Enterprise Network Neutrality

Organizations that run private intranets will soon need to answer the same questions that face the public Internet.

Andy Dornan

May 12, 2008

3 Min Read
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Network neutrality ought to be a simple issue on the public Internet. But every organization that runs a network is about to face similar questions to those vexing Congress and the FTC: Should networks act like the proverbial series of tubes that simply transport data between endpoints? Or should they open up the packets they carry, treating each differently according to its sender or the contents? The answers aren't so clear cut when applied to enterprise networks.

The Internet was designed to be neutral, treating all traffic equally. As enterprise networks shifted to IP, they followed the same principle. Though employees at work can't necessarily expect the same fat pipes to peer-to-peer apps and porn as paying customers at home, little intelligence resides in the network itself. Enterprise IT is about applications, and these run on servers or clients.

Powerful forces in the networking industry aim to change this. On the Internet, telcos and cable companies want to find ways to extract value beyond just moving bits. Already monopolies, that's the only way they can grow. The enterprise networking market is more competitive, but vendors still see an opportunity. Cisco Systems in particular is so dominant in networks that it, too, must move into new markets if it wants to grow. Since Cisco is synonymous with networks, the easiest way to do that is to expand the scope of networking itself.

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When it comes to public networks, most of the debate has rightly focused on considerations of ownership and control rather than the technology itself. Anyone can buy a PC, and as a result, network endpoints are spread out among millions of individuals and businesses. In contrast, building a nationwide or global WAN takes billions of dollars and access to thousands of miles of rights of way, so fiber optic cables and core Internet routers are concentrated in the hands of a few giant corporations with ties to government.

It's easy to see which model best serves the interests of customers. A neutral Internet means that everyone has the right to innovate without permission from the phone or cable company, an architecture that has led to the growth of countless new businesses. As commerce and society move online, letting information flow fairly becomes essential to free markets and democracy. Individuals can browse the Web without censorship; businesses get a choice of multiple competing software-as-a-service providers.

As commerce and society move online, letting information flow fairly becomes essential to free markets and democracies.

In theory, none of this applies to private networks. Enterprise workstations and LAN switches are both owned by the same entity, meaning there should be no conflict of interest. Customers can consider the new, non-neutral networking technology on its merits.

So from a purely technical perspective, is moving processing to the network a good idea? For most customers, the answer is not yet, though it's likely to become a more compelling option in the future. Running storage or memory links over Ethernet clearly requires a departure from Internet principles, which is why no one is suggesting it be based on IP. The case for running server apps inside virtual machines on switches or for breaking servers up into networked components is much less clear.

IT managers may also want to keep in mind that technology is rarely the only consideration. Just as national politics affects technology in the public Internet, office politics affects it on the private intranet. Though few organizations operate internally as free markets or democracies, most still want to foster innovation, and the best way to do that is by distributing control among as many people as possible.

Illustration by Christoph Neiman

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