Carrying On: The Gap Between Infrastructure and Applications

Hardware is getting cheaper, but the software running on the hardware must get more sophisticated--and thus more expensive for networking vendors to produce.

December 3, 2004

3 Min Read
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Companies also are holding on to their equipment longer. At one time, a router or a switch would get replaced after three or four years. Now, a switch can easily last five years or more. The switches and access routers that hit the market this year may well work for seven years, given advances in processing power and memory.

But if you manage a voice network, your world is changing a lot faster. Moving to voice over IP not only requires new hardware, it also brings much shorter replacement cycles. At one time, you could practically mortar a PBX into the foundation, or at least expect it to stay in place for seven to 10 years. The new IP PBXs will be replaced two or three times over that span.

Even more important, the software updates to these platforms will be coming fast and furious. Plan for mandatory security software fixes at least every six months. (Some IP PBX manufacturers have not been keeping up with basic operating system patches, but that's another story.) Functional IP PBX software updates, occasionally requiring hardware upgrades, will happen after 18 months.

As connectivity hardware becomes less important, it will become a smaller part of what you pay for. Hardware is getting cheaper, but the software running on the hardware must get more sophisticated--and thus more expensive for networking vendors to produce. Infastructure still needs better security, more application awareness and more flexibility to adapt to changes. Complexity must be hidden: Communications must become more transparent to applications and users. Administration must become simpler, so better management software is critical.

Networking hardware is now more platform than plumbing. Manufacturers of networking appliances, such as VPNs, firewalls, QoS devices and intrusion-detection systems, are in the hardware business only to deliver their software. Some Ethernet switch makers are encouraging third parties to write specialized control software, hosted on their switches or in off-board CPUs. IP telephony vendors are recognizing the potential for endpoints to deliver not only voice, but also data applications, and they're enlisting an army of independent software developers to write to their devices. Load balancers are now programmable by third parties, with policies increasingly under the control of application developers. XML intermediaries (the likes of DataPower, Forum Systems, Reactivity and Westbridge) are creating an entirely new SOAP-aware network overlay for service-oriented architectures.The challenge is that good software is hard to build. Absent an injection of revenue from new hardware every four years, vendors may have to subsidize their development efforts by charging more for software--even if you don't need new features. This already is the case with desktop software: Nobody needs more word-processing features. Microsoft's Clippy, the annoying "helper" that pops up whenever you split an infinitive, is now smarter than most writers.

But just as with desktop software, there are valid reasons IT will pay for network equipment maintenance. For better ongoing security, support, efficiency and overall cost reduction, the future of networking lies in software.

David Willis is a vice president of Meta Group's Technology Research Services. Write to him at [email protected].

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