It's easy for network engineers to get immersed in the intricacies of network design. After all, it's what they're trained to do. But for that design to succeed, they need to begin by stepping outside of their silo and understanding what the business needs.
It's the "B word," but it's really important, said Denise Donohue, a network architect at consulting firm NetCraftsmen. A highly respected practitioner, instructor, and author, Donohue knows what she's talking about. In fact, she wrote the book on the topic with co-author Russ White, "The Art of Network Architecture: Business-Driven Design."
"If you really want to transform your network, the network should be the very last thing you think about…We create technologies that help the business run better," she said earlier this month at Interop ITX. "If you're going to talk about network transformation, you have to look at it in terms of business transformation."
There are a lot of ways network architects and engineers can learn about a business, whether it's the company they work for or a client they support.
"You want to look at the business itself. Is it growing, shrinking or static? What are its future plans? What's the leadership like? Are they risk takers and interested in being technology-forward? Those are the people who understand how the network supports the business," Donohue said.
Consider the company's financial health; for public companies, annual reports provide a wealth of information, Donohue advised. Look at the company's competitors and how they're using technology. Taxi companies created apps because of competition from ride-sharing companies, she noted. Corporate websites, news stories, business research sites like D&B Hoovers, and simply talking to people are ways to glean important information.
Donohue suggested three ways networking pros can put all the information they've collected together to make sense of it: A business model canvas, a SWOT analysis, or a mapping model that charts out business priorities and solutions.
For example, in healthcare, cost savings is a business priority, with staff being one of the biggest expenses for a hospital. Technology that can maximize their time such as real-time location system tracking or staff assignment analytics would help the business.
"Then start thinking about the network. Does it support your business or hold it back?" Donohue said. "Look at where there are gaps and where it could do better."
Think about who your customers are and how they use your resources, she said. In a hospital, there are systems for nurses to receive bedside calls from patients; these could benefit from a robust WiFi network with strong security. Now, the solution you build "will tie back into what the business needs and you'll be able to speak to that," Donohue said.
If a network architect gets push back from corporate executives on a network design, he or she should consider whether business expectations have changed, she advised. Change is constant, whether that's due to M&A or organic business growth or decline. "Businesses shrink and there are staff changes," she said. "How many people are mobile now? How many go into the office each day?"
Most companies strive to reduce costs, which can compromise design goals, so it can help to understand the business focus on operational costs vs. capital expenditures, return on investment, and total cost of ownership, according to Donohue. ROI is rare in networking, but it's possible, she said; A healthcare network, for instance, could enable a hospital to quickly locate equipment, thus reducing the number of wheelchairs it needs to buy.
A network upgrade project can take into account the cost of downtime. "Look at the total cost of ownership – how much time is spent bringing the network back up?" she said. "Almost every business is highly dependent on a network. Having the network down for even short periods of time costs money."
If a network project is thrust upon you and you aren't involved in the planning, there are still ways to ensure it supports business requirements: Be a like a child and keep asking why, Donohue advised. "Keep probing. You may find out what they've asked you to do isn't really what they need."
For network engineers who take the time to understand the business, the payoff is huge.
"Why let business requirements drive your decision? You have a better chance of getting your projects funded if you can tie them back to business priorities," Donohue said.
And who knows? Business success could lead to you getting a raise and/or a promotion.