The networked world

What would happen if you switched the enterprise to Airplane Mode?

The simple answer: Nothing. Literally. Virtually every corporate process would grind to a halt, which is a simple testament to how reliant the modern organization is on the complex, interwoven, interdependent systems that pervade every fiber of business and society today.

From the key enabler of business agility and transformation to tactical new answers in cloud, mobile computing and analytics, intelligent connectivity has never been a more essential part of business, government and the consumer experience.

“All of these new trends we talk about -- Internet of things, mobility, cloud computing, mesh computing -- are network-centric compute paradigms," says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst with ZK Research.

Companies are blending digital and physical worlds in order to better serve customers, drive new revenue and streamline operations. Buildings are becoming automated. Factory floor equipment is wired. Healthcare solutions are being built around smartphones, cloud computing and big data.

Scenarios that seemed outrageous a decade ago now seem entirely attainable: "We started demoing, 10 to 15 years ago, cars of the future and multiple Internet devices on your body,” says John Chambers, executive chairman and former CEO of Cisco. “At CES in 2000 we showed a car that would … connect to your coffee shop and have your drink made …. You now are connecting processing capabilities and applications and security and collaboration across multiple networks, from the public cloud all the way to the edge device for entertainment or for business. That's the transition we're in.”

By 2019, there will be 3.2 networked devices or connections per person, up from 2 apiece in 2014, Cisco predicts in its Visual Networking Index, an annual report of Internet and IP trends and statistics. That translates to 24 billion networked devices and connections worldwide, up from 14 billion in 2014, and nearly halfway to the 50 billion total connected devices Cisco expects by 2020. Within the same timeframe, worldwide IP traffic will nearly triple to 168 exabytes per month (an Exabyte is a billion billion), while the number of machine-to-machine interconnections will multiply from 3.3 billion to 10.5 billion.

Software adds elasticity

As far as we have come, we are -- perhaps surprisingly -- still profiting from the network effect, which says, essentially, that value increases as more and more things are connected. From Wikipedia:

“The classic example is the telephone. The more people who own telephones, the more valuable the telephone is to each owner. This creates a positive externality because a user may purchase a telephone without intending to create value for other users, but does so in any case. Online social networks work in the same way, with sites like Twitter and Facebook becoming more attractive as more users join.”

And while the network effect will benefit us for years to come as IoT ramps up, the complexity of the connected world is outpacing our ability to keep up, which is forcing the change to software-controlled everything.

"The last 30 years of networking was all hardware, generally speaking,” says Rohit Mehra, vice president of network infrastructure at IDC. “The next 30 years are going to be all about software."

Prying control out of individual enterprise system components and integrating and centralizing that function will eliminate the need to touch and maintain the piece parts and make it possible to orchestrate and automate the care and supervision of these complex systems programmatically.

At least that’s the promise of disintegration as envisioned in everything from server virtualization to Software Defined Networking and the grander Software Defined Data Center.

“There is a fundamental transition happening now because the status quo is not sustainable,” Nick Lippis, a long time industry observer and co-founder of the Open Networking User Group (ONUG), said in a Network World Special Report on SDN. “The cost to operate networks is too high and growing too fast and you can’t find enough people to manage these things anymore. It’s time for change.”

Where the focus used to be on a box-by-box deployment, it’s now about bringing automation into the network by taking a software-centric approach, Mehra says. "How you manage, how you troubleshoot, how you orchestrate -- software is going to be the glue that will put it all together and enable IT to use their cycles on more strategic tasks.”

John Chambers, Cisco executive chairman and former CEO

The shift is significant.

"The software-defined revolution is probably the single largest transition the industry has ever faced,” Mehra says. “What we are seeing is a completely new way of looking at networking, where you actually lead with software, and that's what drives the automation, the flexibility, and the virtualization that goes with it."

That flexibility, of course, is needed to keep pace with adoption of technologies such as cloud computing and virtualization that are making the compute and applications layers more agile. “You can’t have agile IT without bringing in the network,” Kerravala says.

Server virtualization has provided both a road map and an impetus for network virtualization, Mehra says. “All the associated increases in traffic, increases in workloads, increases in applications, all the associated security and vulnerability issues that come as a result of virtualization, need to be handled by the network,” Mehra says. “If we didn't virtualize, it wouldn't happen. We wouldn’t be able to do any of the things that IT is being tasked with."

Major advances in chip sets and semiconductors from Intel, Broadcom and others also have been invaluable, Mehra says.

"Today when we virtualize some functions, whether it's load balancing or a policy engine or whatever we can do in an SDN construct, we can do it because we can virtualize those functions without giving up performance. We couldn't do that 10 years or even six years ago,” Mehra says. "We are in the middle of this software-defined revolution, but it was made possible by multiple pieces all falling in place: advancements on the semiconductor side, advancements with other hardware, and advancements related to how we can consume software in the networking world."

This coalescence of new developments is, in fact, what is enabling the Internet of Things: advances in sensors, in wireless networking, in software control, in distributed intelligence, and in big data tools that make it possible to extract actionable intelligence from a plethora of data points.

