific market.
For example, auto manufacturers build different vehicles for different markets — each composed of a lot of the same parts, with those parts adapted for their purpose. Think about a passenger vehicle. It has a standard set of major components: engine, drivetrain, braking, suspension, body, and directional control. How a company engineers these components and relates them to other subsystems corresponds directly to the market it wants to capture. For sports car enthusiasts, engineers design a vehicle with a more rigid suspension for cornering and put in a larger powertrain to enable quick acceleration. A truck has a body with a flatbed to carry items and requires larger springs to handle heavier weights.
Unfortunately, this hasn't been the case for networking infrastructure. Over the last 30 years, networks have been predominately built to be bigger and faster only. As a result, businesses have networks that are too costly, too unwieldy, and too inflexible.
Why are networks being built this way?
When it comes to the “bigger and faster” networking infrastructure mindset, four factors have created this reality:
1) Networking professionals have an “it’s just plumbing” attitude. Most professionals think of networking infrastructure as a commodity, believing it offers little value than just connecting laptops to servers and acting as the conduit for application traffic generated. Most of the traffic serves a generic set of applications, including customer relationship management (CRM), accounting, email, and voice-over IP (VoIP), used across any type of business. This attitude about networking being a commodity pushes strategic decisions from CIOs down to departmental decisions, placing emphasis on better and faster design goals that do not serve the business.
2) Foundation design has evolved from what was easy, not what was optimized. When choosing components to build a network, networking professionals relied primarily on data sheets because they were easy to justify decisions. Often, teams procured components that had the biggest route tables, largest memory, most ports, and biggest backplane. However, these are subjective criteria that contribute to procuring components based on bigger or faster attributes or individual team members’ personal beliefs or experiences.
3) Investments reflect networking fads based on teams’ budget availability. Each company’s network design differs from the next based on both the ebbs and flows of when it had budget and the popular technology available at that time. This created technology snowflakes. Every few years, new generic technologies emerge — Wi-Fi, VoIP, and server virtualization included — but adoption times vary based on budget availability timing and the latest fads. These investment decisions aren’t strategic; they are tactical and reactionary. Whatever the networking market had available at the time, that was what the networking team bought.
4) A lack of oversight fails to tie networking strategy back to business goals. Networking is a complicated alphabet soup of acronyms and terms. Few technology leaders outside of the networking department are network savvy. They’ve generally leaned on networking professionals to do the investment planning. In theory, whatever they designed would be best for customers and employees. In actuality, networking engineers aren’t connected to customer or employee needs. Imagine designing an airplane only thinking about power and size: Its body would be the engine, and passengers would be holding on for dear life on the wings.
Enter a new era for networking infrastructure: business-optimized networks
This nightmare is slowly eroding as digital business becomes the new reality. The tech-driven, “bigger and faster” design principle is quickly fading into the background. Emerging from its ashes are business-optimized networks (BONs). Forrester defines these as: “the design and operation of a network based on the five tenets of virtual network infrastructure (VNI) customized based on business-centric principles, business goals, and business strategy.”
The growing BON movement is powered by the desire to deliver fantastic client experiences by using technology locally, where you best serve your customers. Rather than relying on differentiation at the data center, enterprises serve, retain, and get new customers in retail stores, acute care centers, airplanes, hotel lobbies, or manufacturing sites. To achieve this, companies need new BON approaches. Customer experience (CX) leaders are taking these steps now: Sephora, Caesars Entertainment, Disney, Marriott, Philips, Sephora, and Tractor Supply are just a few examples. Networking leaders at innovative companies like these shift their focus to:
- Fit, form, and function. Each company is going to have different requirements. Retailers focus on seamless connectivity for customers and partners. Manufacturers look for hardware that can withstand high amounts of vibration, heat, and humidity and can be put inside an aircraft, train, substation, or oil refinery. They also ask about equipment that can be easily set up by field personnel, not networking professionals.
- Technology specialization by industry. Think back to auto manufacturers that are taking the same subcomponents and customizing them for a specific market. Leaders are pushing their networking vendors to do the same. Wireless is a great example. There’s an exponential rise in managing multiple wireless technologies, with specific variations or approaches in each industry. Retailers, for example, are interested in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, and RFID. Manufacturers, meanwhile, want to know which vendors support Wi-Fi, Zigbee, WirelessHART, or other industrial-specific wireless technologies.
- Specific architectures, designs, and operations for the location. Much of this movement is location-specific. How you best architect the network will be customized for that location. Patterns and best practices for each are starting to emerge. Within retail, for example, this includes determining how to resolve IT/OT roles and responsibilities; modeling LAN, WAN, and WLAN for specific retail locations; and putting criteria in place to enhance shoppers’ experiences.
Ultimately, various business-centric requirements can be addressed head-on through the development of a business-optimized network. Going forward, networking infrastructure professionals should follow a similar approach to that of automakers — create various models that cater to myriad customer tastes and needs.
Andre Kindness is Principal Analyst at Forrester.