Your network will kill you

Samantha Perry
By Samantha Perry, co-founder of WomeninTechZA
Johannesburg, 17 Mar 2015
The race to be efficient and competitive in the digitised age is going to force the enterprise to get savvy with IT, says CommsCloud's Peter Walsh.
The race to be efficient and competitive in the digitised age is going to force the enterprise to get savvy with IT, says CommsCloud's Peter Walsh.

The good old network has been a de facto part of most IT infrastructures since the computer Dark Ages (ie, anytime after the 1980s), and as technology has evolved, so organisations' dependence on their networks has increased. From distributed networking in the mainframe era to the client server era, Internet era and now Internet of things era, the network has slowly taken over, becoming such a critical cog in the wheel that if it goes down, so does a whole lot else.

As the network has increased in importance, so has the percentage of organisations' IT costs allocated to managing and maintaining it. The world is now going all-IP, rendering the separate voice and data networks that companies have traditionally run redundant. Converging two networks into one with the requisite quality of service and traffic management, however, is no small task, and many IT managers and CIOs have baulked at the idea.

Convergence is happening, however. "We see varying levels of maturity and adoption in customers in Africa," says Mark McCallum, director and CTO, Orange Business Services. "The South African market is quite mature and we're seeing fairly good adoption of convergence technologies to support unified communications (UC), voice, video, collaboration and associated services."

We've seen fairly significant adoption of unified communications in the cloud in Africa.

Mark McCallum, director and CTO, Orange Business Services

And while there are challenges with regards to stable telco environments in Africa, "from a convergence point of view, we've seen fairly significant adoption of UC in the cloud in Africa, typically on a private cloud. And we're seeing a lot of customers hosting those services themselves on a centralised cloud solution, as opposed to a distributed solution across the edge of the network. There's still a significant investment in standalone survivability - voice is IP-delivered using LAN and WAN infrastructure on IP, but there's localised breakout and survivability back into the PSTN (or redundancy)," McCallum notes.

Increased pressure

The CIO/IT manager really is in an unenviable position; internal customers are demanding more, faster, better, and the CIO is expected to deliver on the same or lower budget than before.

Says CommsCloud director Peter Walsh: "Service providers and vendors are touting voice, video and cloud-based applications and storage facilities as the Holy Grail. The internal customer wants more of everything. Demand for 24x7x365 access for all role players, differentiation in the marketplace, along with an increasing hunger for information, and the ability to analyse and use it, are putting pressure on the enterprise's private VPN and stretching the IT department to its limits."

Digitisation is rewriting the rules of competition, with incumbent companies most at risk of being left behind. Digitisation often lowers entry barriers, causing long-established boundaries between sectors to tumble. At the same time, the 'plug and play' nature of digital assets causes value chains to disaggregate, creating openings for focused, fast-moving competitors. New market entrants often scale up rapidly at lower cost than legacy players can, and returns may grow rapidly as more customers join the network. - McKinsey: Strategic principles for competing in the digital age

Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, iTunes, streaming media and other social media networks, along with cloud-based storage, are consuming bandwidth faster than the enterprise can roll it out, he adds.

"Adopting a network consolidation exercise strategy is a must-have initiative for workforces that are becoming increasingly mobile and geographically disperse," states Brent Lees, senior product marketing manager for EMEA at Riverbed Technology.

Lees is correct. The solution is to undergo a complex network convergence exercise and use the savings that will result to fund higher bandwidth demands. Converging voice and data networks is complicated, however. And this complexity is only worsened by the fact that most organisations don't know exactly what they spend on connectivity and communications, or how that spending can be optimised.

To stay competitive, companies must stop experimenting with digital and commit to transforming themselves into full digital businesses. ...many companies are stumbling as they try to turn their digital agendas into new business and operating models. The reason, we believe, is that digital transformation is uniquely challenging, touching every function and business unit, while also demanding the rapid development of new skills and investments that are very different from business as usual. To succeed, management teams need to move beyond vague statements of intent and focus on 'hard wiring' digital into their organisation's structures, processes, systems, and incentives. - McKinsey: The seven traits of highly successful businesses

Complexity notwithstanding, unless the network is upgraded and converged appropriately, it won't be able to keep up with business' requirements, meaning the organisation is going to fall behind and be limited in its ability to compete effectively in a market where customers are educated and informed about products and services in ways they've never been before, and are consequently much less brand-loyal. You compete, or you lose your customers. It's that simple.

Says Walsh: "Whether you're reading McKinsey or IBM white papers, or just using good old common sense, you cannot get away from the fact that if IT is to be an effective enabler, it needs to work in partnership with the people driving the demand. Digitisation is driving convergence - the race to be efficient and competitive in the digitised age is going to force the enterprise to get savvy with IT," he says.

Getting business and IT onto the same page, as it were, has proven difficult. It's been a topic of debate for years, and still hasn't happened for the most part. Will the consumerisation of IT and ongoing digitisation finally be the spur that forces the two to work together? That remains to be seen.