"We talk about IoT as though it’s the new animal in the zoo, but really it is evolutionary," Mehra says. What’s different today is the quality of sensors and gateways at the edge, which have benefitted from increased compute power and greater intelligence. “They can decide: ‘Does this need to go back all the way into the cloud or into my data center? Or can I make a decision here, right at the edge, and save myself the trouble of sending so many megabytes of data all the way back?’ That level of intelligence now exists at the edge, which was not feasible even five or seven years ago,” Mehra says. "The ability to take data and feed it up the value chain -- we didn’t have that some years ago."

That same ubiquitous connectivity, of course, is what is enabling the corporate drive for agility and responsiveness which is taken into the field by a compute-anywhere workforce. Office boundaries are disintegrating as employees outfitted with smartphones, tablets and wearables can access the business resources they need from anywhere to engage with customers.

Social business initiatives are making companies more transparent, both to insiders and outsiders. Internally, collaboration tools can help companies bolster employee engagement and improve communication among far-flung workers. Being forthcoming with information about corporate goals and business performance helps foster a culture of trust and accountability. Externally, customers find companies that are accessible and transparent to be more trustworthy, which boosts loyalty. Some 62% of millennials surveyed by Elite Daily said that if a brand engages with them on social networks, they are more likely to become a loyal customer.

IoT, mobile, and social initiatives are changing companies yet raising a host of questions along the way: Are enterprises ready for the onslaught of data? Are their mobile forays secure? Can they balance customer feedback with corporate vision?

Enterprises won’t be able to answer questions like these in the affirmative overnight, but momentum is picking up. "These kinds of technology transitions could take as many as 10 years," Mehra says. “It's hard for people to change and evolve."

And that is requiring IT to evolve, too.

As the networked world grows bigger and more complicated, IT teams are morphing. An example: The ability to manage virtual workloads, define network architectures, and orchestrate services requires very different skills from managing routers, Kerravala says. In addition, everything today is more interdependent, meaning network, application, compute and storage teams need to work together. Siloed teams from the legacy IT world won’t cut it, he says.

Tribune Media CIO David Giambruno agrees: “It’s very different because historically the server guy is the server guy, the network guy is the network guy, etc.” But all of that went out the window when Giambruno moved to a new private cloud that is software controlled. “I don’t have server or network or storage people. I have cloud engineers. Because all of that works as a system. People still have their natural affinities, what they’re better at, but to all of them it’s just bits. It’s interesting to watch how they work together and how they communicate and how much they can get done because there aren’t those artificial silos anymore.”

He lives in a DevOps world, now, but Giambruno says “value isn’t building something every day. My engineers aren’t about building; they’re about wielding technology. It’s more about how are we going to leverage this capability and what can we do with this?”

At a higher level, enterprises also need people to determine the policies that govern a more agile, automated network infrastructure. "When I talk to companies about where they're lacking skills, it's in the areas of data sciences, analytics, even policy administration,” Kerravala says. “So if you look at the way software-defined networking changes networking, a lot of it has to do with business policies or application policies pushing down configurations and automating that. But someone's got to develop those policies. That's a skill that not a lot of people have.”

The personnel aspects of today’s mobile, cloud, big data and social endeavors will have to be addressed, agrees Mehra. "It has implications on how IT needs to organize itself,” Mehra says. “Any organization that has silos between their network, storage, application folks and their server admins -- I think their days are going to be numbered if they don't evolve pretty rapidly."

IT pros also need to be aligned with the goals of the business – a common refrain but nonetheless challenging for IT departments.

“Much of the budget that's available for the IT players today is being created by the lines of business or the CEO. You've got to not only be able to talk their language, you've got to be able to enable their goals,” Chambers says.

CEOs and CIOs expect people in IT to help the business grow and compete against a new generation of competitors operating with different business models and at tremendous speed. They don’t want to know how IT runs a data center or how it keeps the network working. “They're after: How do you use the network for competitive advantage, for agility?" Chambers says.

Cisco isn't immune to these challenges. The company overhauled its own engineering organization a few years ago, a difficult transition that included removing 24 of its 92 leaders, Chambers says. On the sales side, Cisco changed 41% of its client-interfacing executives over the last two-plus years "because they were selling routing and switching as opposed to architectures and business outcomes.”

"The easiest aspect is the technology -- the cloud, the security, the mobility, the collaboration that all comes together with digitization,” he says. "The hard part is the organization change, the cultural changes, and never losing track of what you're after, which is: How do you innovate with tremendous speed?"

Seventy-five percent of companies will be digital in five years, Chambers says, "yet the majority of them will fail because they will fail to reinvent themselves, to change their organization structure and their culture, and to focus on speed."

Fast forward 15 years from now, and there will be 500 billion devices connected to the Internet, Chambers says. “Think about that power of that. It changes everything. Every aspect of every person's life,” he says. “The network is not just front and center. It's going to experience exponential importance in a way that people are just beginning to dream about."

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