The network infrastructure market is undergoing seismic disruptions as it braces to meet challenges that even the most enthusiastic futurists did not foresee half a decade ago.
Convergence, collaboration, intelligent devices, supercharged processors, super-sized storage, ultrafast broadband, high definition videoconferencing, virtualisation and cloud computing have shifted the paradigm.
Vendors, integrators, consultants and resellers are now on notice to adopt more open approaches to partner with businesses and each other to achieve seamless connectivity, anywhere, to any device, in real time.
The challenge to converge IT data and telecommunications – including mobile and wireless – with security and multimedia is placing extreme pressure on network infrastructure.
Gartner’s research vice president, Phil Sargeant, says one of the keys to optimising network infrastructure is to ensure it is properly architected for the business concerned and all the ramifications are understood.
"Every large organisation should have an architect who can look at segmenting traffic on the same fibre so you can guarantee quality of service for specific mission critical applications. Storage also needs to be architected, particularly where it is going across the same wires as your WAN and LAN data.”
Where 100Mb/sec was once considered sufficient, the conversation is now around multi-gigabytes. And while the capabilities of copper continue to expand, it’s becoming easier to justify the performance and business benefits of fibre beyond the backbone.
Sargeant says many organisations are moving massive amounts of data around but this can’t be done at speeds that were available even three years ago. "That’s why people are talking about 10Gb this year and next year it will probably be 40Gb with talk of 100Gb in a couple more years.”
He says the challenge is to select the best routers, hubs and switches to meet existing needs and, where there is no upgrade path to 100Gb, to accept some purchases based on return on investment over three to four years then allocate further budget closer to the time.
As mobile networks continue their evolution to serious broadband speed through 3G upgrades and LTE (long term evolution), and as Wi-Fi speeds and coverage are boosted, traditional ideas of what a business network looks like are being challenged.
Many enterprises already distribute core business applications to empower remote workers using laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Bede Hackney, Citrix ANZ director of product sales, urges business not to be caught by surprise with the increasing adoption of mobile devices as mission critical business tools.
He says many businesses only come to understand the changing management and security issues requirements of remote access after they have had a failure. "Only 5-10 years ago, 20% of your workforce leveraged remote access technologies, today that’s probably more than tripled.”
Rohit Mehra, IDC’s director of enterprise communications infrastructure, says for networking to move forward, wired networks must be converged and unified or overlaid with wireless. As part of this unification there will be massive growth in 802.11n wireless access points and a need for improved device visibility as companies prepare for migration to the cloud.
According to the global research company, cloud computing is driving a new boom in enterprise infrastructure buying, with the global market expected to grow to $US51.4 billion by 2014. Overall IDC predicts the global network equipment market will grow from US$39 billion in 2011 to US$51.4 billion by 2014.
In the driver’s seat are infrastructure-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service markets, tipped to more than double from US$24 billion in 2010 to US$56 billion by 2014. The bulk of revenues will come from switching, although IP telephony and routing also rate highly in purchase plans.
Network as weak link
Adrian De Luca, chief technology officer with Hitachi Data Systems, says the market is changing so radically that network infrastructure can become the weak link in a business environment where customer loyalties can change in an hour.
De Luca says infrastructure needs to be matched to business objectives as all the different levels of the IP stack – networking, storage and computing – are now coming together. He recommends conducting an assessment of current needs and then projecting that three to five years out.
He says vendors need to step back and ensure resellers are well versed in their product and have the methodologies to assess customer problems and requirements "This is where they can add value by looking at the big picture. Are they into mergers and acquisitions or highly exposed to competition?”
If networks are to support old and new internet-based devices and applications, the transition from IPv4, now rapidly running out of addresses, to IPv6, must be carefully planned with an understanding of how this will impact processes including email and the web.
As the internet continues as the major network development and delivery platform, Web 2.0 applications are becoming more dynamic and demanding, fuelling an insatiable demand for a greater volume of data. All of which will impact directly on LAN, WAN and mobile environments.
As well as becoming flatter or less hierarchical, networks are getting smarter with embedded technology determining optimal paths and guarding against data loss. There’s also a growing market for WAN and LAN optimisation products that include deduplication, compression, application acceleration and caching.
Vendors seek new partners
Often dedicated expertise is required to install, manage and maintain converged networks, which places growing pressure on vendors, resellers and systems integrators to bring added value to their propositions.
"There’s not a vendor today that can walk into a greenfields shop. There’s not many of those left; most have three or four different vendors in their data centre and they may need to go through a consolidation exercise,” says De Luca.
IDC’s lead Asia Pacific analyst for enterprise networking, Adeline Phua, agrees the data centre is one of the areas where vendors are looking for experienced partners with a strong customer base.
"We see more vendors entering this area with differentiated architectural offerings and we expect channels focused on data centre deployments to be courted by vendors who are new in this space.”
Phua says a range of different business challenges are driving vendors to ‘branch out of their comfort zones’ to protect their revenue streams and expand their pool of resellers to improve their influence in target markets.
"We see vendors traditionally focused on the service provider segment trying to enter the enterprise space, and vendors who were traditionally targeting the SMB market also attempting to reach out to mid-sized companies to broaden their reach in the market.”
Virtues of going virtual
Committing to infrastructure changes in such a rapidly evolving climate is daunting. However, resellers who are able to deliver solutions which reduce cost and complexity and are flexible enough to accommodate further market shifts, are more likely to gain the IT manager’s ear.
The offer of simpler, flatter network architectures with virtual switches, a unified fabric and virtual network appliances will keep the conversation going.
Virtualisation is far more than a buzz word, and while it requires investment in gruntier servers and smart network software, it enables companies to retire or repurpose expensive or older servers and technology.
For example a business with 10 physical servers and 10 copies of Windows Server could eliminate seven servers and, with virtualisation, still run up to 100 virtual machines. There are obvious hardware and maintenance savings, although each of those virtual machines has to have storage associated with it.
Citrix’s Hackney says there’s a need to change the mindset of designing data centres around physical networking infrastructure. "Virtualisation has given us flexibility in our servers and is starting to provide similar flexibility in networks.”
He says embracing virtual networking appliances and infrastructure can fundamentally change data centre design giving organisations a platform to leverage both the private and public cloud.
Brian Dye, Symantec’s vice president of product management says consolidation is top of mind for the information technology industry and enterprises will need to redefine what their data centres look like in order to reduce costs.
He suggests virtualisation may help manage the risk and complexity of data centre consolidation as long as applications and data remain protected. "The way we collaborate in the enterprise will change from 2011 with the move to leverage more social media and improve communication and productivity,” says Dye.
Preparing for big pipes
While many larger enterprises already lease or own gigabit speed wide area links between branch offices, factories and warehouses, the national ultra fast broadband network and cheaper international links are expected to deliver similar connectivity for small to medium businesses.
All of which places the focus back on ensuring internal networks can cope with the data deluge, as a wider array of online software and infrastructure as a service offerings come online.
If internal infrastructure is performing optimally then efforts to engage seamlessly and securely beyond the firewalls and physical borders of a business are more likely to be successful.
Part of the role of the reseller is to give IT departments a good reason to commit to next generation infrastructure; including a tangible return on investment, and plan beyond three years, which is no longer future proofing.
Getting through the budget process is never easy, but if resellers can bring all the elements together and assist in developing a business case that stacks up against the competition, there are likely to be long term benefits for all parties.