Are Today's Networks Turning into Yesterday's Factories?

by: Gregory Ness

Many of today’s large enterprise networks are burning cash and are overly dependent upon layers of manual processes managed by legions of clerks to stay available and secure. Networks were created this way from the start; they were architected to work just like the environments they were about to transform.

From those early days until today, they have replaced populations of “middle men” and paperwork with streaming electrons racing between larger populations of endpoints. They drove incredible IT innovation and productivity gains.

Network vendors, meantime, had little incentive to do more than produce ever more powerful network appliances requiring ever greater legions of tech laborers with their own budgets and buying privileges. The productivity gains were so enormous that no one cared nearly as much about productivity within the network itself.

Those gains drove incredible wealth creation in the Valley and powered the fates of companies like Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), Juniper Networks (NYSE:JNPR), Extreme Networks (NASDAQ:EXTR), Foundry (FDRY), Brocade (NASDAQ:BRCD) and Riverbed (NASDAQ:RVBD). It helped to foster massive investments in venture capital that ultimately drove even more innovation.

Yet today these companies are facing a potential sea change in how IT services are managed and delivered. And that is a problem. Ironically, today’s networks are often run like yesterday’s factories.

We know what happened to those factories. We saw them move offshore with the spread of just in time manufacturing and increasing capital investments overseas. Is cloud computing signaling the arrival of just in time IT?

Will these manually managed networks enable innovation or be part of the problem? Are we already witnessing a shift in budgets and buying power from network teams to systems and operations teams driven by the promise of virtualization to overcome a tired status quo of complexity, processes and spreadsheet-driven tasks which these networks still require (like IPAM)?

A soft global economy and the rise of virtualization are a likely catalyst for the toppling of the manual labor empire that was the beginning of the end for many other manual empires. This time the core of the information technology industry is about be… automated.

Thomas Siebel was recently quoted lamenting the now passed glory days of IT. Perhaps he was merely referring to the massive initial surge of people and market caps that fed the dotcom myth. With automation IT will become even more strategic to even more economies and careers, just in different ways than with growing populations of manual laborers (merely scripting, configuring or moving a server from one rack to another).

Network pros today are often blamed for not being supportive enough of new initiatives. Yet they are the ones who have to jump through the most hoops for what might seem the most mundane change to others. As a result, they can be wrongfully perceived as standing in the way of the progress they once helped to initiate.

One department’s mouse click can be the network pro’s three day event with committees, permission slips and approval delays. Over time that’s not good for careers or networks. Doug Gourlay at Arista Networks just commented about the implications at his Network World blog.

Cisco and HP are Now Competing

With virtualization IT pros are already speculating about the inevitability of cloud computing, yet VMotion is still trapped in static and increasingly dense VLAN jungles. Servers are now more mobile than ever, but within the confines of ever more crowded VLANs. The victor in this new marketplace will be the player who unleashes vmotion to the furthest extent.

This is why VMware's (NYSE:VMW) early efforts to embrace the networking leaders bodes well for VMware's prospects in the enterprise space, as well as Cisco's. Yet challenges remain that are critical to continued growth for both companies.

With the enterprise (or even public) cloud the sky is not the limit. The network is the limit. Whether this issue is addressed by Cisco, VMware, HP (NYSE:HPQ) or a startup will make all the difference in who has the most influence in the enterprise IT buying process.

This growing tension between system automation, increasing VLAN density/VMsprawl and rising network manual labor costs sets the stage for massive network innovation in management/automation, security and application delivery. Without innovation the network becomes more expensive to operate and less relevant to the ongoing march of IT. With innovation and automation it reasserts itself as strategic.

Until the era of infrastructure 2.0, expect increasing VLAN density and IT concentration to risk turning short term savings into longer term headaches. As virtualization decouples applications from hardware and enables greater flexibility, enterprises risk merely “recoupling” those applications to buildings in ever cheaper locations.

That is why the intercloud concept is so interesting. It allows servers to pursue optimum conditions (costs, tax advantages, delivery requirements, location issues) in real-time with minimal manual intervention. Compare that to manual management of optimization within the confines of a single VLAN. Even if that is what today’s “public cloud” players are doing, is it optimum to concentrate a technology which enables greater flexibility?”

Yet moving away from this facility-coupling will require the automation and integration of IP address management with infrastructure across ever larger and more complex networks. This evolution will unleash virtualization's next big step, and set the stage for unprecedented innovation.

Infrastructure 2.0 will establish entirely new ROI models for networks. That will have a significant impact on the markets for the likes of Cisco, Juniper, F5 Networks (NASDAQ:FFIV), Brocade and others, not to mention virtualization leaders like VMware, Citrix (NASDAQ:CTRX) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). That is why the network is so critical to the evolution of IT, despite the buzz around virtualization and cloud.

For virtualization and cloud… the network is the limit. The first to address the network effects of virtualization will have a substantial advantage over peer companies and will trigger a new wave of innovation in IT.

Disclosure: Long VMW. I am a senior director at Infoblox.